Friday, April 17, 2009

Prendergast and Player Development

Yesterday I outlined the drafting performance of Kevin Prendergast and his staff as evidence of why I don’t feel he should be purged by the Edmonton Oilers this summer. As promised, today I’m going to give other reasons I feel this way and I’ll do so by examining his role in player development.

This is an aspect of the organization that I have always felt was rather weak and yet there are those who make solid arguments to refute that. For the purpose of staying focused on Prendergast though, let’s establish what his role has been since 2001 in regards to player development.

The truth is, until Assistant G.M. Scott Howson left the organization in the summer of 2007, Prendergast’s role in this department was basically limited. As VP of Hockey Operations, his job was to restock the organization with an annual supply of new prospects via the draft. He was also responsible for organizing the franchise’s summer prospects camp, which he first created in June of 2003.

The operation of the Oilers AHL affiliate, (hiring of coaches, signing of minor league free agents, etc) fell to Howson who most agree did a solid job right up until the time when the Edmonton Road Runners were mothballed. The Hamilton Bulldogs were a successful, shared affiliation with the Montreal Canadiens and the team reached the Calder Cup finals with eventual Oilers like Jarret Stoll, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Jani Rita, Tony Salmelainen, Fernando Pisani, Raffi Torres and Ty Conklin playing key roles.

Things slowly began to fall apart in 2003-04 when the Oilers moved their affiliation to Toronto for financially beneficial reasons. On the ice the Toronto Road Runners were a very average team which was a reflection of the organization’s still developing pool of prospects. Salmelainen and Rita were two of the team’s top 3 scorers though and appeared ready to challenge for NHL jobs the following season. The Hockey News had gone so far as to predict Rita (pictured) a Calder trophy candidate. Defenceman Doug Lynch was selected to the AHL All-Star game as a rookie before sustaining a career altering wrist inury.

The NHL lockout was a significant turning point in the decade for the Oilers, especially in regards to player development.

With their sweetheart deal in Toronto falling apart and the NHL headed for a work stoppage, the ownership decided they could kill three birds with one stone – moving the AHL team to Edmonton would give the local fans something to watch, it would ensure player development and it would also help offset the financial hit of not having the Oilers selling out Rexall Place.

The brass of the Edmonton Road Runners was Scott Howson (GM/Governor), Cal Nicholls (Chairman) and Stew MacDonald was brought in as President. Meanwhile, despite the lockout, Kevin Prendergast and his scouting staff was still actively beating the bushes in anticipation that the NHL draft would be held as normal in June of 2005. The travel budget was much more restricted that year for obvious reasons.

The season ended poorly with only a handful of players having what could have been described as a positive year – including rookie Kyle Brodziak, youngsters Brad Winchester, Mathieu Roy and especially Jarret Stoll.

When it became clear that the NHL was returning to play the following year the Edmonton Oilers felt it would be prudent to suspend the operation of the Road Runners. Patrick LaForge explained that the organization felt that having the Oilers and their AHL team playing out of the same building would “confuse” the market. Basically there was concern that the paying public’s outrage at the NHL lockout might be reflecting in low NHL ticket sales so they ditched the AHL team to eliminate perceived competition.

Because the decision to scrap the Road Runners was made so late in the off season, a suitable site for relocation could not be found in time for the 2005-06 season which meant that Edmonton’s prospects would be dispersed to any teams willing to take on a player or two. A bunch went to Hamilton, some were sent to Iowa and Zack Stortini ended up in Milwaukee (see right).

In most cases, players were burried on team depth charts and often used out of position. Goalie Jeff Deslauriers appeared in just 13 games while he waited for ice time behind Montreal properties Cristobal Huet, Jaroslav Halak, Yann Danis and Olivier Michaud.

The following year the Oilers had a better agreement with the Pittsburgh Penguins to share Wilkes-Barre and that provided more opportunity for the likes of Marc Pouliot, Brodziak, J.F. Jacques, Rob Schremp and Tom Gilbert to play.

