A summer of miscalculation; a winter of failure

Jonathan Willis
March 09 2013 11:56AM

The Edmonton Oilers 2013 season did not fall apart during a nine-game road trip. The nine-game road trip was simply the point in the season when a summer of inept management finally caught up to the team.

Forwards

Some of the pain here was an unavoidable part of rebuilding through the draft. Decisions to employ Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the team’s top-line forward (an often overlooked weakness entering the season) and to try Nail Yakupov as the second line’s left wing were understandable, perhaps even unavoidable. Nugent-Hopkins’ inexperience means that he would be better suited to a lesser role on a contending team, but he is the best option at the Oilers’ disposal for a top-line job. Yakupov’s left-handed shot, a desire to get him on to a skill line, and the team’s weakness at left wing after Taylor Hall also made a cameo in that position an understandable gamble (particularly given Yakupov’s success in the role in Russia). It is a gamble that has not worked out so far, as the positional change may well have increased the difficulty of Yakupov’s transition to NHL play.

Other errors were unforced. The decisions to re-sign Lennart Petrell and Darcy Hordichuk added a pair of 5-on-5 liabilities to a bottom-six group that didn’t need more players incapable of moving the puck in the right direction. The decision not to bring in a second-line left wing to add a capable veteran and force a guy like Ryan Smyth, Magnus Paajarvi or Teemu Hartikainen into a third line role opposite Yakupov on the other wing was another error.

While the root of these problems goes back to the summer, it seems likely the Oilers aren’t even aware of some of them. The decision to spend a fourth-round pick on Mike Brown – fine in his role, but terrible at adding 5-on-5 offence (the Oilers biggest weakness) when plausible options like Simon Gagne (dealt to Philadelphia for a fourth-round pick) or Dustin Penner (in the doghouse and rumoured to be cheap) was understandable but wrong-headed. Brown scores high in areas where Penner has been long-criticized, but in just 15 games in a bad season Penner is within a point of matching Brown’s career-best offensive production. Intangibles do matter – but tangibles matter too, and the fact is that the Oilers went shopping for a fourth-line guy who could punch people even as their team struggled to generate any kind of offence. That is not a criticism of Brown, who I actually like; it is a criticism of a management team that was picking out drapes while the house burned down.

Defence

Justin Schultz personifies both the best and worst of the Oilers’ blue line. On the positive side, he’s a sublimely skilled offensive defenceman, a great fit for the team long-term and was a massive windfall for the Oilers when he chose Edmonton in the summer. On the negative side, the fact that Justin Schultz, rookie pro, is the Oilers’ number one defenceman says everything about the state of the blue line.

It was obvious in the summer that the only prudent course of action was to add another defender – and despite the fact that the best options were signed early, players like Michal Rozsival stayed unsigned until September while Chris Campoli eventually had to relocate to Europe. Ideally, the Oilers would have competed for one of the better options out there; instead they failed even to make a basic insurance signing.

They’re paying for it now. Ryan Whitney’s unsurprising struggles, the inability of Justin Schultz and veteran second-pairing guy Nick Schultz to handle the opposition’s best, along with the ups and downs of a still-young Petry/Smid tandem have been the deserved result of an unwillingness to address a problem visible in the summer months.

Elsewhere

The Oilers made it clear as early as April that they were comfortable with a Devan Dubnyk/Nikolai Khabibulin duo, despite the fact that buying out Khabibulin and bringing in a reliable backup was a viable option. Dubnyk – despite some rough individual outings – has performed well, but Khabibulin unsurprisingly has spent most of the season on injured reserve, which in turn has forced Ralph Krueger to lean heavily on Dubnyk, who has started six games in nine days. The Oilers are already within a point of last place, and are one Dubnyk injury away from being comically overmatched by the NHL as a whole.

The jury is still out on Ralph Krueger, the fourth coach of Steve Tambellini’s run as general manager. I like some of the things he’s done, but at times he’s seemed overmatched and despite his eloquence and the clear loyalty of his players his reluctance to play a line-matching game may be costing the Oilers. Jon Cooper, meanwhile, continues to run the most successful team in the AHL.

