Kevin Lowe tried to be lighthearted as he listed the qualifications of the Edmonton Oilers’ new general manager. He mentioned Craig MacTavish had worked in the media, then said he wasn’t so sure that was a qualification after all. He paused. Awkward silence.
“That’s a joke,” he said.
That drew polite laughter. But that wasn't the joke at Monday’s news conference. Lowe had helped mismanage the team. Now he had misread his audience and left people wondering whether he had made another mistake, even though Steve Tambellini’s firing was overdue and MacTavish generally told Oilers fans what they wanted to hear.
Lowe has been a player, coach and GM for the Oilers. He has been their president of hockey operations since July 2008, when Tambellini became their GM. They finished 21st, 30th, 30th and 29th in the 30-team NHL the next four seasons. They entered Monday ranked 23rd, headed for a seventh straight season out of the playoffs when they were supposed to be finally on the rise.
Not only did Lowe survive, he promoted MacTavish, another former player and coach for the Oilers. MacTavish had rejoined the front office this season. Lowe also gave MacTavish’s old title of senior vice-president of hockey operations to Scott Howson, a former Oilers assistant GM, who had been fired after a poor tenure as GM of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Howson also had rejoined the front office this season.
[Related: Oilers fire Steve Tambellini, name Craig MacTavish as new GM]
How, Lowe was asked, does this represent meaningful change?
“I’m not sure I understand the question,” Lowe said.
Hilarious. And it got better – make that worse. Lowe went on to say that the questioner was “trying to lop in performance a number of years ago and somehow tying it in to the decision-makers here.” Later, someone else posed a follow-up, asking how guys who helped make the mess Tambellini failed to clean up were the right guys to clean it up now. Lowe tried to lop in performance from a number of years ago, when he won six Stanley Cups as a player.
“I’ll say there’s one other guy I believe in hockey today that’s still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me,” Lowe said, “so I think I know a little bit about winning, if there’s ever a concern.”
Oh, there’s a concern, and not just because what you do as a player does not necessarily correlate to what you do in other roles, as Lowe’s former teammate Wayne Gretzky can tell you.
Lowe contradicted his new GM, who won four Cups as a player and said “it’s not really about yesterday” and that the game has changed. Lowe asked a questioner if he was being impatient three years into the rebuilding plan, when Lowe had just said himself the Oilers needed to “get better immediately” and he had just promoted MacTavish, a self-described “impatient guy.” Lowe said the Oilers had “two types of fans” – the “paying customers” and the folks who just watch. At least he said the Oilers “still care about” the second class.
Perhaps the best part: Lowe said it was safe to say half the GMs in the NHL would trade rosters with the Oilers right now, while ignoring the main reason why. The Oilers have stockpiled high-end talent because they have stunk and drafted high. Three years in a row, they have won the weighted lottery and drafted first overall.
As MacTavish said, the Oilers have primary pieces, with Taylor Hall (21), Sam Gagner (23), Jordan Eberle (22), Nail Yakupov (19), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (20) and Justin Schultz (22) as their leading scorers. They need depth, character and experience. They need size and grit, as long as that size and grit can play with skill. It is time to stop being tentative like Tambellini was. It is time to take the next step. The Oilers have the assets to make trades and the ability to attract free agents.
“Make no mistake, we’re going to do bold things and competitive things to get us to a level where we’re not only highly competitive but we’re challenging to win the Stanley Cup,” MacTavish said. “I don’t think we’re that far off. We’re going to have to make some changes, but we are at the [stage] when we can expose ourselves to risk.”
[Also: How the Stars went from deadline sellers to playoff contenders]
It is not fair to assume MacTavish and Howson haven’t grown and will fail. After he left the Oilers’ coaching job in 2009, MacTavish earned his master’s in business administration, coached in the American Hockey League and apprenticed in the Oilers’ front office. He talked about new stats and said he needed new skills to keep up with the changes in the game. Howson might have benefitted from his failures in Columbus and might be better in his current role.
“I think we all learn in life,” Howson said.
It is not fair to expect a quick Cup, either. Yes, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted Marc-Andre Fleury first overall in 2003, Evgeni Malkin second in ’04, Sidney Crosby first in ’05 and Jordan Staal second in ’06, then went to the final in ’08 and won the Cup in ’09. Yes, the Chicago Blackhawks drafted Jonathan Toews third in ’06 and Patrick Kane first in ’07, then won the Cup in ’10. But as talented as the Oilers are, do they have a Crosby or Toews? Are they even close to having the supporting casts those teams built? Not all high picks are equal, and teams evolve differently.
The Oilers have a lot of skilled players, but they have too many of the same types of players and still have to build a complete team. They need a power forward in the top six, reinforcements in the bottom six and a lot of help on defense. They need the right veterans to teach the kids how to win. They might need to trade some of the core to fortify the rest of it.
In one breath, MacTavish said: “Things are pretty dynamic in this business, and things change quickly. I’m feeling like we have the ability with the group that we have to move this thing forward very quickly.”
In another, MacTavish said: “Yeah, it’s easy to sit here and say we want Milan Lucic-type players. We do. But we’ve got to find a way to draft, acquire, develop, these types of players. It’s a significant weakness. We’ve got to address it over time.”
But it’s fair to ask if MacTavish was really the best man for the job, if Lowe just went back to a familiar face after Tambellini came out of the Vancouver Canucks organization, if the Oilers shortchanged themselves by returning to the old boys’ network and reshuffling some of the same names.
If the Oilers have so much to offer – if they are “poised for greatness,” as Lowe put it – they should have had no trouble attracting good candidates in a wide-ranging search. They should have done a wide-ranging search at least to make sure MacTavish measured up. After suffering so long to acquire those assets, why settle for anything less than the best man to make the best use of them?
If it’s time to do bold things, do bold things. If it’s time to take risks, take risks. If you know how to win, show it.
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