Coach Geoff Ward had seen his job evaporate like the Road Runners themselves but he was kept in the organization when the position of “development coach” was created. He spent the 2005-06 season traveling from team to team and league to league helping Oiler properties as best he could, always assuming that the lack of a farm team was a 1-year scenario and he’d be back on the bench again that fall. When that didn’t happen he left for Europe to continue his career and Kelly Buchberger stepped into the role of development coach.

Finally in 2007, with a strong Canadian Dollar and the NHL CBA working in their favor, the Oilers were at long last able to re-establish an AHL affiliate to call their own. The Springfield Falcons appeared to be the perfect set up to help get player development back on track and even included Ward's return from Europe. But then a series of things happened that really sent plans for a loop.

The first blow was delivered on June 15th when Scott Howson left the organization to become the General Manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets. The second came on August 1st when the Boston Bruins announced they had signed Geoff Ward to an assistant coach job. Those two moves left the Falcons without their shared Oiler executive and a head coach and put Edmonton into scramble mode.

Howson’s workload as Oilers Assistant GM was divvied up on two fronts; Rick Olczyk was brought in as the teams legal, contract and salary cap expert while the hockey operations responsibilities including the farm team were added to Prendergast’s plate.

For Prendergast, this was completely new territory and in order to help him learn on the fly the Oilers asked Stew MacDonald (former Road Runner President) to work with him. For someone who had spent the last 15 years in the role of scout, learning the ropes of AHL Governor’s meetings and the ins and outs of running a farm team were a lot to absorb, especially considering the timing of the events being right before the season began.

To help alleviate some of his own workload, Prendergast named Stu MacGregor as the teams Head of Amateur Scouting. While KP still oversees the entire scouting department, MacGregor operates the amateur wing.

Geoff Ward was replaced by Kelly Buchberger, a decision made by ‘upper manangement’ which I am led to believe included Craig MacTavish who felt the experience would help fast track ‘Bucky’ to the NHL. While Prendergast is part of that ‘upper management’ I do not get the sense that he had much input on the head coach decision for the Falcons in 2007-08 because he himself was brand new to the farm job.

As VP of Hockey Operations, Prendergast would have appointed Buchberger’s replacement as development coach and he did so by re-hiring Bob Mancini. The former Oiler scout had left to become coach and GM of the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit during the NHL lockout. Mancini, a highly respected architect of the US National Development Program, was a natural fit for the job and has held the position for the last two seasons.

Jeff Truitt was named as an assistant coach and someone who Buchberger could certainly lean on if needed. Truitt, a career coach who had success at the WHL level, was a choice I can almost guarantee to have had KP’s fingerprints all over it. Having watched Truitt help develop a plethora of talent in Kelowna it would only be natural to expect he could help a young Springfield team in its first year.

A week after their AHL coaching staff was assembled, Oilers assistant coach Craig Simpson decided to resign and join Hockey Night in Canada. Four days later on August 13th the Oilers named Rob Daum as his replacement. It’s a bit ironic to see now that Daum and Buchberger have switched roles and it makes one wonder if Springfield shouldn’t have been Daum’s job right from the start.

The Falcons had a bad year due in large part to the injury plight of their parent club. While the Oilers were plagued with lengthy injuries to their line up, several Falcons were back and forth between the two leagues leaving the AHL roster depleted as well. Patrick Thoresen, Springfield’s top player, was plucked off of waivers by Philadelphia two thirds of the way through the year and J.F. Jacques was sidelined for most of the campaign with a back injury. Players like Pouliot, Roy, Reddox, Peckham, Schremp, Bryan Young and Allan Rourke all saw a bit of time with the big club. Springfield, like Edmonton, also had an abnormal number of injuries of their own which led to a lot of player movement between the AHL and ECHL Stockton.

It’s my opinion that Springfield's first year as an Oiler affiliate was a disappointment because of the massive upheaval of staff changes that occurred right before the season started which led to an inexperienced head coach and a new executive who both had to learn their new jobs on the fly. It’s my feeling that had Howson and Geoff Ward not left, (but don't blame them), things in Springfield may have gone much differently.

