The complete list of post-expansion general managers who have seen their team miss the playoffs for four years in a row and not lost their jobs:
Jim Rutherford (HAR/CAR)
Doug MacLean (CBJ)
Glen Sather (EDM)
David Poile (NSH)
Glen Sather (NYR)
Garth Snow (NYI)
Mike Milbury (NYI)
Eddie Johnston (PIT)
Don Waddell (ATL)
Max McNab (WSH)
So you have a guy who had five Stanley Cup rings already, which makes you basically bulletproof (Sather), one guy overseeing a difficult relocation (Rutherford), three guys running expansion franchises (MacLean, Poile and Waddell) and four guys running franchises that were leaguewide jokes (Milbury, Snow, McNab and Johnston).
This is, of course, Steve Tambellini’s fifth year as general manager of the Oilers and they’re about to miss the playoffs again. The Oilers like to engage in a little sleight of hand there and pretend that history started in January of 2010 when they committed to the rebuild but even if you give him that, even if you play along with them, as a rule, general managers don’t get to miss the playoffs for four years and keep their jobs, outside of very narrow, very specific circumstances.
Does Tambellini have five Stanley Cup rings? Nope.
Have the Oilers gone through a difficult relocation? Nope.
Are they an expansion franchise? Not in the least. Expansion franchises would kill for the talent that the Oilers already had in 2009-10, when the rebuild was formally declared.
Are the Oilers are a leaguewide joke? I don’t know, I don’t talk to people in the NHL on a regular basis. Hard to believe that the answer to this isn’t closing in on yes though.
Hard as it is to believe, there was a time when Tambellini was seen as an avatar of change by a considerable portion of the Oiler fanbase. He made a bunch of moves in 2010 and 2011 that were popular with Oiler fans. A Cult of Hockey poll in July of 2011 gave him an 82% approval rating. I was offside of the public opinion for quite some time with stuff like this at the 2010 trade deadline:
So, despite being moderately impressed with his work yesterday, I’m hard pressed to give him much in the way of credit yet. The degree of difficulty on what he had to do in the past few days was simply too low to result in much of a grade, although he certainly upped it by taking a risk in dealing Grebeshkov now and trading Lubo for Whitney. It’s easier to bulldoze something than it is to carefully excise the rotten parts of a respectable whole.
It’s partly because of Tambellini’s decisions that the Oilers are in a position where they need to do what finally began in the past few days. One of the shameful things about this is that Sam Gagner has turned into an NHLer this year and there are already some high ceiling guys in the pipeline. They are, to steal a phrase from Lowetide, burning daylight on Gagner (and Dustin Penner and Ales Hemsky) because Tambellini has made such stupid moves over the 20 months or so that he’s had the job. Even if you think that he made a great start yesterday, that was the easy part. The hard part – for which he’s demonstrated no competence – is yet to come.
Hah. In retrospect, I was probably too easy on him – that Lubo for Whitney trade turned out to be utterly dreadful.
If you’ve read this blog since Tambellini was hired, you’ll know that I’ve never been impressed with him. He’s a lousy communicator. I’ve tried not to let that influence me because it’s not really a relevant thing to judge him on – I wouldn’t care if the Oilers were run by a cross-eyed guy who was deaf and mute if they won hockey game. However, he’s run a horrific hockey team for four years that makes moves that draw reviews like “curious”, “risky” and “suicidal.”
Add to that the mouthing of the phrase “compete level” so many times that my girlfriend, who doesn’t really follow the Oilers but walks through the room sometimes when I’m watching one of Tambo’s tortured media appearances, has started using it. To the point that she will chastise me about my compete level when we’re doing chores around the house. People are gonna notice. Say what you will about Doug MacLean – he’s a great communicator at least. He sounds brilliant and compelling. If you take away Doug MacLean’s communication skills, what are you left with?
I’m not wild about the Suck to Succeed philosophy but I get that it’s a valid approach. It has worked in some places, even if it’s not the BAM STANLEY CUP guarantee that you’d believe if you listened to the proponents. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than the approach that some teams take, signing goalies to ridiculous contracts and bringing in guys to coach who were past their best before date. Like, uh, Steve Tambellini did in the summer of 2009.
