Scouting the Enemy: Anaheim Ducks vs. Edmonton Oilers

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Apr 2, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Anaheim Ducks left wing Matt Beleskey (39) and Edmonton Oilers center Will Acton (41) fight in the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

3. The Oilers were heavily scrutinized during their recent 11-game losing streak, which was snapped on Sunday against the San Jose Sharks. There have been talks of another “rebuild”, and many feel that wholesale organizational changes that must happen if the Oilers are to take steps forward. In your mind, who in the organization is most responsible for the current state of the Oilers: general manager Craig MacTavish, head coach Dallas Eakins, or somebody else? Also, what do you believe is the best course of action for the Oilers currently: another rebuild or to ride this out?

Agustin: This topic has been discussed ad nauseam, both on our site and at Oil Country. I think I gave a partial answer in my previous answers. There is sort of a consensus that there needs to be house clearing.

Let’s review the current men at front office:

Kevin Lowe (POHO, or president of hockey operations, and co-vice chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group). This guy is part of the so called “boys on the bus”, a group of former Oilers who were part of the glory days in Edmonton and hung out with current owner Daryl Kats while in their youth. As incredible as all this may seem, it is all known facts: no gossip, no speculation. Kevin Lowe retired in 1998 as a player, became an assistant coach of the Oilers the same year, and became the coach one year later. One year after that, he was promoted to manager, and he hired another boy on the bus, MacTavish, as head coach of the Oilers. Note that neither man really had any experience at the positions they were given. Back then, the team was owned by an investors group from Edmonton (EIG): Mr. Katz had no stake on the team. Fast forward to 2006, and the team makes the playoffs for the last time, going on a miracle run all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals after squeaking into the playoffs. That team had a world class defender in Pronger and had acquired a great goaltender in Dwayne Roloson mid-season. Their center depth was solid with capable veterans. The Oilers from 1994 to 2008 were a budget team, kind of like the Nashville Predators have been.

After that run, it was the beginning of the end, with Pronger requesting a trade for reasons still not entirely clear, although he has always said it was for his family. After that, the heart and soul of the team, Ryan Smyth, was traded over a disagreement on a contract extension that amounted to a few hundred thousand dollars. The Oilers tried to retool up until 2008-2009, when they missed the playoffs again. Daryl Katz bought the team, Kevin Lowe was promoted to POHO and brought in Steve Tambellini as general manager, who dismissed MacTavish (although it is widely believed it was MacT who said he was done). Pat Quinn was brought in along with associate coach Tom Renney for the 2009-2010 season. After a dreadful run, the organization officially declared it was time for a rebuild, laid down their strategy of building through the draft, traded assets, and tanked. They were talking about a three to five year time table until a return to the playoffs and yearly contender status. The team tanked again in 2010-2011, then again in 2011-2012.

That cost Tom Renney his job, despite the fact that secondary stats suggested a very young team was finally trending upwards. The lockout-shortened season saw Ralph Krueger promoted to from associate coach to head coach, and the team finished 25th despite only facing Western Conference teams. Secondary stats took a small step back, but all things considered, the coach did a good job. Schultz and Yakupov had decent campaigns, with Yakupov finishing first in rookie scoring and Schultz finishing 7th in Calder Trophy voting. That spring, Steve Tambellini was let go in the middle of a contract extension signed just a year earlier. I forgot to mention that during this time, Scott Howson had been fired as assistant GM in 2007, and both he and MacTavish were brought back in different executive roles in the summer of 2012.

Tambellini’s replacement turned out to be MacTavish, again a man with no experience at the position. One of his first moves was to give Ralph Krueger a Skype call and fire him. He then went on to hire Eakins, a guy with zero experience at his new position. Do you see a trend going on here? So Dallas is brought in along with his friend Will Acton, a one-time Oilers player who had been working with Eakins. Player like Schultz and Yakupov regressed drastically under Eakins. And the team ends the season 27th overall. This time though, the Oilers had plenty of valid excuses with injuries at the start of the season to their two centers (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner), plus the spectacular implosion of their goaltending and an injury to Taylor Hall early in the season. Keep in mind that in their infinite wisdom, Kevin Lowe decided to hire a rookie GM, and the rookie GM decided to hire a rookie coach for a team whose core was still very young and would have been better served by continuity. Hilariously enough, MacTavish referred to this fact time and again during his state of the union address this past weekend when defending his own coaching hire.

