Yesterday the Edmonton Oilers sacked head coach Craig MacTavish after the team failed to reach the NHL post season for a third consecutive year. Fans were vocal all season long expressing their outrage and demanding the head of various Oilers employees including the coach, the former GM, the former head scout and his staff, several players and even the in-rink DJ.
Will the firing of MacTavish be enough to slake the thirst of the fans or will they still demand that more heads roll? Was the coach’s neck the onlt one on GM Steve Tambellini’s chopping block or is he sharpening his axe as we speak?
The TEAM 1260 had extensive coverage of Wednesday’s events and while I’m sure the local rights holder / information station did as well, I listen to the 24-hour sports station for obvious reasons. When I tuned in, Bryn Griffiths was fielding calls and while most of the talk was centered around who would eventually become the new bench boss, some listeners expressed concern that the wrong man was let go.
Jason Gregor’s always-exceptional Just A Game started early and the coaching subject continued with a few other topics thrown in from the callers. (as an aside, Gregor did a bunch of number crunching a couple years ago to assess the drafting record of the Oilers and gave the club a very favorable grade).
Eventually yesterday someone got around to insisting that Kevin Prendergast should be the next to go followed closely by a number of scouts. It’s a sentiment I’ve seen pop up on various message boards and blogs as well so yesterday wasn’t the first time.
The blame for the team’s failures since the Stanley Cup run in ’06 should be shared by a lot of people in the organization including Prendergast but it would be a mistake, in my humble opinion, if the gun was indeed pointed his direction.
Let me explain.
“This team hasn’t drafted well for the last 3 decades” one caller insisted before Gregor left his argument looking like Al Pacino at the end of Scarface.
First of all, most Oiler fans recognize that the Lowe-Prendergast-Howson era of drafting truly began in 2001. The 2000 draft was a line blurred between Barry Fraser, the outgoing head of scouting, and Prendergast’s new regime. At that point in Fraser’s career, Prendergast was doing almost all of the coordinating duties that go along with being a head scout. The area scouts reported and sent all of their information to Prendergast who would then compile the information and send it to Fraser who was, as we all know, based in Mexico.
Alexei Mikhnov was Edmonton’s 1st round pick that year, a player only a couple of members of the scouting staff had actually seen play. It was Fraser’s last official pick, a token gesture made by Lowe to the retiring man who had drafted so many future superstars back in the glory days.
From then on it was KP’s draft although the staff had operated all year under Fraser’s organizational system. What that meant was that scouts from the east rarely, if ever, had seen the same players that those in the West had viewed and only a couple scouts on the entire staff even went overseas in those days.
Scouts will tell you that if you can eventually turn 2 of your picks from each draft into NHL players, you’re doing pretty well. 3 and you should be pretty proud of the job you did. More than that and you had a hell of a good year, and probably got a bit lucky at the same time.
In 2000 Edmonton selected 2 players who have gone on to have NHL careers in Brad Winchester (2nd round, 183 GP) and Matthew Lombardi (7th round, 366 GP).
The next year, I think everyone agrees, Edmonton hit a homerun when they took Ales Hemsky with the 13th overall pick. What the general public doesn’t know is that Kevin Prendergast wasn’t sure that Hemsky was the right choice. Now you’re probably asking yourself why I’m using the selection of Hemsky as a positive for KP then. The reason stems from what I said earlier about Barry Fraser.
When Prendergast took over full control of the scouting department he implemented several major changes. Prendergast outlined what they were when I interviewed him for Hockey’s Future back in 2003.
“Since I’ve come in I’ve basically tried to make sure that all of our scouts go over to Europe. I want the top 50 players on our list to be seen by everyone on our staff so that when we have a meeting it’s not just one or two person’s opinions that they’re voting on.”If you’re still unsure of what I’m getting at, consider this quote in that same article from long time Oiler scout Chris McCarthy who compared doing the job under both Fraser and KP.
“It’s like comparing two different forms of government - Barry’s was more of a dictatorship and Kevin’s is more democratic. Everybody gets a fair vote and sometimes we even disagree with Kevin.”
The truth of the matter is that during the 2000-01 season, Prendergast saw Hemsky several times but never on a night when the import played well. Yet at the draft table he was able to set his own ego aside and instead put faith in the staff that he had assembled and subsequently made the right selection. Ales Hemsky would not be an Oiler today if not for Prendergast.