There’s a school of thought that Tambellini’s just Kevin Lowe’s puppet and that nothing will change until Lowe moves on. I can see the argument but I don’t buy it. There have been marked changes in how the Oilers have done things since Tambo came on board. Prior to his arrival, the Oilers didn’t employ facepunchers. The first player that the Oilers acquired after Tambellini was hired was Steve MacIntyre. A few days later, MacIntyre did this:
The era of employing guys who can’t play hockey to punch people in the face was well and truly underway.
Tambellini sure seems to me to have had his choice of coaches too. Tom Renney and Pat Quinn are Vancouver guys, guys with whom he has ties stretching back decades. It seems reasonable to think that, even if the final decision rested with someone else, he was making recommendations and those recommendations were accorded significant weight.
Look, Kevin Lowe is not without his failings as a hockey executive. Prior to 2006-07 though, you’d probably say that the Oilers were a pretty well run hockey club by him. I mentioned it the other day on Twitter but I learned the idea of replacement level without learning the phrase when Lowe swapped out Anson Carter for Radek Dvorak – it turned out Carter’s offence was pretty much entirely a function of his opportunity. Lowe’s fundamental failing from 2006-09 was, in my view, an inability to understand that just because you paid guys almost as much as real stars make doesn’t make them almost NHL stars. The economics of the NHL salary structure changed and lesser players got paid much more than they used to and Lowe didn’t really seem to guard against being the guy who paid out tons of money to guys who couldn’t bring value.
The weird thing is that, at the very least, he could talk a good game about it. The ideas aren’t foreign to him. He still got swallowed up by the easy out of paying guys who aren’t elite players near-elite money; hopefully, this sort of thing was because of pressures that were external and no longer existing. Infuriatingly, this coincided with a period of walking away from bargain hockey players like Curtis Glencross and Jan Hejda.
All of which is to say that I think Lowe gives his GM a reasonable amount of leeway and that I think he’d be open to the ideas of a sensible person, if one happened to be Tambo’s replacement as GM. I sort of have to think this way – if I believed Lowe was really the driving force behind the Kurtis Fosters, the Nikolai Khabibulins, the Ben Eagers…I don’t know how I’d go on cheering for this organization – but I’ve kind of talked myself into believing that it’s true. (Aside: is there a team that’s less able to negotiate contracts than the Edmonton Oilers? I’ve never seen so many multi-year deals for crappy players.)
Before the season, some friends and I kicked around two ideas and debated which was worse: an undeserving Oilers team makes the playoffs and Tambo stays OR the team absolutely craters and Tambo gets fired. I’m an Oilers fan at heart and I was willing to live with Tambellini if there was a playoff appearance. If there’s not going to be a playoff appearance though, I’d like as much pressure to be piled on the Oilers organization as is possible. There’s a certain fear that arises from this – what if Tambellini isn’t fired and does a bunch of insane things in the summer because he’s under so much pressure? – but things need to come to a head with this organization and management.
There are a lot of reasons to think that the team has markedly regressed this year. I’m not going to go into it in this post but this comment from the Internet’s Woodguy is amazing: since March 1, 2013, the Oilers have a FenwickClose% of 43.2%. They’ve earned the results that they’ve obtained.
I’m sort of looking at things this way now: if they go 0-7-0 the rest of the way, something has to give. Tambellini has to get fired or, if that doesn’t happen, significant changes to the roster have to occur. The pressure would be ratcheted way up though. If it costs the Oilers a Hemsky or a Gagner or an RNH in a trade for nothing as a sort of tax to expose this guy as completely out of his depth once and for all, so be it. It beats the hell out of more years of this.
Of course, a sensible organization wouldn’t pay that tax. It would recognize that there’s probably a very good reason that GMs have a hell of a time surviving four years without a playoff appearance. It’s past time for a new GM in Edmonton. Hopefully the Wild, Avalanche, Ducks, Hawks and Canucks can make that message explicit in the season’s final seven games.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org