Thursday, January 28, 2010

Heads Will Roll

"The fans will need a sacrifice."

That from a caller to Oilers Lunch a week or so ago. Radio host Bob Stauffer was fielding calls from Oiler fans, many who are relishing the thought that the team will end up with a lottery pick this June and some who demand change from the organization.

When a team finishes dead last in a professional league it is reasonable to expect that someone will lose their job as a result. Perhaps more than one. Sometimes it's not who the fans believe deserves to get fired and other times it's actually pretty predictable.

I believe there will be a price to be paid for Edmonton's futility this year and I predict that the person(s) who are let go will (A) not satisfy the fans and (B) is fairly simple to foresee.

GM Steve Tambellini took over the reigns of the Oilers from Kevin Lowe a couple of summers ago and since that time, the team has continued it's downward slide to rock bottom. In his two-year tenure Tambellini has made some moves, not nearly as many as fans would like, and the organization has changed off the ice as well.

For personal reasons, I have not been around the NHL club nearly as much this season as compared to years prior so in the interest of full disclosure, keep that in mind. I have rarely spoken with Steve Tambellini or Kevin Lowe this year and really, didn't have much need to in the past either. Remember, my focus with The Pipeline Show is on prospects so the Oiler sources that I most frequently tap into are those in the areas of drafting and development.

But enough about me, what you want to know is who I think is going to get canned so let's get at it.

A new GM takes over a team and automatically people wonder how long until a coaching change is made. Usually, the new GM wants to have his own people in place and that's understandable. It doesn't always work out that way; Columbus hired Ken Hitchcock before Scott Howson and so far the latter has stuck by the coach that he inherited.

Here in Edmonton, Craig MacTavish and his entire staff were gunned after the 2008-09 season much to the glee of the vast majority of Oiler fans. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone... well, except for Kelly Buchberger. Goalie coach Pete Peeters was fired... video coach Brian Ross gone... assistants Billy Moores and Charlie Huddy were axed.

In their place came a number of people that Tambellini has had previous associations with, mostly with Hockey Canada. Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Wayne Fleming, new goalie coach Fred Chabot all join the organization and have significant Hockey Canada chapters on their resum├ęs.

Mike Sillinger is the Player Development coach replacement for Bob Mancini who quit the team in early July while waiting for his Edmonton contract to be renewed. Sillinger played for many NHL teams including the Vancouver Canucks but I don't know if that was at a time when Tambellini was also employed (I'm told now that yes, they were there together). Myles Fee replaced Brain Ross as video coach coming over from the NY Rangers and I think it's safe to assume that Renney had some pull in that decision.

So with the coaching staff completely overhauled already, is it realistic to expect that another round of firings will be directed at the bench? I expect not.

Management has seen it's own fair share of changes in recent years. Kevin Lowe migrated upwards and out of the spotlight, away from on-ice performance. Kevin Prendergast was elevated from head scout to Assistant GM and given the AHL/ECHL farm teams and both pro and amateur scouting staffs to oversee. Scout Stu MacGregor stepped into Prendergast's shoes as head of amateur scouting.

While many fans calling in to radio shows like Oilers Lunch, Edmonton Sports Night Live, Just a Game or Nielsen & Chase have suggested that it's time for Kevin Lowe to be fired, I doubt that happens. I think that Lowe's move up the food chain probably has him safely out of the line of fire.

So if it's not going to be the new coaches, the former GM or the new GM then who will take the fall?

The only department that has not seen much change to it is the one headed up by Kevin Prendergast. Despite the public opinion that Edmonton's scouting since 2001 (and especially since the lockout) has been successful more often than not, I am not convinced that there won't be major changes this summer.

I'm not going to repeat the reasons why I think Prendergast has already proven himself valuable to the organization (for that see here, here and here from last year). I took a lot of heat from some people for that series although I received some praise as well. I remember hearing Scott Howson on Oilers Lunch not long after and he basically confirmed KP's involvement and importance in the deals as I outlined them in that trio of articles.