2001 also saw the Oilers draft defenceman Doug Lynch, a bruising character defenceman whose promising career was derailed by a wrist injury, overage Finnish netminder Jussi Markkanen who began contributing the following season as well as a pair of overage European blueliners in Ales Pisa and Kari Haakana. The latter are not names that stand out now of course but at the time, the NHL club needed bodies on the farm who might be able to fill in immediately as injury replacements. Instead of drafting low-end juniors, the organization asked Prendergast (and staff) to deliver a couple low-end older guys who could act as band-aids until their prospects were ready. Pisa played 50 games as an Oiler over the following two seasons and Haakana dressed 13 times – both fulfilling the role they were drafted for.
Much has been made about the disastrous selection of Jesse Niinimaki in 2002 and rightfully so, it was a stunning move then and looks even worse in hindsight. While the first round that year was indefensibly horrible, it’s more than fair to argue that KP and his staff made up for it in the second round with 3 picks that have all reached the NHL.
Let me use a quick analogy here to simplify how the draft process generally works. Imagine that the GM says “I’m hungry” but he doesn’t look to the scouts and expect them to guess what he wants to eat. Instead, the GM says “I’m hungry, find me an apple” and so the scouts get him the apple they think will be the best, not a plum, not a burger but an apple.
The Oilers traded Jochen Hecht to Buffalo for a pair of 2nd rounders. With the first of those new picks Kevin Lowe asked Prendergast to get him a goalie and KP used it to select Jeff Deslauriers, one part of the expected NHL tandem next season. Next Lowe wanted ‘some character and grit’ and so KP delivered Jarret Stoll (pictured) and Matt Greene. Stoll has played 360 NHL games which is more than games that 26 of the 30 players taken in the first round that same year. Stoll was pegged by many Oiler fans as a sure-fire captain one day but has since been dealt to the L.A. Kings where Greene is in fact wearing a letter on his jersey. Greene has played 233 career games and is a bona fide NHL player.
The Oilers didn’t get any contributions from the rest of their 2002 draft class although it should be noted that Dwight Helminen, their 8th round pick, turned up with the Carolina Hurricanes this season and played a quarter of the year at the NHL level.
It’s fair to say the Oilers struck out in the first round of 2002 but, continuing the baseball analogy, they hit a pair of triples in Stoll and Greene and at least a single with Deslauriers who might eventually be able to steal his way to second before too long.
2003 is a painful draft for Oiler fans to look back at because their club traded down from their original spot and chose a player who has struggled while New Jersey used Edmonton’s pick to hit a homerun named Zach Parise. There is no getting around that and the fact that 2003 is considered one of the best draft classes of all time only makes it worse.
However, it’s worth mentioning that the Oilers didn’t trade Zach Parise to New Jersey, they traded the 17th overall pick. It’s a huge difference. The Oilers were not sold on drafting Parise because the upper management didn’t want to add a diminutive forward to a team that was already too small for the pre-lockout NHL. Hindsight tells us that was obviously a mistake but it was an organizational decision to get bigger, not a policy made by the scouting staff.
"Get me an apple... a big one." And they did, in every round that year.
When Lou Lamoriello called the Oiler table to ask if the 17th pick was available the Oilers, who had just crossed off ‘Robert Nilsson’ after he went to Long Island at 15, examined their target list to see if it made sense. Right or wrong, they had Parise neck-and-neck with a pair of other guys they had interest in who were still available. They examined the pros and cons and decided that the odds of getting one of those three targets was strong and adding a 2nd rounder in a fantastic draft outweighed the risk.
But the Devils grabbed Parise and then Eric Fehr was taken by Washington leaving the third player in their target group, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, for them to take at 22. By the way, Edmonton’s choice at the 22 slot was not only non-controversial at the time but applauded by the highly respected TSN panel including Pierre McGuire and Bob McKenzie:
Pouliot has not developed as they’d hoped but with 141 games under his belt now, he is at the very least a NHL player. He might not be on the roster of all 30 teams in the league but you could argue that he would make the roster on more than just two or three outside of Edmonton. The Oilers also drafted Zack Stortini, Kyle Brodziak and J.F. Jacques in 2003, three more players who ended this past year at the NHL level. One could argue that a plethora of injuries prevented Mathieu Roy from being a useful depth player as well.
In a draft where a number of teams hit a homerun in the first round but struck out the rest of the way, Edmonton hit 4 singles and had a bunt (Roy) that just rolled foul. Not nearly as bad as most think but forgotten because of the optics invloved with the success New Jersey has enjoyed with Parise.
