Monday, April 15, 2013
Old-boy Oilers just don't get it
By Scott Burnside
It has been awhile since we've been to Edmonton -- almost as long as it has been since the Oilers qualified for the playoffs, in fact -- but we still can't help but imagine that Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" plays in a nonstop loop around the Oiler offices, every day, all day.
That song must have been running full blast Monday, when the news broke that GM Steve Tambellini had been fired and replaced by former head coach Craig MacTavish.
The man behind the firing and the man who introduced the new (er, old?) face of the Oilers' management team on Monday was former GM Kevin Lowe, who ascended to the title of president of hockey operations back in 2008, but who has never really let go of the tiller, just as he has apparently never let go of the team's past.
And although Tambellini was an "outside" hire, he was Lowe's hire, and now that Lowe has replaced one pal with another even older pal in MacTavish, has this team really taken a step anywhere but in a circle?
MacTavish, who was the head coach the last time the Oilers made the playoffs, in 2006 -- when they made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals, losing in seven games to Carolina -- had returned to the team last year as the team’s senior vice president of hockey operations.
MacTavish will be replaced by former Oiler assistant GM Scott Howson, who was fired earlier this year in Columbus, where he was both unpopular and by virtually every measuring stick unsuccessful during his tenure there as GM.
If you think the Oilers organizational chart looks like one of those optical illusions where the stairs are both ascending and descending in a perpetual circle, that's because it is.
Still, there has been nothing circular about the Oilers' evolution as a team -- just a straight descent.
They have missed the playoffs every season since that improbably Cup run in 2006. And even though they have managed the improbable, not to mention embarrassing, feat of collecting three straight No. 1 overall draft picks -- and could conceivably earn a fourth if they get lucky in the math department for a second year in a row (all teams that fail to make the playoffs have at least a shot at the No. 1 pick) -- they still appear to be a team without a clue.
Yes, they have talent. Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, who represent the fruits of those three first-overall picks, are gifted players. Jordan Eberle is a world-class talent too, and the four are among the team's top five point-producers this season (the fifth is another Oiler prospect, Sam Gagner, who was taken sixth overall in 2007).
They also somehow managed to coax Justin Schultz, one of the top defensive free agents on the market last summer, to sign on.
And there's the rub, no?
That the Oilers have talent isn't the issue. When you're as lousy as they've been since 2006, you should have young talent. That's how it's supposed to work, and even the least hockey savvy of front offices should be able to make use of repeated top-10 draft picks.
But acquiring talent and building a team are vastly different animals and that's where Lowe and his staff have failed miserably.
Vision? Ha. What's that?
A grand plan to use repeated failures to build a foundation for the long term a la the Chicago Blackhawks, Pittsburgh Penguins or Los Angeles Kings? Ha-ha. Not here. Not yet, at least.
Tambellini paid the price for those failures on Monday with the Oilers in the middle of a season-crushing five-game losing streak during which they have been outscored 17-4. The skid crippled any hopes the youthful Oilers might have of making the playoffs and highlighted some of the myriad holes the organization has failed to address, not the least of which is passable defense and goaltending and leadership.
Tambellini's fault? Maybe. The results are the results.
But before Tambellini it was MacTavish's fault (he "stepped down" as head coach exactly four years ago, in fact), then it was Pat Quinn's fault, then Tom Renney's and, well, funny how the blame always seems to fall away from Lowe, whose roots with this team date to 1979 when the Oilers selected the defenseman 21st overall and whose fingerprints continue to be found all over this aimless franchise.
Does anyone really think that any of those moves happened without Lowe's absolute blessing or, worse, at his prodding?
We recall a conversation with rookie head coach Ralph Krueger in Nashville shortly before the Oilers were embarrassed 6-0. He talked about need to temper outside expectations for a sudden revival against the reality of the steep learning curve this team needs to follow.
Fair enough. And we hope MacLowe, er, MacTavish, has enough sense to let Krueger get on with the complicated task of teaching this team how to win.
It was certainly interesting, though, to hear MacTavish talk Monday about his lack of patience and how he believes the time is ripe for bold moves for this team. But will he have the autonomy to make such moves? More to the point, will he have the autonomy and the hockey smarts to put in place the kind of hockey plan that was obviously missing?
No one knows whether MacTavish has the goods to turn this team around. He acknowledged as much Monday, saying that it doesn't matter what is said today, rather the actions that take place down the road will represent the true test of where this team is headed.
But the fact is MacTavish is yet another link to a past whose light continues to shine white hot on the present. Until he produces a winner or at least a team that looks like a team, he will be just another buddy getting a promotion, especially given the number of quality hockey minds toiling in other organizations, like Paul Fenton, Tom Kurvers, Claude Loiselle, Jim Nill et al., who have more impressive credentials.
In the end, we can't help but wonder if this is less about personnel and more about environment.
Look at the change at the very top in Montreal, a team that constantly struggles with the ghosts of past glories and how that has invigorated the Northeast Division-leading Habs. How about the change in Columbus, where new president John Davidson and new GM Jarmo Kekalainen are making a last-minute, spirited run at a playoff berth after years of being a laughingstock.
Lowe even played into the strange Oiler dynamic Monday, talking about how he knows about winning because he won Stanley Cups. True, but that was almost two decades ago. Two decades. Holy time warp, Batman.
Which makes you wonder where Oilers ownership is in this equation. What does Daryl Katz see when he looks at the circle dance being played out in the team's boardrooms?
Or is Katz listening to too much Bruce Springsteen too?
How does that line go?
"She says when she feels like crying she starts laughing, thinking about/glory days."
For Oiler fans, there has been far more crying than glory for a long, long time and Monday's shuffling of the deck chairs seems unlikely to change that anytime soon.