Since I wrote that series last year all eyes were firmly on KP to see how he would improve the AHL product, and he knew it. In the summer and fall he made several additions via free agency in order to strengthen the farm team and he was roundly applauded for his efforts. The signings of minor league veterans Charles Linglet, Chris Minard, Sean Arsene, Colton Fretter, Chad Wiseman and others earned Prendergast Kudos by a number of media people in town. There were other free agent fish in the sea that he tried to land for Springfield but was unable to because of competition from other teams and due to his own organization's budget restrictions, according to more than one source.

The plight of the Falcons this year due to widespread injuries has made all of those moves irrelevant but let's be clear - Prendergast did his job last fall. He gave the Falcons a roster capable of competing for a playoff position in the AHL and no one was saying otherwise back in October/November.

If Prendergast gets fired and one of the reasons given is because of Springfield's poor record this year then it should be viewed as a smoke screen plain and simple. Prendergast is as much responsible for the concussions and injuries down there as head coach Rob Daum , President Bruce Landon and Bill the janitor are.

So then why do I think KP will be the fall guy? Because "the fans will need a sacrifice"... someone will be axed and like I said, that's the only area of the organization that hasn't been touched yet under Tambellini.

I actually wonder if we got a hint that something with scouting might have been considered last June. I reported (on the air and via Twitter but not here on the blog) that at the draft, the entire scouting staff was there without knowing if a week later they'd even have a job.
"Flaming: Interesting... the entire Oilers scouting staff from Stu MacGregor down... not under contract yet for 2009-10. 10:42 AM Jun 26th, 2009 from web"
That was my Twitter update and I found out quickly that management wasn't pleased that the scouting staff's contract situation had gotten out. In the following days another radio host in town described me as "wanting to play GM" by making that public.

Regardless, all the scouts were hired back although the paperwork and discussions were left much later than in previous years before Tambellini's tenure began. It's my understanding that at least one person actually went a week or more into July without knowing if he'd be offered a new contract (Mancini opted to take an offer from USA Hockey while he waited for word from the Oilers). That suggests to me that there was talk about some of them not being re-hired, why else would you leave your employees twisting in the breeze?

So I think that Prendergast is probably the top guy who will be excused but I predict that he won't be the only one. There are a number of scouts who have been with the organization for several years and are probably seen as "KP guys" who I could see as being released at the same time.

Now this is all just speculation on my part and considering how solid the drafting has been the last few years, it certainly wouldn't 't seem to make much sense. Still, it won't surprise me if some long-time scouts are not brought back after the 2010 draft and that might even include Stu MacGregor - a Prendergast hire.

If all that came to fruition then it would follow the pattern for Edmonton fans to see replacements coming in that have ties to Hockey Canada or Steve Tambellini in other capacity. How about Al Murray, the head scout with Hockey Canada who plays a major role with the selection of the annual World Junior team?

Would fans who are going to demand a sacrifice be satisfied if it was the neck of Kevin Prendergast that was placed on the chopping block?

One sample of fan thinking comes from a thread at "Between 2000-2005 the Oilers have drafted Hemsky,Cogliano, two 4th liners in Jacques and Stortini and both goalies JDD and DD. All the other players were either traded away or never made it. If you want to know why the Oilers suck, look no further than that." - a post made by a disgruntled fan.

Apparently players drafted by Prendergast and his staff who are playing for other NHL teams is somehow a sign of futile drafting. Needless to say, I think that Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene, Matt Lombardi, Brad Winchester, Jussi Markkanen, Kyle Brodziak, Mathieu Roy and even late bloomers like Troy Bodie and Rob Schremp (+.5 ppg with NYI) deserve at least a little bit of credit.

I was recently asked by a media guy in town if Prendergast had ever admitted to me that he'd made a mistake with a draft pick. I honestly can't say that he has said as much, although a few on the staff have confided that they blew a pick or two and have owned up to their fair share of the blame.

