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Managing To Lose

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<strong>Sadsack Oilers, original artwork by Rachel Corey, all rights reserved.</strong>
Sadsack Oilers, original artwork by Rachel Corey, all rights reserved.

This article was purposefully given a title with a dual meaning. Since 2006, no matter the string pulled by management, the Oilers have been managing to lose. The ethic has become infectious. So infectious, it seems that fans and some media members have caught it, whatever it is. They've decided that the Oilers aren't accidentally managing to lose because of bad breaks, rather, the management in Edmonton is actively managing to lose in some masterful long con.

During each extended losing streak this season, the fanatical devotees of the team and management team have proffered this: the reason the Oilers are so terrible this year isn't because of mismanagement, rather it's because of the genius of a group of executives bent on purposefully, though not obviously, tanking in order to get another lottery pick. Call it rose-colored glasses, drinking the copper & blue kool-aid, pollyannish behavior, becoming a Stepford Wife or a fan-management version of the Stockholm Syndrome, it's a position that requires a giant leap of faith. If the ingeniously sly plan to not obviously tank was so cunning, why does so much of it rely on bad luck and poor health? If management were so breathtakingly subtle, why did they assemble a team that, if healthy, wouldn't deliver a lottery pick, and if healthy except for their MVP goalie might not even deliver a top ten pick?

This isn't a case of the Oilers purposefully managing to lose, this is a case of the Oilers once again managing to lose because they lack a plan.

That Lowe and Tambellini have been managing to lose, regardless of tack, is not news. I, along with a number of other writers, have devoted an ever-increasing number of articles, analysis and columns to the inept decisions made over the last five seasons. What's become bothersome to me is this build-up of support for the notion that losing on purpose is the right path. Purposefully losing is never good. Losing in order to gain draft choices means a general manager is willing to throw away eighty-two games for a toss of the dice. Consider the risk inherent with such action. As it stands, Oiler fans already believe that free agents won't come to Edmonton for a variety of reasons -- if the team were indeed purposefully losing, the tank-job would shoot to the top of the list of reasons not to play in Edmonton. But some continue to support this whacky line of thinking - the slight possibility of the ends justifies the means.

The Oilers themselves have trumpeted the "Chicago model" and the "Pittsburgh model" as shining examples of rebuilds, and have, at various times, compared themselves and their plans to the Blackhawks and Penguins. Fans have fallen in step, pointing out the terrible times both teams fell on prior to their seasons at the top. The comparisons are, at the very least faulty, and could be simply ridiculous, and shall be explored below.

The Penguins grand turnaround comes down to one thing - luck. The Penguins, like the Rangers, Sabres and Blue Jackets had three ping pong balls in the 2005 lottery spinner, each had a 6.25% chance of winning the lottery and landing Sidney Crosby. The Penguins won the lottery, the Blue Jackets drafted sixth, the Rangers twelfth, and the Sabres thirteenth. Imagine, however if the Penguins would've been drawn in another slot, or traded draft positions with one of the other three teams with the same chance of winning. If Sidney Crosby had been drafted by the Blue Jackets, Sabres, or thank goodness we were spared, if the Rangers won the lottery, it's highly unlikely the Penguins would be a cup winner. If the Penguins rebirth began with Gilbert Brule, Marc Staal or Marek Zagrapan, it's not likely the team would they have even made a Stanley Cup Final. Even with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, subtracting Crosby and adding Zagrapan would probably force them into an even longer run of lottery picks.

If luck had not been with them, the end result would have been an entire lost generation of player development in Pittsburgh. Before Crosby's arrival, the Penguins burned away promising prospects by rushing them, or not playing them, or hiring the General Manager's unqualified brother to coach the AHL affiliate. Penguins fans watched as Milan Kraft, Alexei Morozov, Konstantin Koltsov, Tomas Surovy, Michal Rozsival, Ross Lupaschuk, and Michal Sivek all failed. If not for luck Pittsburgh would recount names like Zagrapan, or Andrew Cogliano or Kenndal McArdle in the same breath as the other failed prospects.

Chicago is interesting because the Blackhawks are the team most often discussed as a comparison for the Oilers rebuild. The team has talked about the Hawks, the television and radio crews have discussed the Chicago model, but the comparison isn't very apt. In 2006-2007, the Blackhawks held back #3 overall pick Jonathan Toews rather than rush him. The Blackhawks won the lottery in 2007 and selected Patrick Kane. In 2007-2008, Kane's rookie season, he was the leading scorer on the team. Toews was the team's third-leading scorer. The roster also included youngsters Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer but they were buffered by grown men, capable of carrying the play. The Blackhawks also sent Patrick Sharp, Robert Lang, Jason Williams, Martin Havlat, Rene Bourque, Martin Lapointe, Craig Adams, Sergei Samsonov, Adam Burish, Kevyn Adams, and Yanic Perreault out that season.

Below is a table displaying the Corsi Rel. QoC Rank for the Blackhawks forwards in the 2007-2008 season, and the data was supplied by Behind The Net.

Corsi Rel QoC Rank Forward
1 Dave Bolland
2 Jason Williams
3 Patrick Sharp
4 Rene Bourque
5 Adam Burish
6 Craig Adams
7 Andrew Ladd
8 Robert Lang
9 Yanic Perreault
10 Jonathan Toews
11 Ben Eager
12 Patrick Kane
13 Martin Havlat

This list doesn't include the players who were in Chicago for some part of the season - Martin Lapointe, Kevyn Adams, Sergei Samsonov - veteran NHL players to throw at NHL minutes. Toews and Kane were spoonfed the easiest of minutes as they learned their trade, yet the team still remained competitive. That Blackhawks team ended the season with 88 points. These Oilers are on pace to end this season with 68 points.

Where, then, can we find a comparison for the Oilers? Obviously the Chicago plan is out because the Edmonton Oilers cannot compete with the Blackhawks of 2007-2008 and are even further away from building the team the Blackhawks had in 2008-2009. Pittsburgh, for all intents and purposes is out - Sidney Crosby is not coming to Edmonton. The notion of building a cup-winning team through purposefully losing falls apart under analysis. Chicago had good management building winning teams. Pittsburgh threw away a half-decade of prospects before turning the franchise around on the rotation of a lottery ball. But there are teams who have managed to lose for extended periods and have nothing to show for it - a decade of lottery picks later and the Florida Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets are still stick in the aether. A team without once-in-a-generation luck and without strong managers dedicated to building a club around lottery picks is more likely to end up swimming in the aether, not swimming in champagne poured from the Stanley Cup.