Since Steve Tambellini took over as General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers, he and those in his inner circle have enjoyed the freedom of extremely low expectations for the performance of the team. You see, when everyone anticipates that your team will finish 30th, and then they do, nobody can really say that you didn't live up to expectations.
While there have been countless articles itemizing particular mis-steps taken by the management team in the last few years, I truly think that the individual moves are a symptom of a more concerning problem that lies at the root of the Oilers' troubles, which is that the decision makers are not taking the proper approach to building this team into a perennial contender.
Click on the link below where I will take a look at how a flaw in the approach that management has used in recent years has led to the team's extended stay at the bottom of the NHL's standings.
To begin, let's state the obvious. Every GM on every NHL team is going to tell you every single time they are asked that they are doing the best they can to ice a winning team. While I believe all 30 GMs would honestly believe those words when they say them, the truth is simply a different story.
Before looking specifically at the Oilers, there is another example from around the league readily available...that being the general refusal of teams to utilize RFA offer sheets (or the threat of an offer sheet) to attempt to acquire restricted free agents from other franchises. By simply refusing to entertain the notion of using this tactic which is legal under the collective bargaining agreement, teams are limiting their options in terms of how they can acquire the players that will make their team better.
Moving on to the Oilers and Steve Tambellini et al, I'm sure that anyone from his inner circle from Kevin Lowe on down would tell you the Oilers are leaving no stone un-turned to improve their standing, and with the recent example of enlisting The Great One and Paul Coffey to woo Justin Schultz, they have an example at their disposal to back up that claim. However, A look back at the moves (or lack thereof) in the last few off-seasons will demonstrate the key flaw in their approach to rebuilding the Oilers into a Stanley Cup contender.
To my perception, the major flaw that currently inhabits the OIler braintrust is that in many different ways and in dealing with many different scenarios, they continually allow themselves to believe that they have "done enough" to be better. The reason that this is such a fundamental flaw in their approach? THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS HAVING "DONE ENOUGH".
Teams that win consistently are constantly reviewing their weaknesses and taking steps to address them. Once they take action to improve upon an issue, they re-assess to determine the next largest area of concern, and set about searching for ways to improve in that area as well. There is no point in time where "the job is done".
Mike Babcock, a guy I think we can all agree has had more than just a little bit of success in the hockey world, used the following motto as the focal statement in his attempts to motivate the 2010 Canadian Men's Olympic Team: "LEAVE NO DOUBT".
Those three words perfectly crystalize the missing concept in the roster decisions made by Oiler management. While each off-season brings with it a few solid transactions and a few questionable ones, the next season always seems to begin with glaring needs have not been sufficiently addressed. Now, whether that be due to over-valuing their own assets; believing that internal prospects are poised to fill existing gaps in the roster; or simply believing the existing crop of players had the potential to compete for a playoff spot, it doesn't really matter. What matters is that when opportunities to take further actions to improve the team were available; when they had the chance to add further depth to insulate themselves from injury concerns or the inconsistency that comes with a young roster, they have repeatedly opted not to pursue those opportunities.
In the title of this post, I refer to this problem as a project management issue because I view the task of building a successful hockey team as a project...no different really from those that many of us work on in our professions every day. Many of the core rules of effective project management are centred around the concept of risk mitigation. Risk mitigation is the core concept at the centre of the errors in judgement I am referring to. For those not familiar with the term, I have defined it below:
Risk Mitigation: A systematic reduction in the extent of exposure to a risk and/or the likelihood of its occurrence.
Interestingly enough, there is an entire strategic planning method dedicated to the identification of risks and potential ways to mitigate them known as a "SWOT analysis". "SWOT" is an acronym that stands for "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats". As the name suggests it is designed to take into account the things an organization does well, the things they don't, the potential future problems they may face, and current opportunities to either mitigate threats or address weaknesses. In fact, if there is sufficient response to this post, I may do a follow up where I provide my own completed SWOT analysis for the Oilers current roster. Please let me know in the comments if you feel this would be something you consider a worthwhile project.
Getting back to the Oilers, their inability to adequately identify and address the potential threats to a successful season has been a constant presence in the Tambellini era. Let's look back at just a couple of examples from the past where this issue has been demonstrated. In part two of this post, which will be up tomorrow, I will examine the current status of the team and see if we can identify if there are any risks which can be minimized through further action by the management team prior to the start of next season.
Example 1 - 2010 Off-season: The acquisition of Colin Fraser
In the 2009/10 NHL Season the Edmonton Oilers had the worst team face-off winning percentage in the entire NHL (46.4%). The team's four primary centres that year were almost impossible to determine. Shawn Horcoff was unquestionably the team's #1 centre, with Sam Gagner settling in at #2 despite being bounced around the depth chart that season. Andrew Cogliano was really the only other guy who played centre for most of the season that year, but he was so bad on faceoffs (43%) that the team frequently had Dustin Penner taking his draws for him. The fourth centre role was split among the likes of Marc Pouliot and Ryan Potulny among others. There was a glaring need for improving the depth down the middle and adding a player that had a proven track record of being able to win faceoffs. Given the youth and inexperience of Gagner and Cogliano on special teams, it probably wouldn't have hurt if that person could have helped with the team's 26th ranked penalty kill as well.
