Is Steve Tambellini the right man to craft Edmonton’s next Stanley Cup Champion?

Jonathan Willis
June 06 2012 02:15PM

My reaction to the news of Steve Tambellini’s extension yesterday was mild disappointment. Mild because the Oilers have been telegraphing this move for months and it seemed inevitable long ago. Disappointment because I think it’s the wrong decision.

The Case For

The primary argument in favour of keeping Steve Tambellini on is a straight forward one: the Oilers made a conscious decision to conduct a full-blown rebuild. That decision involved deliberately icing a bad team in order to land high-end draft picks. Given that the Oilers have achieved that over the last few years, Tambellini was successful in executing that overarching strategy.

Further, it’s impossible to judge Tambellini negatively because there was simply no way to execute that strategy without running a terrible team; doing the things that managers typically do to improve their teams would have undermined the whole exercise.

There are other arguments to be made in his favour. The Oilers’ AHL team, the Oklahoma City Barons, is a far more competent club than the one Tambellini inherited. This reflects that he’s been successful at rebuilding an important pipeline in the Oilers’ organization. The amateur scouting group has a promising early track record under Tambellini.

The Case Against

The Oilers rebuild may have started midway through 2009-10, but that’s not when Steve Tambellini was hired. Steve Tambellini was hired in the summer of 2008. The 2008-09 roster was largely set by the team he came into the picture; Tambellini’s only fault was his inaction over the season. The team missed the playoffs, and was largely considered a disappointment after some positive strides had been made in 2007-08.

Tambellini restructured the club in the summer of 2009, with the mandate of making the playoffs. Injuries played a hand, as did poor decisions the summer before, and the rebuild was launched midway through the season.

We can write of 2010-11; Oilers management did and the team repeated its last place performance. That was by design.

More was expected in 2011-12, however. From the start thru to the end of the season, Tambellini was adamant that his team should not be in the draft lottery for a third consecutive year. Perhaps that was window dressing, but it seems unlikely. Certainly, the coaching staff didn’t view it that way – they shifted from merrily rolling the lines to hard-matching. Finishing 29th in the NHL had to be considered a disappointment.

Beyond the results is the process. The few key decisions the Oilers have made under Tambellini are an interesting study, and none more so than the Nikolai Khabibulin signing.

It’s not just that the Khabibulin signing hasn’t worked out. That can happen, even when a manager makes a wise decision. The problem is that it was a spectacularly bad bet from the get go for so many different reasons.

Khabibulin was already one of the most injury-prone goalies in the NHL when he was signed. At 36 years of age, he was fighting against Father Time. He’d ranged between terrible and mediocre in three of four previous seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. The goalie market was oversaturated, with goalies struggling to find work.

With all those negatives, Tambellini inked Khabibulin to a four-year (no other free agent goalie got more than two), $3.75 million/season (no other goalie earned more than $2.5 million per year). As icing on the cake, Tambellini opted to retain Jeff Deslauriers as Khabibulin’s backup – at that time, he had 10 career NHL games and a 0.901 SV% to go along with a track record of middling play in the AHL.

The number of managerial blunders involved in that pair of decisions is staggering. It represented terrible risk management in two ways. First, Khabibulin’s age/injury record made him a high-risk signing even in the short term, and Deslauriers was a lousy insurance policy. Second, the decision to commit to four years to an old, injury-prone goalie looked bad at the time and looks just as bad now. It represented a terrible understanding of basic supply-and-demand: there were more goalies than there were vacant NHL jobs, and yet Tambellini was unable to find anything even resembling a bargain. It was bad player assessment too; Khabibulin had struggled in every season save the most recent, and those struggles followed him to Edmonton. Finally, in an era where teams like Detroit were showing that a capable but not marquee goaltender could deliver excellent performance relative to dollars spent, it was a depressingly conventional move to pay a premium for a ‘name’ goalie.

It’s not clear that the lessons of that decision have sunk in. Tambellini has always been devoutly loyal to Khabibulin in his public statements, and has guaranteed that the Oilers will retain him for 2012-13. Looking at the contracts the team has signed since, it’s difficult to find even one example of the Oilers landing a real bargain in a contract negotiation – and in many cases, the opposite has happened. Cam Barker was bought out of a hefty contract after struggling mightily as a third-pairing guy in Minnesota; Tambellini found $2.25 million for him. Andy Sutton, a pending free agent and third-pairing guy, wants to stay in Edmonton rather than be traded; Tambellini can’t get him signed for less than $1.75 million.

As I See It

Steve Tambellini has not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s a bad general manager. There are some things in his favour, and everybody makes mistakes. Due to the nature of the Oilers’ strategy the last few years, he hasn’t had an opportunity to really show what he can do, and some would argue that he deserves that opportunity.

I disagree. Tambellini hasn’t had a long time in the saddle, but with his contract up the Oilers had a decision to make. Based on his work so far, was there reason to believe that he was a better candidate than Jason Botterill or Paul Fenton or Jeff Gorton or Dave Nonis or Julien BriseBois or Joe Will? I’d argue that there wasn’t. I’d argue that the evidence, incomplete though it is, suggests that Steve Tambellini is not the best man to try and build another Stanley Cup Champion in Edmonton.

The Oilers organization has decided otherwise. Fans just have to hope that they’re right.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.