The reader may notice an abundance of links in the piece above; the reason for that is to establish that this isn’t simply looking in hindsight and spotting things that seem obvious now. Many of the mistakes made by the Oilers management group are mistakes that should have been evident long before now, mistakes that could have been avoided with a little foresight and a little action back in June, July and August. The Oilers management group deserves a team with the record this one has.

They also deserve to pay the price of failure, a price they haven’t hesitated to visit upon players, coaches, and lower levels of management within the organization: dismissal.

Update: To be clear, not all of the Oilers' problems were forseeable. For example, the run of injuries at centre, and the shooting percentage struggles of the top line have hurt the team badly, and neither was a predictable problem. With teams as close as they are, my personal belief is that it takes some things going wrong to end up at the bottom of the pile, and that's happened in Edmonton. But those unforseen problems would have had less impact if visible problems had been addressed earlier. JW.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#201 Jay
March 10 2013, 10:14AM
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Reagan wrote:

Boys I sure missed an interesting fanfare yesterday... I just hope some of the core issues are dealt with over the summer and I can leave the paper bag on the closet.

Whoa now, calm down! Pump the brakes a little bit! This summer is not the time to be dealing with core issues. What we need to do is use next year to assess and evaluate.

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#202 Dave
March 10 2013, 10:16AM
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DSF wrote:

You have no idea what Katz is thinking.

Messier...give me a break.

The guy has ZERO experience.

Messier and Katz are a mutual admiration society amd that appears to be enough in Katz's world. No one knows what Katz is thinking including yourself so get off your high horse.

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#203 Rod from Viking
March 10 2013, 10:30AM
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@Jonathan Willis

Jonathan, for the most part a great read, the link to your article on buying out Khabby and replacing him with Jan Denis would not have worked out.It seems the jump from the AHL to the NHL for a veteran goaltender is often too much, the shots are just that much better.I don't recall who else was available this summer for goaltenders but if Khabby would have not got hurt he would have been ok as a back-up playing 10 games or so, he has been an excellent team mate and mentor and has played well this year but he is physically wore out.I don't think Dubnyk has the mental toughness to be a #1 and this was something the Oilers had to find out this year.

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#204 outdoorzguy
March 10 2013, 10:43AM
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I think I have this figured out. Who do we always see up on stage at the draft helping with the first overall pick? Katz's son!! Katz doesn't do anything about this mess because he lives vicariously through his kid who he parades out onto the stage at every draft. Imagine that kid going to university classes year after year telling all his buddies he just came back from another NHL draft and met another first pick. How much fun is that!! No need to change a thing, what a great dad.

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#205 Oilertown
March 10 2013, 10:57AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Nathan Horton and Ryane Clowe are both unrestricted free agents this summer.

I would back up the brinks truck for one or preferably both of them.

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#206 Oilertown
March 10 2013, 10:57AM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

Nathan Horton and Ryane Clowe are both unrestricted free agents this summer.

I would back up the brinks truck for one or preferably both of them.

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#207 Taylor Gang
March 10 2013, 11:17AM
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Jay wrote:

Whoa now, calm down! Pump the brakes a little bit! This summer is not the time to be dealing with core issues. What we need to do is use next year to assess and evaluate.

I lol'd

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#208 Serious Gord
March 10 2013, 11:24AM
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For those blithely hypothesizing that Tambo and or Lowe should be terminated and Mactavish put in as an interim please understand that this would send EXACTLY the wrong message.

Replacing one or more cronies with another - even interim crony would tell oil fans that it i will be the same as it ever was going forward.

Mactavish was a failure as a coach; is totally unproven as a GM and were he made interim he would be made permanent by the draft.

The longer this drags on the more convinced I become that Katz is a disaster for this franchise.

