Oilers finally fire Steve Tambellini, name Craig MacTavish new GM

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  • Kevin Lowe
    Canadian ice hockey defenceman
  • Craig MacTavish
    Craig MacTavish
    Canadian ice hockey player

After nearly five years, we finally have an answer to the most frequently asked question in Edmonton: What will it take to get Steve Tambellini fired as general manager?

The answer, apparently: an Edmonton Oilers team that teased for a playoff spot before plummeting into late-season embarrassment; a team getting booed off the ice by home fans; having star player Taylor Hall slowly morph into Ryan Miller in his maudlin postgame assessments; having defenseman Nick Schultz calling his teammates “selfish”; and, above all else, having a candidate for his replacement having been groomed and waiting in the wings.

To that end, the Edmonton Oilers fired Tambellini on Monday, a rare in-season canning that ends his tenure that started in 2008 and ends without a playoff appearance.

The man he replaced, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, will name former Oilers great and former coach Craig MacTavish as the new GM with former Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson returning to the organization a in MacTavish’s former role as senior VP of hockey operations.

So, yeah, not exactly a bold move outside the Oilers’ comfort zone on this one. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

From Jonathan Willis’s assessment of MacTavish from June 2012:

What has this candidate done that makes him warrant consideration? MacTavish is articulate and intelligent, but the number one item in his favour is the relationship he has with the decision makers in Edmonton. Kevin Lowe is the president of hockey operations; he and MacTavish have been a tandem for most of the last two decades, as teammates and then as managers. MacTavish is also rumoured to be close with Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz. Beyond that, he does have long experience in the game as a player and a coach.

MacTavish also spent his two years away from the game earning an executive MBA in business from Queen’s University, giving him an educational background more impressive than many ex-players.

The experience issue is the biggest one facing MacTavish, but he did get to cut his teeth during this truncated regular season. He’s also surrounded by veteran hockey ops guys ... for better or worse.

Some might say “worse.”

Tambellini was a failure as GM, but was part of an overall managerial team that contributed to that failure. Which is a roundabout way of asking if any GM – let alone one one hand-picked and groomed as MacTavish was – can succeed if Kevin Lowe is the still the ultimate up or down vote?

Is it really regime change if Kevin Lowe is left standing? If the guy that's overseen two quarterfinals appearances and a fluke post-lockout Cup run in 2006, since taking over 13 years ago, is still in charge?

Is it really regime change if the new faces are old faces, like a former long-time coach and an assistant GM from 2002-07?

Look, we're not saying the Oilers are recycling a bit too much here, but it wouldn't surprise us if they drove a Prius ...

But maybe Lowe doesn’t need to go. Maybe Tambo was the problem. And maybe MacTavish will fulfill the promise Oilers fans like Copper and Blue believe he has as a non-traditional hockey ops voice:

I've often complained that management personnel in the NHL are woefully lacking of the background and skills necessary to run a large-scale business like a multi-million dollar pro sports franchise. A significant number of people within management have little more than an equivalency degree others have a single professional qualification -- they have a personal relationship with someone within the management of the franchise that they are working for. Craig MacTavish does not suffer from the same problem.

MacTavish understands what it takes to develop non-pedigreed players into outscoring NHL players. Under his watch, Fernando Pisani, and Shawn Horcoff developed into bonafide NHL outscorers despite having pedigrees that linked them more to a third-line plugger role. Horcoff, in fact, credits his success to MacTavish.

The task at hand for MacTavish couldn’t be clearer. The Oilers need to find physicality and strong two-way players to balance their explosive young core -- and, in fact, consider trading one of those foundational players to get them. They need to add a legitimate stud or two to the blue line. They need to make a final assessment of the goaltending position, and whether Devan Dubnyk can be a reliable starter.

To that end, the first three fates MacTavish will have to determine: Those of Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and the Oilers’ first-round pick, all of whom can bring to this roster what it needs.

They’re getting close to contention, but Edmonton will be back in the lottery again this season.

With the assemblage of young talent on the roster ready to ripen, and needing only a few key pieces to transform into a contender, their new general manager just likely won one of his own.

Ask Stan Bowman and Ray Shero how that goes.

Of course, Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby might have had something to do with that success. And the Oilers, despite their talent, lack that kind of confident leadership.