Management's response to this need was to trade the team's 6th round pick in that summer's draft to Chicago for Colin Fraser. Fraser had two years of NHL experience at this point in time during which he had never had a season where he won better than 48.8% of his draws and he had never averaged even 8.50 minutes per game at even strength. Fraser did have one season (08/09) where he was used heavily on the PK (2.78 min/60, 2nd on the team), however that year the Hawks struggled in that situation, ranked 18th in the league. The following season when the 'Hawks PK jumped into the top 5, Fraser was no better than the team's 6th forward option on the PK (1.41 min/60).
The acquisition of Fraser on its own was not a bad move, as they gave up little to acquire him, and he did add depth to an area of need for the team, however, there is serious reason to question the decision by management to believe that this one move would be enough to improve the team dramatically in this area. Subsequently, the following year, Edmonton once again finished 30th in face-off % (44.2%) and had the 29th ranked penalty kill.
It bares noting that during that off-season there were numerous UFA targets who had the available skill set, including Eric Belanger, who was not signed to a contract until September that off-season and who the Oilers would go out and sign to address the same problem the following off-season. Additionally, the likes of Manny Malhotra, Dominic Moore and Rob Niedermayer among others were on the market, with more options available through trade.
Example 2 - 2011 Off-season: The signing of Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk
At the end of the 2010 season, there was a sense of optimism for the future as the team had just seen strong debut seasons by the big three rookies...Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, not to mention Linus Omark. Fans had nicknamed the group H.O.P.E. and with the imminent arrival of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Managment felt that the team needed to add some tenacity and size in order to support their growing collection of young skill players.
Beyond the fact that "getting tougher" can't really be quantified in terms how much it helps win games, the team felt this was a necessary endeavour and went out and signed Ben Eager and Darcy Hordichuk to serve as a deterrent to their opposition should they consider targeting any of the Oilers' young guns. One must ask how wise of a decision this was when you consider that when Hordichuk was brought in, it was acknowledged from the start that he would spend a significant amount of time in the press box and that Eager would likely play on the team's 3rd or 4th line, therefore very rarely being on the ice to actually protect the teammates he was brought in to watch over.
The team opted not to add any players (other than Ryan Smyth, who basically traded himself back to Edmonton) who had a combination of size, skill, experience and "grit" who could actually have shared the ice with Hall, Eberle and RNH. Obviously its not a given that all of these players would have been willing to consider Edmonton as a destination, but all of Andrew Brunette, Raffi Torres, Scottie Upshall and Joel Ward were UFAs at that time, among numerous others as well as options to be considered through trade.
While not as easily quantifiable as my first example (or my next one), once again the decision to believe that some low-level movement would be sufficient to make a significant impact on the team's performance shows a lack of that the sense of urgency to leave no stone unturned to improve the team where ever possible...and this after two straight seasons of finishing dead last.
Example 3 - 2011 Off-season: The signing of Cam Barker and acquisition of Andy Sutton
Perhaps the greatest example of doing the minimum required and hoping that a huge risk would pay off (next to Nikolai Khabibulin, but we will discuss him in part two of this post) is last year's signing of Cam Barker to address the grand-canyon-like hole on the team's blueline.
At the end of the previous season, the team had Tom Gilbert and Ladislav Smid on the blueline, and then a bunch of spare parts and question marks. Ryan Whitney's ankle had exploded and his health was an even bigger red flag than it is this summer, Jeff Petry showed promise but only had 35 games of NHL experience and had just completed his rookie season in pro hockey and Theo Peckham was coming off an average rookie season (which was actually seen as a huge step forward for him). The team badly needed some depth in their top four to alleviate the near-impossible burden being thrust upon Gilbert and Smid.
In response to this, the team traded under-performing depth D-man Kurtis Foster for an aging bottom pairing blueliner in Andy Sutton, signed a career AHL Defender with some NHL upside in Corey Potter and signed former 3rd overall draft pick Cam Barker. Barker was obviously the guy who was being counted on to make the largest contribution. He was signed to a $2.25 Million contract after having been bought out by the Minnesota Wild.
Besides just the principle of pinning your season's hopes on a guy who had just been bought out of his last contract, there was nothing in Barker's history to show that he was anything more than a sub-par 5v5 player with the ability to produce some points on the powerplay. From the very onset, it seemed like quite a risk to expect Barker to play such a substantial role on the team. Had Management truly been trying to mitigate the risk of Whitney's injury and the uncertainty of Petry and Peckham (not to mention just an overall lack of depth), they would likely have targeted viable NHLers such as Jan Hejda among multiple others who were available at the time. Again, the belief that the actions they had taken were "enough" to make a meaningful difference cost the team another season of finishing in a lottery position.
Based on these examples, do you agree with my assessment that the Steve Tambellini era in Edmonton can be defined by a willingness to accept an unreasonable degree of risk at the start of each season? Could the results of the last few seasons have been improved by proactively taking additional steps to prevent foreseeable issues from occurring?
As stated above, in part two of this post, we will take a look at the Oilers' current roster and identify areas of the depth chart that present an uncomfortable level of risk for an NHL team should the goal to erase any doubt that they are ready to return to the post season next year.