When Liam Reddox is the biggest contributor, it’s tough to say you had a good year at the draft table. 2004 isn’t looking like a banner year for the Oilers although Devan Dubnyk is still fermenting on the farm with some indication he’ll end up as wine rather than vinegar. Yet again though, it was upper management that deemed the organization needed to select a goaltender that year and Prendergast and his staff simply pointed to the one they felt was the best long-term prospect. Vancouver’s Cory Schneider (who The Pipeline Show is really high on) has had a stellar AHL career but has only appeared in 8 NHL games to date so it’s not like Dubnyk should be written off yet.
The Rob Schremp selection was initially deemed as a coup by most local media and Oiler fans many of who still hold out hope that the junior star can find his way to the NHL. He was taken 25th overall and is one of ten 2004 first rounders to have played fewer than 20 NHL games so the Oilers are far from alone in 2004 futility.
The Oilers didn’t have much luck in the Crosby lottery that followed the lockout but even with the 25th pick in the 2005 draft they managed to find a player who has contributed two seasons already in Andrew Cogliano. Edmonton’s first three selections that year have now all dressed in the NHL (Taylor Chorney just recently and Danny Syvret played 28 games as an Oiler) plus the organization likes what they see in collegian Chris Vande Velde.
When we start talking about 2006, 2007 and 2008 drafts it’s much tougher to gauge if they were successful or not because the majority of players from those years should not be expected to be contributing yet. However, Edmonton’s 3rd rounder from ’06, Theo Peckham, has impressed in his 16 NHL games and Sam Gagner’s 155 games played and 90 points are second only to Patrick Kane for NHL production from the class of 2007.
Drafting has not been THE problem for the Edmonton Oilers this decade. Could it be better? Sure, but there isn’t a team out there that wouldn’t say the same thing.
The Minnesota Wild made a combined 19 selections in 2004 and 2005 which has produced 3 NHL players including Benoit Pouliot taken 4th overall who has managed just 14 points. The Vancouver Canucks went 0 for 11 in 2002 and followed that up with Ryan Kesler and no one else in 2003. Dion Phaneuf was obviously a huge pick for Calgary in 2003 but their other 8 selections that year have all busted.
Inevitably two teams get held up as examples of stellar drafting; Detroit and New Jersey.
But look at what the Red Wings have done since 2001: Igor Grigorenko’s career was struck a blow when he was in a car accident so chalk that one up to misfortune but the rest of 2001 was a bust for the Wings. 2002 was a highlight year for Detroit as they mined 5 NHL players including Jiri Hudler, Tomas Fleischmann (WSH) and Valtteri Filppula. However, since 2002 though Detroit has made 43 selections and, outside of Johan Franzen, have had no one make significant contributions at the NHL level. They do still have solid prospects on the farm, like most teams do, but Detroit’s "incredible drafting reputation" was earned a long time ago.
As for New Jersey... talk about overrated! The Devils were absolutely dynamite in the ‘90’s and David Conte has been living off it ever since. Since and including the 2001 draft the Devils have made 66 selections and do you know how many of them have become honest to goodness NHL players?
TWO. And I bet you can name both of them off the top of your head.
Outside of Zach Parise (’03) and Travis Zajac (’04) the much-vaunted Devils have drafted pretty much zippo. Wait, they did find Cam Janssen in 2002 and he has managed to score 6 whole points and play in 163 games so I guess I should include him. And Aaron Voros (’01) managed to get to the NHL after a lengthy AHL career so he ups New Jersey’s draft performance a bit more. So that makes it 4 for 66… still impressed?
I think the Devils will be happy with some of the prospects they have like Matt Halischuk and Patrice Cormier but every team has 4 or 5 guys in their system who should be considered legit prospects.
The bottom line for the Oilers scouting performance since 2001 is that they’ve had 8 first round picks (2 in 2004, none in 2006) with Hemsky, Cogliano and Gagner already success stories, Jordan Eberle still looking promising and Dubnyk, Pouliot and Schremp no worse than possible trade assets… only Niinimaki qualifies as a complete bust.
That’s just the drafting history but I can show other ways that Kevin Prendergast has contributed positively to the Oilers organization but that will be tomorrow. Is he without any blame or responsibility in the current state of the organization? Of course not but I’ll explain tomorrow where Prendergast has succeeded and where he’s failed (so far) and hopefully I’ll have proved my point that this isn’t a person the organization should be looking to cut loose any time soon.