Full disclosure: I'm not an Oilers fan. I have, however, become all too aware of the Oilers over recent years because of their intelligent and passionate fan base - if I want to read smart writing on hockey, places like here and mc79hockey and Irreverent Oiler Fans is where I've got to go. These places feature endless ranting about the Oilers' current management, most of which is completely justified. Yet I've come here not to bury Steve Tambellini and Kevin Lowe, nor to praise them; I will defend their management strategy even if it is terrible at the margins. There are plenty of debacles and they've all been chronicled here ad infinitum, but there's some good, even if it can't be seen right away. My defense will be based on three things, after the jump:
A: General Manager talent appears to be quite scarce. The four most recent NHL expansion teams - Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, and Columbus - selected their first general manager to be, respectively, David Poile, Don Waddell, Doug Risebrough, and Doug MacLean. Poile had been a long-time GM of the Washington Capitals, and Risebrough had been the GM of the Flames who oversaw the disastrous Doug Gilmour trade. The other two men had never served as an NHL General Manager. Of those four men, only Poile is still employed by his team, whereas the other three men left their franchises in a state of near-ruin by the time they exited. The total number of playoff rounds won by this foursome is three, in 43 combined years of existence.
What does this have to do with Lowe and Tambellini? Well, you never know who would replace them. My guess would be that if the current management were fired at the conclusion of this year, the next general manager would set as his goal to make the playoffs next season. That's a noble idea, but...
B: The Oilers' management is not changing horses mid-stream. By which I mean, Oiler management no longer seems confused about its direction. NHL players exit Edmonton via trade, prospects and draft picks come back. This practice has been widely mocked by Oiler fans - the 'BAM, Stanley Cup' meme is a favorite of mine - but it covers one of the Oilers' main general managerial weaknesses - identifying NHL talent in other organizations.
In other organizations, the GM and President would likely be nervous about keeping their jobs through so many disastrous seasons. Their owner might make it clear to them that they should make the playoffs this year or else. We've seen many terrible moves made under this threat, either implied or real. Who could forget Don Waddell's Atlanta Thrashers trading Braydon Coburn and a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd round pick for Alexei Zhitnik and Keith Tkachuk? Who could forget Dave Taylor of the Kings trading Denis Grebeshkov and Jeff Tambellini for Brent Sopel and Mark Parrish? The Oilers have the luxury of not making moves like this - with stable management and a fanbase with inexhaustible patience, the Oilers can hold on to their young players and let them develop.
C: Comparisons to other failed teams fail to take B into account. It's become trendy to compare the Oilers to teams who've been constant failures over the last 15 years, like the Islanders, Thrashers, and Blue Jackets. Still, these teams combined poor drafting WITH horrendous talent management.
D: This is a corollary to A - Owners do not seem particularly adept at choosing general managers and/or team presidents. It's difficult to understand why this is, but the best general managers typically stay employed for a long time, and the rest of the league tends to shuffle people around hoping to find a great GM. Derek has shown that for the most part, GMs are ex-players or sons of famous coaches, GMs, and/or players - there's not many outsiders let into the NHL management rodeo. This may sound like a Catch-22, but if Darryl Katz is dumb enough to extend Tambellini for several more seasons, if he were smart enough to know to fire Tambo, would he really be able to hire someone better?
Lowe and Tambellini's many failures don't inspire a lot of confidence in their ability to steer the Oilers, so we'll have to see how this rebuild progresses. Yes, Sam Gagner is unbelievably a UFA in 2014, 41 days short of his 25th birthday, and he could be moved soon. Magnus Paajarvi hit a rut in his development - will his potential go unfulfilled? Will the Oilers trade him away for cents on the dollar if he doesn't improve substantially next year? How will the Oilers find a defense and goaltender? I really have no idea - Lowe and Tambellini often surprise. While I doubt very much that these two can lead the Oilers to a Stanley Cup, or even to Stanley Cup contention, I do think they are moving the franchise towards being a perennial playoff team.