Jesse Niinimaki (above) was clearly an error but at the same time, people should remember that he suffered a major shoulder injury in 2003 that completed derailed his career. Was it a mistake pick? Almost definitely... but the shoulder injury has to be mentioned as well.

Doug Lynch was an AHL All-Star and appeared to be the real deal until a broken wrist and mishandled recovery basically ended his NHL career. Is Prendergast responsible for that too?

Without a doubt mistakes have been made - 2nd round pick Eddie Caron, 2003 1st round pick Marc Pouliot and likely Niinimaki in 2002 are the most notable in my opinion. But show me a team that doesn't have any draft day blunders on their record.

The question still remains - if Prendergast (and other scouts) is the sacrifice to the Hockey Gods meant to appease the disgruntled fan base who will demand someone pay the price... will it be enough and, more importantly, will it be the right decision?

You tell me.


oilswell said...

Oilers are 30th and are a mess in terms of players and contracts. Drafting, I doubt anyone credibly can claim they're been worse than 15th. Their scouting and drafting, I think, is arguably the part that is working best right now.

So obviously they have to fix what ain't broke, rather than address, you know, the long list of actual problems.

The only way I see this is the right choice is if somehow the same guys were insisting that Tambellini sign Khabibulin, and that Lowe sign Nylander and take Lupul over Perry,

I think there's a good chance they fail to read the paying public well enough and the sacrifices won't be enough. At least last year they gave a good show by hiring a thousand big-name coaches and kicking the widely disliked MacTavish out. There just isn't anyone high profile enough to hire in the scouting department to cover up the stink.

Unless, of course, Gretzky is the next head of scouting. Admit it, that just made your stomach do a flip flop.

George B said...


You and I both know that the errors in this organization go long further than drafting.

Do I think that KP has done a great job? No, I don't think so. Procurement, minor leagues, absolutely horrible, horrible personnel decisions, chasing after star players while ignoring faceoff and PK deficiencies, 4 puck moving defensemen in your top four with no shutdown pair.

Three headed goalie monsters at XMAS, a goalie swirling down the porcelain throne that was hung on to way too long.

Personal vendettas against GMs, players, agents.

If I am Katz...I would fire Lowe, Tambellini and KP...and continue the bloodletting until all involved in the establishment of a last place NHL, AHL, WHL, ECHL organization are purged.

I would allow the GM to interview Quinn and Renney and decide if he wants to keep or start again.

I tried to sell my tickets that I got for my birthday vs. Vancouver this month. $100 for $155 pair of tickets with no bites. Disappointed, I had to go to the game.

On top of it all, Tambellini and Lowe obviously can't read because somehow it gets out that this organization might be interested in Jagr. That alone should get someone chewed a new ass.

I would like to see Macgregor stay, let the new GM decide on coaches, oh, and show Laforge the door as well.

In player personnel, we need at least 9 new faces next year. Problem is we won't be able to rid ourselves of all 9 that should go.

It is ugly out there....and won't get better anytime soon. Not even a dozen beer is going to make this gal pretty.

Gord said...

@ George B

I agree with about 90% of you wrote - any intelligent Oilers fan does...

On a side note, the Oilers have NOT failed at the draft table over the past five years in the first two rounds - very few better players were drafted after our choices.

Considering 3rd round & later draft picks are a fluke if they play in the NHL, I would consider the Oilers scouts to be in the top 5 in the league...

The core in the pipeline is there - just trade for a few top 10 picks this year then let our procurement department fill in the holes.

While filling in the missing pieces on the team with leaders as the 1979 Oilers did (i.e. Fogolin)...

Racki said...

I continually defend KP and Stu Mac on other forums/blogs. I do feel that our drafting has significantly improved since KP was hired as head scout, and has taken another quantum leap in recent years as well. That might have to do with luck, but I'm not going to question it.

Are there problems with players the Oilers drafted? For sure. But you would be hard pressed to find a team without some stinkers.