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#209 wiseguy
March 10 2013, 11:38AM
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outdoorzguy wrote:

I think I have this figured out. Who do we always see up on stage at the draft helping with the first overall pick? Katz's son!! Katz doesn't do anything about this mess because he lives vicariously through his kid who he parades out onto the stage at every draft. Imagine that kid going to university classes year after year telling all his buddies he just came back from another NHL draft and met another first pick. How much fun is that!! No need to change a thing, what a great dad.

More frightening is that I think Katz bought the team for his son for a birthday gift as an upgrade to playing gm mode on NHL 2007. Little Katz is making all the final decisions on all the trades and signings. It's the only thing that makes sense.

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#210 outdoorzguy
March 10 2013, 11:44AM
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wiseguy wrote:

More frightening is that I think Katz bought the team for his son for a birthday gift as an upgrade to playing gm mode on NHL 2007. Little Katz is making all the final decisions on all the trades and signings. It's the only thing that makes sense.

I like it, lol!!!

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#211 cableguy - 2nd Tier Fan
March 10 2013, 12:08PM
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Klima's Mullet wrote:

Am I the only one excited we have a shot at Seth Jones...a true franchise player...if we're not in the playoffs, i would like to be in a position to draft him or one of the big centers

i wouldnt mind being excited about playoffs instead.

pretty sad when we are reduced to being excited about the next first overall pick no?

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#212 TigerUnderGlass
March 10 2013, 12:15PM
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@Serious Gord

Mactavish was a failure as a coach

How so?

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#213 Serious Gord
March 10 2013, 12:45PM
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TigerUnderGlass wrote:
Mactavish was a failure as a coach

How so?

Miserable won loss record, far too conservative, played the established players.

And proof - never got an NHL coaching job offer after he was (finally) let go here in EDM.

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#214 The Real Scuba Steve
March 10 2013, 01:11PM
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TigerUnderGlass wrote:
Mactavish was a failure as a coach

How so?

How so? He was fired!!

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#215 Fire Lowe
March 10 2013, 01:20PM
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Excellent article! The sooner Lowe and company go, the sooner this team can become competitive. Changes need to start at the top!

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#216 Wax Man Riley
March 10 2013, 01:57PM
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Serious Gord wrote:

Miserable won loss record, far too conservative, played the established players.

And proof - never got an NHL coaching job offer after he was (finally) let go here in EDM.

MacT was a coaching beast in 2006. He is a large part (along with Pronger and Rolli) of why they made it to game 7.

Go back and watch the games, especially Detroit, was won with coaching.

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#217 Serious Gord
March 10 2013, 03:11PM
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Wax Man Riley wrote:

MacT was a coaching beast in 2006. He is a large part (along with Pronger and Rolli) of why they made it to game 7.

Go back and watch the games, especially Detroit, was won with coaching.

As has been well discussed the oil matched up very well against Detroit. And with pronger gone the oil was crap with Mact behind the bench.

Regardless, a handful of games does not a great coach make. By your metric horcoff is worth every penny.

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#218 Rod from Viking
March 10 2013, 04:31PM
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@Wax Man Riley

In all fairness 2006 was the only year Mac T had the horses and there was also a case of Lightning in a bottle.I also think him being relieved of his job was a mercy killing, they knew they were blowing it up. Mac T is also a very intelligent individual and knows he would have to do things different to ever coach again(eg-Hitchcock and Therrien).

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#219 Harlie
March 10 2013, 10:39PM
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The Real Scuba Steve wrote:

How so? He was fired!!

He actually stepped down IIRC. And he as great...one playoff year. But yeah, looks like he is next in line like some pre-arranged marriage and its your ex. Talk about sleeping with one eye open...or is it eyes wide shut?

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#220 Jprime
March 11 2013, 11:10AM
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@The Real Scuba Steve

Good coaches don't get fired? Please.

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#221 outdoorzguy
March 12 2013, 06:36PM
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So the "Old Boys Club" is at it again!! Bring back Scott Howson as a scout. Let's look after each other. Maybe if Loser Lowe put the same amount of thought into his team that he did in making this decision, the team might go somewhere. Anyway, whats done is done. No wonder the team is sinking. The top heavy management team is weighing and dragging everything else down with it!!

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