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Flowers for Scott Howson


"The Oilers took the wrong guy!" How many times have we heard that refrain in the last decade? Marc Pouliot and Jean-Francois Jacques over Zach Parise. Trading for Jeff Woywitka over Corey Perry. Drafting Jesse Niinimaki instead of... well, pretty much anybody. Those who condemned such transactions as they were happening became minor hockey Nostradamuses, pronouncing grim prophecy about every transaction the Oilers made, and the trouble with the Oilers since 2004 is that if you said grim things about any of their transactions, you were probably right.

But what is their greatest hockey sin? No, not trading Ryan Smyth for Robert Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra. Not the fact that Ethan Moreau continues to have a hockey career. Not even the franchise-crippling Nikolai Khabibulin contract. We had, ultimately, the choice between two assistant GMs of Canadian NHL teams, and we picked the wrong one. It's hard to turn a franchise around when the first thing you do is appoint the wrong leader.

Scott Howson was right there. He was in our hands. And we let him get away to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Yes, we were outwitted by the team that gave Doug Maclean a job.

Howson, formerly general manager of the Oilers' AHL affiliate in Hamilton (these were the heady days when the Oilers had an AHL affilliate) jumped to the Oilers in the general purge of the Glen Sather regime as "assistant to the general manager", which I presume means that he fetched Kevin Lowe's coffee and got his shirts drycleaned. A year afterwards he was made plain ol' assistant general manager, and in June 2007 those bastards the Blue Jackets lured him over to run their hockey team.

There are two major differences between Howson's biography and Steve Tambellini's. The first is that Howson, after his playing career, worked his way up through hockey management. By the time he was assistant to the general manager in Edmonton he already had a few years experience as the top Bulldog under his belt, not to mention a few more years learning the ropes in an advisory role. Steve Tambellini, meanwhile, went straight from his playing career to the Vancouver Canucks front office, where he took a role in - of all things - public relations, possibly the least hockey-related field one can imagine.

The second was that Howson never lingered in any one place too long before either moving up or moving on. Steve Tambellini... well, he did not do that. In 1997, he was made Senior Vice President of Hockey Operations with the Canucks, which at least wasn't a PR job. The next year he became Director of Player Personnel, adding another impressive-sounding title with unclear actual responsibilities to his resume. He spent a decade directing that player personnel before being made Dave Nonis's assistant general manager.

By the time Nonis was fired on April 14, 2008, Steve Tambellini had been with the Canucks for the best part of two decades. In this time his ascent had been mediocre, like the guy who gets promoted because he's been working in the office longest and is the only one who knows where the spare copy paper is kept. In that time with the Canucks, the NHL had experienced what I will approximate as one million billion general managers being fired, and yet until the Oilers came knocking nobody had said "let's get that guy who's been in Vancouver for a hundred years."

Tambellini was also Director of Player Personnel for Team Canada at the 2002 Olympics, 2003 World Junior Championships, and 2004 World Cup, which is an even odder addition to one's resume given that, when one gets a direct answer as to what a Director of Player Personnel does, it's usually something like "mumble mumble development mumble mumble tracking prospects mumble mumble" and what one would be tracking prospects for in a two-week tournament is beyond me. Of course, the bizarrely inbred world that is Canadian senior hockey management has produced many such oddities over the years.

Now, maybe Steve Tambellini just liked Vancouver. I can't blame him. Vancouver's a lovely city. The transit system works most in the time, there are some great bars, there are, like, nine casinos. But funny thing about that. Go through the old archives and it's easy to find Tambellini being linked and interviewing for NHL jobs: the New York Islanders were reportedly interested in Tambellini because, in the magnificent words of Larry Brooks in the New York Post, "there aren't many credible candidates who wish to walk into [the Islanders'] hockey department". He was attached to the Toronto Maple Leafs after Pat Quinn's departure, athough Quinn had wanted Tambellini as his replacement according to the Toronto Star (nothing to see here, just move along). He was linked with other jobs as well, those are merely the greasiest.

In fact, after Dave Nonis took the pipe on April 14, 2008, Tambellini was in line to get a general manager's job in Vancouver itself. The Canucks deliberated, interviewed Tambellini, and then duly hired Mike Gillis, better known as "Markus Naslund's agent", somebody with no management experience whatsoever. Apparently the sight of Tambellini being passed over in favour of an agent was enough to get the Oilers excited: within two months he had been made general manager of the Oilers.

Suffice to say that, in the year and a half since his appointment, Steve Tambellini has gone hunting for magic bullets with a vengeance. Like the teenager finally getting the keys to Dad's sports car, he is taking reckless risks and acting like he truly, genuinely believes he's All That. Dany Heatley! Nikolai Khabibulin! Even the rumours about Vincent Lecavalier! If you're a former Olympian wih a bad contract and Steve Tambellini hasn't been linked with giving up way too much to get you, you should probably reevaluate things.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but has Tambellini brought in any players who were good value for money? Even one? "Couldn't trade Dustin Penner no matter how hard he tried" does not count as a qualification.

Meanwhile, down in Columbus, Scott Howson has been quietly acquiring value contracts and turning a team that Doug Maclean had utterly ruined into a pretty solid hockey team. Not only good but sustainable, with a lot of nice veterans on excellent contracts which will allow the Blue Jackets to continue to stock the larder and get gradually better. It's almost like he's been paying attention to hockey for the last half decade, while Steve Tambellini spent that time flying around to try and get a job before being rejected in favour of agents or old goalies.

There's a lesson there somewhere. And it's not just "give Scott Howson a blank cheque when his contract with Columbus is up and ask him to write in whatever he thinks is fair".