You’d have to think Steve Tambellini saw this coming. Heck, he probably knew all along it would happen. That’s because there are precious few GMs in the NHL who have the luxury of both undertaking a rebuild and seeing it through. The guy who has the courage/organizational support to oversee the teardown is rarely around to finish the job of building it back up.
Glen Sather, for reasons unknown, has been able to do it. Lou Lamoriello gets that kind of freedom. Darcy Regier has done it, too, but the prospects of him getting another opportunity to do it are grim.
The Oilers have not played a playoff game since losing Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final seven years ago. And the NHL is a results-oriented business, so from that standpoint, you could see why the Oilers would want to make a change. But in an organization where the old boys’ network has ruled far too long, hiring Craig MacTavish without taking the opportunity to at least explore the possibility of wiping the slate clean is a head scratcher.
Unlike a coaching change, this is not a move that’s designed to get the Oilers into the playoffs with two weeks to go in the season. In a season in which the Oil was supposed to finally make some tangible strides, too little has changed. If there were ever an organization that needed to start over again with a fresh face, it’s this one.
That’s not to say MacTavish won’t be a very good GM. He may very well be. But whether or not he succeeds will be determined in large part by how much he does to distance himself from the Oilers’ former way of doing things. One advantage he has in that respect is he didn’t inherit an organization with as many bad contracts as Tambellini did.
If the Oilers are going to move forward, MacTavish is going to have to succeed in two key areas where his predecessors failed – getting quality players beyond the obvious talent available high in the first round and identifying and procuring NHL players who can help the organization.
You could argue, in fact, that the last time the Oilers got a player beyond the first round who went on to help them in any significant way was in 2002 when they draft Jarret Stoll 36th and Matt Greene 44th. For years, a team such as the Toronto Maple Leafs was able to spend its way out of bad drafting by attracting top free agents. The Oilers have never been able to do that, largely because it’s not a destination of choice for top veteran players, so they simply have to do a better job of finding and developing players in the later rounds of the draft.
The latter one will be much, much more difficult for MacTavish to accomplish, but it won’t be impossible. It was not Tambellini’s fault that so many players have either balked at going to Edmonton or demanded to be traded over the years. Dany Heatley refused to be traded to Edmonton. Countless unrestricted free agents have chosen other destinations over Edmonton and many of those with partial no-trade clauses have the Oilers among the teams to which they won’t report. (A 2007 player survey done by THN showed that Edmonton was the least desired destination for players after Buffalo.)
But even if you take that particular handicap into account, Tambellini’s body of work when it comes to acquiring NHL talent is epically bad. When you’ve been on the job for four years and your crown jewel in terms of NHL transactions is Ryan Whitney (or perhaps Ryan Jones), you know there’s a void in your work. One of the major reasons the Oilers have faltered over the years is they’ve failed to surround their young talent with the kinds of players who can (a) take on more responsibility when those young players struggle, and (b) teach the young guys what it takes to create a winning culture.
Thanks to Tambellini, the Oilers all but publicly spelled out their intention to be a bad team for a significant period of time in order to acquire elite talent at the top end of the draft. He has done his part and managed to score a coup by attracting Anaheim refugee defenseman Justin Schultz to the Oilers, despite the fact Schultz could have chosen any one of the NHL’s 30 teams. And unlike Tambellini’s predecessors, there is some hope that some of the players picked beyond the first round during his tenure will eventually help the Oilers.
But just because Edmonton has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to young talent doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be a contending team anytime soon. Young players can become comfortable with losing just as easily as they can hunger for winning. The Oilers need serious help in goal, on defense and in the bottom two lines of their lineup.
And now it’s up to MacTavish to find it. If he doesn’t, you can expect the Oilers to continue to flounder for years.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.