If the first year was a disappointment then 2008-09 was just plain ugly. The Falcons finished dead last in the AHL standings and fired head coach Jeff Truitt in the process. Several players underachieved, especially after brief recalls to the NHL level. Gilbert Brule was limited to just 39 games do to various injuries. At one point, things were so embarrassing that Falcons President and GM Bruce Landon (pictured) issued an open letter apology to their fans which basically came off as “Don’t blame us, we’re stuck with what the Oilers give us.”

A month later Prendergast issued his own apology to Falcons supporters on behalf of the Oilers but it did little to satisfy those in Massachusetts.

The dismal performance of the Falcons this past year is most certainly a black mark for Prendergast who signed a ton of minor leaguers in the off season who were expected to round out the roster and make it competitive. The team struggled under Truitt who I believe to be a KP hire. Worst of all, some top prospects like Rob Schremp, Ryan O’Marra and Slava Trukhno do not appear to be progressing.

Rob Daum replaced Truitt and although the team’s record didn’t improve, the performance of some players did – most noticeably on the blueline where some of Edmonton’s key prospects are in Springfield.

One reason the farm club was lacking some offensive talent can be explained by looking at the NHL roster. Players like Andrew Cogliano, Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert made quick jumps to the NHL, the former Michigan Wolverine not ever seeing the AHL level at all. This past year Liam Reddox was expected to be a big part of the Falcons roster and instead was surprisingly a member of the Oilers for most of the schedule. A good problem to have because it means something is going right, but it does create a hole on the farm.

As Director of Player Personnel for the farm team Prendergast undoubtedly takes the heat for the Falcons, and rightfully so, but perhaps there are reasons for the team’s failure that aren’t yet known. Prendergast will be in studio for an entire hour this coming Tuesday April 24th during The Pipeline Show so fans will be able to hear his account of what went on and how he hopes to improve the team for next year. (feel free to start flooding our email inbox at with your questions for KP).

Overall, in terms of player development, from 2001-2007 Prendergast’s role was limited to acquiring players through the draft and instituting a summer prospects orientation camp. 2007-08 was a learning year as he took on half of Scott Howson’s workload while still maintaining much of his previous responsibilities as VP of Hockey Operations. 2008-09 was a disaster that cannot be repeated without dire consequences. He re-hired Bob Mancini as development coach and eventually got the right man behind the AHL bench.

My final analysis of Prendergast will center around his role during team trades and player aquisitions.


Jonathan Willis said...

Like you say Guy, we don't know the behind the scenes story, and it is entirely possible that Prendergast was handcuffed by others in management, or things beyond his control, or whatever.

On the other hand, given Springfield's performance with Prendergast as the man (likely) making the decisions, it really wouldn't shock me to see him fired over it. I'm not saying he should or shouldn't be; he just very well could be.

As a side point, this has almost nothing to do with the season that just transpired; to pin the Oilers performance in 2008-09 on PRendergast would be obviously ridiculous.

Guy Flaming said...

Like I made clear in the sotry, I totally think KP takes the largest chunk of blame for the 2008-09Falcons. He signed the players they brought in.

That said, it's one really bad year and I've always felt people deserve a chance for a do-over.

If he's back and the Falcons are again a horrible team, then I'd understand if he was let go.

oilerdago said...

Guy, outstanding series so far.

It seems to me that the mistake here that's been made is putting people in roles for which they are not suited (now where have we seen that before in this org).

My hope is Tambellini will straighten the org out - not clean it out. That would be a knee jerk reaction and one that's not necessarily merited (although I hope I'm not surprised by what finally happens).

Putting KP back in the position of doing what he does best (overseeing amateur procurement) would make more sense (and relieving him of his Springfield duties).

Also, bringing Daum back in Springfield would make tons of sense too. As you said, record was not much better, but players got what he was doing and showed some good things.