The problem on this team has very little to do with youth. This team's best forwards are young. I will echo Doug MacLean's sentiments from last night's Oilers brodcast. I've thought the same myself (although my list is a bit different I believe). I think we have a solid core group of players here in: Hemsky, Penner, Gagner, Cogliano, Brule, Potulny, Visnovsky, Stortini, Smid. It's the GM's job to surround that core group with good complementary players, and neither Tambellini or Lowe have done that well at all. I give Tambellini credit for Comrie (I do think that was a very good pickup - mononucleosis aside). But the overpaid group of "complementary players" needs to be unloaded. So bye bye Moreau, Pisani, Horcoff (although unlikely), Nilsson, perhaps Gilbert and/or Grebeshkov, perhaps Souray if the value is there, Strudwick and Staios (although I could handle him staying).

Lastly, Khabibulin's 4-year $3.75M contract was a ridiculous decision that Tambellini could get fired on alone.

If Prendergast or MacGregor or any scouts are fired and one of Lowe and Tambellini are not, I'll be pretty disappointed in this team. The scouting staff (since KP started as head scout) has done a good job of putting together a good set of prospects to dip into: Hemsky, Stoll, Greene, Stortini (hey, he's great at his role), *maybe* Dubnyk, Cogliano, Chorney, Petry, Peckham, Omark, Gagner, Eberle, MPS (maybe luck there), possibly Roy....

They did alright and provided this team with enough strong young players. It's the group that management has surrounded them with that hasn't been impressive.

If I'm picking a human sacrifice, I'll say Kevin Lowe, just so we can be certain he's not still influencing Tambellini too much (although I don't think he is).

oilerdago said...

Great piece of writing here Guy. It seems to me that senior management continues to get more and more defensive as they see that "the plan" for the organization since the departure of Pronger has snowballed downhill. This season has been coming for a while and Tambellini has made it worse by saying one thing and doing quite another since he assumed the reigns.

It would not surprise me if Tambellini made scapegoats to continue to cover for his lack of vision and it would be a shame to let the scouting department go as they ARE NOT THE PROBLEM. PERIOD.

But you know what, it's not our money, it's Katz's and he can tell all of us fans to go jump of a building. But if they continue to put out the paranoid crap in the media they are right now they will succeed in alienating the fan base - who've been quite patient up until now.

Lowe and Tambellini are succeeding in making Mike Milbury look like a smart GM by comparison.

Jordan said...

There are a lot of problems with the Edmonton Oilers right now. Scouting and drafting are not the issue. In fact, they may be the only group that have done consistently above average or better for the last 5+ years.

Because of this, its quite clear that if they do go, its to cover for other people's mistakes higher up. Make no mistake, them leaving will make this franchise that much worse, for that much longer.

The list of problems in the organization has been growing because the people at the top are still there making poor management decisions. Replace as many carpenters, plumbers, and electricians as you want - if your architect is handing you blueprints drawn free-had with crayons, your house is still going to fall on your head.

Unknown said...

Kowe should be fired, but won't be. I would guess he's too good of friends with Katz to have that happen.

The lone sacrifice to date should be KP, he's an epic failure. He waqs the man at the draft table until 2006 (correct me if I'm wrong). The evidence of his ability for having an eye for talent is very clear in the AHL roster and the NHL roster. It's missing is what I'm getting at.

The best players in Springfield are AHL contracts. None of the Oilers drafts picks in the AHL are very good, and they are few in number. In the NHL the high end talent is missing entirely. None of the Defensive starters were drafted by the Oilers. In goal, JDD was a draft and now DD, but far from having the "?" removed.

On the forward lines Cogliano, Gagner, Horcoff, Hemsky, Jacques, Pisani, Pouliot, and Stortini are the Oilers draft picks. One of them is a elgit top 6 forward. $ are bottom 7-12 forewards at best. Cogs and Gags are suspects.

KP should go clearly based on the talent he has provided.