You have to feel at least a little bit bad for Steve Tambellini. He was set up from the moment he walked in the door in Edmonton. The fact that guys like Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish have relationships with the city and the owner and the media spanning decades put him in a tough spot from the day he was hired. The guys who aren’t going to be replaced in Edmonton used him as a human shield for five years and then, when he was too bullet riddled to be of any use anymore, he was dropped off the High Level Bridge into the North Saskatchewan. So long, Steve.
Which isn’t to say that this isn’t richly deserved. Killing a bit of time prior to the formal announcement, I searched “Tambellini” on my site and looked through some of the archives. Man, has there just been a lot of ridiculous stuff involving him over the years. He didn’t come into an easy job, in terms of the fact that the Oilers were an expensive mess when he got here, but all he was ever able to accomplish was get rid of the bad players with expiring contracts, replace them with bad players with long contracts, provide a halfway home for his Canuck cronies and collect first overall draft picks.
A guy like that is fine when you’re trying to collect high draft picks but it’s necessary to discard him when you actually get serious about trying to win. As long as Tambellini was in charge, the Oilers were going to just be waiting for winning to happen to them, while doing things that made winning less likely, like an unending stream of bad contracts and the continual bleeding of draft picks on guys who have no value. The worst thing about cheering for the Oilers these past four years, if you understood that, was how hopeless it all felt. He had to go. Now what?
Today’s press conference was about as spectacular as these things get. Particularly because we’re transitioning from a world in which Steve Tambellini said boring silly things in a boring silly voice to one in which Craig MacTavish talks. MacTavish is just fantastic in press conferences. I’m just going to quote some exchanges from it and then use them as jumping off points to jabber on about things that crossed my mind.
It was pretty clear right from the start that Kevin Lowe really didn’t have a good feel for the mood of the media guys questioning him. He started off reading a little prepared statement that featured this:
“Since Craig left the Oilers as head coach four years ago, he’s been very busy improving his skill set. He obtained an MBA from Queens University, coached in the American Hockey League for the Chicago Wolves, worked on the panel for TSN (although I’m not so sure that’s a qualification…)”
“That’s a joke.”
Tough room. It got worse for Lowe. When we got to the question and answer portion, Mark Spector lobbed a bomb.
Spector:“Kevin – you guys, you in particular and these two to varying degrees have been the three that watched over this thing while it’s sort of gone all the way down. How does this represent meaningful change in a city that’s asking for someone from the outside?”
*Four seconds silence while Lowe had this look on his face*
Lowe:“I’m not sure I understand the question.”
Spector:“”How is this meaningful change for the Oilers’ organization?”
Lowe:“”I think we’ve added two quality people, a couple of the brightest hockey minds I know in the game. I think you’re trying to lop in performance a number of years ago and somehow tying it in to the decision makers here. If I analyze our team, it’s interesting, now versus six, eight years ago. We didn’t have the top end talent before. We had many restrictions on what we could do. As Mac alluded to, with ownership now, the resources are there. Now the pieces are in place. I guess what I’m saying to answer your question is that we have much more ammunition now than we did a number of years ago, if your point is that you don’t think we’re capable as a group.”
This came up again a little later when John MacKinnon asked a question. (Note: I’m using part of the Cult of Hockey’s transcription here):
MacKinnon: “When you talked about Steve coming in under difficult circumstances when he took over the job, part of that, with respect, was he had to clean up the mess that was left already. This group was largely responsible for that mess. How are fans going to be re-assured that the group that left the mess that Tambellini couldn’t quite clean up is now going to be cleaned up by the guys who left the mess to begin with?”
MacTavish: “Well I think any time you win five Stanley Cups, there’s a certain amount of mess that comes on the tail end of all that success. It’s the cyclical nature of the business and I think we kind of semi-jokingly talk about the price we’re still paying for all that success in the 80s and the early 90s that still has a residual effect over where we are right now. But the fact of the matter is, it’s really not about yesterday. Maybe there are some sceptics out there. There are going to be in this business.
You don’t take a position like this one with rose-coloured glasses on. It’s not for the faint of heart. I walk in here completely understanding of the situation that’s in front of me, and I’m not looking at what’s happened in the past, where I’ve come from in the past. My sole objective is to come in here and add something to the future of this club. I don’t know. Maybe you guys have a different position, but I don’t know that I failed this organization in any of those regards before with any of the decisions or the jobs I’ve taken with this organization in the past. Again, I get back to what we say today has very little bearing on how I’m going to be evaluated as I go forward and I look forward to the challenge of the job. I’m going to help turn this team around. That’s all I can tell you.”
