Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Rebuild

The Edmonton Oilers are at an interesting point in their history. The previous high-water mark was game seven of the cup final in 2006, with a team that had no business being there. Days later Pronger bailed out and the team went into freefall. The Oilers have not made the playoffs since. In the past five seasons they finished 19th, 21st, 30th, 30th and 29th out of 30 teams. Dropping to dead last in the league forced Edmonton to admit something was wrong, and the rebuild was officially on.

The concept of the rebuild in professional sports is now a given, and examples in hockey like Pittsburgh and Chicago show how it can work. On the other hand some teams like Detroit seem to manage to compete every year without ever having to blow things up. Despite a draft lottery teams finishing at the bottom are guaranteed a high pick, so tanking the last part of a non-playoff season (unofficially, of course) is not a bad strategy. The Oilers turfed their "transition" coach Pat Quinn and promoted the "development" coach Tom Renney in 2010. They have had a series of good drafts to stock the cupboard, thanks to a combination of no-brainer top picks and skill in selecting past the first round.

This past season the Oilers finished second-last and cleaned out their lockers early for the sixth straight year. If you focus only on the bottom line, things don't look so great. But watching the team play, there was a huge shift this year as many of the younger talents started to find their game. I watched almost every game this year live or on TV, and I don't remember any where the Oil were completely outclassed. They competed every night. And the skill level is simply fun to watch. After trading Smyth in late February 2007 the team won two of its last 20 games; those players had given up, it was a death march to finish out the season and every game was painful to watch. This is night and day: despair vs. hope.

But this is a town where people talk hockey 52 weeks a year. And with that amount of discussion comes any number of ideas and opinions, good and bad. The current vibe seems to be that the rebuild isn't progressing and maybe coach Renney should be replaced. This is fuelled by the fact that neither coach or general manager have been offered contracts as of today (the usual process would be to either re-sign or let go staff by now). I don't understand this whatsoever unless it's simply impatience. A rebuild doesn't have to take several years, but anyone who can't see how much better this team is now compared to a couple of seasons ago, well, doesn't know hockey.

If I were owner Daryl Katz, here is what I would do (after swimming in my pile of gold coins, Scrooge McDuck-style):
  • Give GM Steve Tambellini a one-year extension. I'm not a huge fan and I think he would be easily replaceable. Some of his moves have been quite good: picking Ryan Jones off waivers, getting full value for Dustin Penner. And he deserves credit for stocking up on extra draft picks at the right time. Some other moves I didn't like so much: signing Khabibulin to a fairly long and expensive contract, and the whole Patrick O'Sullivan and Sheldon Souray debacles. Mainly it's the lack of action and decisiveness that I question. I understand this is not the time where the team needs to plug a hole with a splashy UFA signing. But incidents like flying up Paajarvi from the farm, only to fly him right back since he was ineligible to play, doesn't reflect well on management skill. I'm still confused by the Gilbert-Schultz deal as well. On the whole I think Tambo has been average at best.
  • Bring back Tom Renney. I would give him another two year deal, although usually the coach's contract does not exceed the general manager's. Renney is the right man for the job: he has had prior success in working with young players (with a .714 winning percentage in the WHL) and has NHL playoff experience too. I have no doubt that during his tenure as head coach, some of his decisions were made based on future payoff and not necessarily winning the immediate battle. Specifically, some line combinations and roster moves were probably more about discovery and development. You have to credit the coaching staff for the huge turnaround in special teams: 3rd best power play in the league and an average PK compared to bottom-five rankings in both the previous year. One criticism I have is his line changes: there were a lot of too-many-men penalties. It seems Renney is very strict about shift length and often I see players willingly turn over the puck because it's time for them to get off the ice. In a game where puck possession is key (so much so that you can make a living in the NHL just by winning faceoffs) I don't get it. But Renney deserves a chance to see the seeds of his work grow and thrive. He hasn't had all the pieces yet, but in a year or two he should have all the talent required for a successful team. Then we'll know.
  • Give head of scouting Stu MacGregor whatever he wants. It's still early to crown him a genius, but the past few drafts under his watch have gone well. The first-rounders all look good so far, and picks like Hartikainen (163rd overall) and Tyler Bunz (121st overall) might just end up as solid NHLers. If the due diligence on Yakupov shows he will not defect to the KHL then this should be the pick this year. I trust Stu not to screw it up. Drafting based on current organizational need doesn't work (look at the parade of coke machines drafted over the past few years to address the size issue).
On that topic, why is everyone so concerned about the defense? The Oilers have four decent D-men in Smid, Petry, Schultz and Whitney (health permitting). Potter and Sutton are more than adequate for now, and I still think Teddy Peckman is in the mix - letting Peckham walk now would be a mistake. Klefbom, Musil and possibly Marincin look to be for real and should be ready in a year or two. Also, drafting defencemen is more of a crapshoot than forwards, and they usually take longer to develop. It makes more sense to grab the best player available in the draft instead of trying to plug holes right now.

I believe that Sam Gagner has a great hockey career ahead of him, and should be a key asset for the Oilers if they can lock him up. He's only outscored Hemsky the past three years at half the price. The kid is smart, a gamer and still only 22. Future captain.

We should know soon if Dubnyk is the man - this season showed he can handle the number one workload. He keeps getting better, he just needs that consistency that top goalies have. His confidence is improving too, which he showed with his poke-checks and stacked-pad breakaway challenges at the blue line. I personally think he might be the next Ken Dryden.

And here's a litmus test for the GM, whoever it is: re-sign Ryan Smyth for $2M or less. He's a good fit/role model for the Oilers, and he pretty much only wants to play for one team. I doubt Ryan wants a repeat of his teary farewell, so should be ready to negotiate. Call his bluff.

Resonable goals for the Edmonton Oilers should be to make the playoffs next season, and then win a playoff series the following year. After that, according to the rebuild plan, they ought to be challenging for a Stanley Cup. Unless they stray from the script and do something idiotic, like hiring a Sutter to coach the team back into the stone age.