Lowe: “I’ll just add a piece to that, John. You know, fair question. We have two types of fans. We have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about, but certainly the people who go to the games and support, we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message. I would, uh, I think it’s safe to say that half the general manager’s in the National Hockey League would trade their roster for our roster right now. And in terms of the group that messed things up you’re talking about the group that had the team one period away from winning the Stanley Cup.”
MacKinnon: “Seven years ago.”
Lowe: “And you know the cycle of that. You know we chased the dream a few year for our fanbase. Like a lot of teams do. And then at some point in that time frame we realized that’s a bad plan and we made a change. We’re finishing year three of that plan. Now you say to me you’re getting impatient after three years?”
MacKinnon: “It’s not me. It’s the fans that are getting impatient.”
Lowe: “And lastly I’ll say that there’s one other guy in hockey today that is still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me. So I think I know a little bit about winning, if there’s ever a concern.”
First of all, kudos to Spector and MacKinnon for getting into this. Should they have been asking this stuff four or five years ago, when it was obvious to most what a train wreck things in Edmonton were? Sure. I happen to think that pressure in the media matters because I think it affects the urgency with which the team feels it must act and, by failing to say anything awkward for a while, I think that the media provided the Oilers with a fair bit of cover for organizational drift. We all get to these conclusions at our own pace though and credit to those guys for asking Lowe an uncomfortable question.
I don’t know if the Edmonton Oilers employ a guy who works in PR, as opposed to a guy who rousts bloggers from the press box and ensures that zambonis get parked behind the vehicles of anyone with the temerity to criticize the organization but Kevin Lowe sure would benefit from some sound advice on how to conduct himself when these sorts of questions are asked. Maybe it was just unfathomable that one of the local guys would be anything by deferential to the President (keep an eye on those intermission broadcasts next year and see if Spector’s back) but the crazy thing is that there is answer to this question. This, for example, would work:
“I became general manager in 2000. I spent the next four years running a team that was a small fish financially, with a mandate to make the playoffs every year to keep the team in a reasonable financial position. I had to continually move star players out when their contracts got too big. Despite the constraints of not really having any stars, not being in a position to draft truly elite players and our financial limitations, we made the playoffs twice in four years.
In 2005-06, we were able to add a star player because of the new collective agreement. We were a game away from winning the Stanley Cup. (Here’s the tricky part.) That summer, I made some mistakes in adapting to the new climate that had been created by the collective agreement. I spent a lot of money on the wrong part of my roster. In the past, we’d always had to let guys go when they got to the point where they were in a position to command that kind of money and I made a mistake in not realizing that, in many cases, that was a blessing.
We continued to try and win by acquiring talent from without with money. It is very difficult to build an elite team this way in the NHL and, outside of the 2011 Boston Bruins, nobody’s won a Stanley Cup without key pieces who were acquired through the draft since God knows when. My mandate continued to be to try and get us into the playoffs every year until February of 2010. In February of 2010, our owner instructed us to take a different path, which we have.”
To me, that’s defensible. I was kind of rabidly anti-Kevin Lowe as GM towards the end of his tenure but it was because he was persisting in trying to win without having the horses, as opposed to acknowledging that they didn’t have the horses. It requires admitting some error in the past, in terms of the path that was followed but it kind of communicates that there were circumstances in place that are no longer in place. They have money now, they have elite players now, they’ve learned from past mistakes, they’ve shown an ability to find complementary players in the past…you should put your faith in them from that reason. If you watch the whole press conference, you’ll see that MacTavish kind of communicates these ideas. Lowe says that they were chasing the dream for their fanbase. Parts of their fanbase, at least, knew that this would never work in 2007, when they were signing Sheldon Souray and Dustin Penner.
The really ridiculous stuff, of course, is the bit about all the Cup rings Lowe has. I pointed this out on Twitter but the last GM to win a Stanley Cup who already had a Stanley Cup ring as a player was Bob Gainey. In 1998-99. People laughed at Lowe when he did this routine five years ago:
I know our peers are like, ‘Well, that’s Burkie.’ This guy is an absolute media junkie and I guess he’s achieving what he wants because he gets his name in the headlines. But the reality is, I hate the fact that my name is linked to his. He’s an underachieving wanna-be in terms of success in the NHL. He won a Stanley Cup? Great. I’ve won six Stanley Cups, you want to count rings? Who cares, it’s just a little pathetic that he carries on.”
Well, something’s definitely pathetic. If the Oilers don’t have PR staff who can tell Lowe to stop talking about his rings, does he not have a friend or something who can tell him that he embarrasses himself when he talks about it? I don’t think that his managerial record is entirely indefensible but it’s just ammunition for his critics when he talks about the rings he won playing hockey. If he ever says it again in defence of himself, someone should ask him if Henri Richard wouldn’t be better in the Oilers’ front office than anyone else in the world.
I’ll leave the fans bit for others to get into. I understand the point that Lowe was driving at – they’ve sucked hard and the rink’s been sold out so the fans must be on board (not sure that’s true, but still) – but, again, horrifically expressed. Particularly when the Oilers are asking all their fans, even the second tier ones, not to mention people who aren’t their fans, to fund the new arena.
I thought it was interesting listening to both Lowe and MacTavish talk about MacTavish’s merits, in that it provides us with a bit of insight into what the organization might have perceived as being Tambellini’s failings:
Lowe: “Craig possesses tremendous leadership skills and has always been a man of action.”
MacTavish: “I’m an impatient guy and I think that I think that we’re at the stage, in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things. We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion.
Yep. If MacTavish is a man of action, great. This season was lost, at least in part, because there were issues with the roster that have been obvious and they weren’t addressed.
MacTavish: “My sense, my analysis in watching the team over the last number of months is much the same as a lot of people’s analysis about the team.
We need greater depth. We’ve got a lot of great primary pieces and this has a little bit of a wake feel walking in here and I want to put that all behind us from this point forward. I think that the future is extremely bright with these young players but we’ve got to add some depth. We’ve got primary pieces here but we’ve got to add some depth. We’ve got primary pieces here but we’ve got to add some depth to help these young players and help our team grow. We’ve got to add competitiveness. I think that we lack a true understanding, in watching our team, just how difficult it is to have success at this level.
…grit’s always a huge part of it. But, also, grit without skill, as I mentioned, is not something’s that’s going to move the dial of our team forward. There are a lot of areas we’re going to look at over the next little while to try and improve, whether it’s scouting but more prominently player acquisition.”
This ties into my next point but I’ve always thought that MacTavish didn’t have a heck of a lot of time for talentless facepunchers. This was a Tambellini thing. This seems positive to me. Lowe got into the questions about the extent of the control that Tambellini had over things:
Lowe: Steve, I don’t believe, and I’m sure you’ll get a chance to talk to Steve, I don’t think there was ever a time when, that he wasn’t able to do anything that he didn’t want to do and that I asked him to do things that he didn’t want to do. So he’s the general manager, as will be the case with Craig. I made a decision five years ago to be less active in the game for family reasons. And really, although really nothing’s changed for me in terms of the disappointments with losses, so I probably should have stayed in the position, but really I’m a conduit to our owner Daryl Katz. The general manager is the general manager and the focal point of the hockey team.
It’s a bit garbled but I understood Lowe to be saying that he allowed Tambellini a fair bit of latitude. I talked about this yesterday when I was advocating Tambo’s firing but I think there’s a case to be made that Tambellini was given a reasonable amount of leeway in running the team. The intertia he’s shown wasn’t a trademark of Lowe’s tenure. The facepunchers weren’t. The series of questionable hires with Vancouver Canuck ties weren’t. Kevin Lowe has his faults as a hockey executive but the faults we’ve seen over the past four years seemed to be new and different faults, rather than the same old ones. Maybe I’m soft on Lowe but, again, I suspect that his statement is true.
Craig MacTavish has always seemed, to me anyway, like a different sort of a cat, in a good way. He was pretty fantastic from start to finish today. Two comments, in particular, stood out to me.
Went to Queens and took the MBA, which is going to hold me in good stead here, in terms of understanding some of the complexities and the statistics that today’s game really requires the GM to understand. The game is changing and I felt like I needed that skill set to try and change with the game.
I’ve felt for a while that the Oilers were kind of behind the curve. I’ve always thought that MacTavish is a bright guy and that he seems to sort of fundamentally get things. Then you had Tambellini, who seemed to me like he was caught in about 1985, building a team the same way the Islanders did, with seven years of caution leading to four Stanley Cups. I didn’t quote this piece but MacTavish said something like “Careers are short” when talking about the urgency that’s needed to move the team forward. MacTavish seems to get that the NHL is a different place then it once was and that the Oilers need to change with it. Of course, this was the best quote of all:
“It makes very little difference what I say today. What really, truly matters is what we do tomorrow as an organization to get better. If I can come in here and sell you guys on my capability and credibility to do the job today, it means nothing tomorrow. Tomorrow is about getting our bootstraps on and putting together the pieces we need to be great.”
There’s no guarantee that there will be success with Craig MacTavish running the show but as long as Tambellini was in charge, there pretty much was a guarantee of no success. I’m happy he’s running the team and suspect that the Oilers are going to do awfully well with him making the decisions.Email Tyler Dellow at firstname.lastname@example.org