Finally, last season, Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith, both former boys on the bus, were dismissed from the coaching staff after serving since 2008 and 2010, respectively. Kelly has been with the organization in one capacity or another since 2007 and remains employed in a different role. Smith was hired as assistant coach by another terrible team, the Carolina Hurricanes. Freddy Chabot should have been in that purge as well. Why he survived until late November is a mystery.

During all this time, few changes have been made to the scouting staff, both pro and amateur. Their record is something to cringe about. The point was made this weekend that since 2006, only two guys are right now playing with the big club: Jeff Petry and Tyler Pitlick. Basically, only Petry is an NHL regular. That is one player out of 28 between 2006 and 2010 selected outside of the first round (the rule seems to be to wait five years before properly evaluating a draft year). If you look closely at the draft history of the Oilers since the early 2000’s, it has to be one of the worst there is. The GM admitted on Friday that poor drafting was indeed undermining current efforts to become competitive. You just can’t win by just chasing free agents.

MacTavish asked for patience on Friday, saying in so many words that the last rebuild had failed and that this was his vision and he needed time. Basically, he said this was the second year of the rebuild of the rebuild. For a fan base that has been patient and sold out the arena for eight years in a row and counting, that was a kick in the sack. Patience has officially run out in Oil Country.

The one ray of light is that Bob Nicholson, former head of hockey Canada, has been hired as vice chairman of the Oiler Entertainment Group, and Craig MacTavish sad on Friday that the whole organization, top to bottom was under review by Nicholson.

So as you can see, Daryl Katz and the boys on the bus have a profound loyalty to each other. Qualifications and ability to do the job be damned, these men have each other’s backs. Until Katz decides that his longtime friends are just not able to bring him the Stanley Cup, then we will not see a change in culture. The history of Oilers management since the turn of the century has been one of incompetence, nepotism and arrogance. Just look at the choices in personnel: Pat Quinn, may he rest in peace, was not fit to be a head coach in the NHL anymore. Yet he brought quality people in Tom Renney. Then Tom Renney brought in Ralph Krueger. Both men were dismissed by the boys on the bus, and one is now the Head of Hockey Canada and the other the Chairman of Southampton FC in the English Premiere League. Let’s look at Kevin Lowe’s hirers: Howson was given the boot after failing with the Columbus Blue Jackets, MacTavish was an AHL coach and sports commentator before being recycled by Lowe, and Tambellini is a scout for your Anaheim Ducks.

Reading all of this, it is hard not to pin a good chunk of the blame for such a terrible playoff drought on the shoulders of Kevin Lowe and his companions. Keep in mind, all of what I wrote are just facts: there is no speculation, just what actually happened.

So, is finding Kevin Lowe and kicking him in the nuts the answer?

Well, YES. But not just that: the Oilers have to clear house, do their due diligence, and hire professionals who have a good track record in their organizations. If you are bringing in a rookie GM, make sure it is someone who has been in an NHL front office for a while and has proven himself. Bringing a rookie coach for a very young team should have never happened. Bring in a guy with experience who has a proven record of winning. For example, Dan Bylsma is available. Bring in scouts with a history of success: what is Dave Semenko doing in the pro scouting department? What are other ex-Oilers like Frank Musil doing in the amateur side? They have failed, time and time again. Is there really a need for a President of Hockey Operations? Just get a general manager: plenty of teams make due. Kevin Lowe and the boys on the bus must go; otherwise, you are asking the architect who designed the crumbling foundation to fix it. If Katz loves them so much, make them special Oilers “Dust Fairies” or something, but keep them away from the hockey operations. The fact that both Renney and Krueger were let go but Buchberger and Smith remained is pretty telling of how this organization makes its personnel decisions.

Okay, so they are all gone tomorrow. Now what?

Sadly, the best thing to do, in my opinion, is to ride it out. It makes no sense to sell low at this point: the best players are having tough times, and the asking prices for acquiring help are predatory, to say the least. Right now, there are 29 general managers circling MacTavish, waiting to pry one of the valuable, costly first round picks plus Eberle. The season is statistically improbable to save: the best thing now is to showcase the occasional farm guy and wait for Nicholson’s evaluation while really, tanking for a shot at Connor McDavid. If he is the generational talent he is made to be, then the Oilers should definitively want that. Plus, he is a center. Even Jack Eichel, another generational talent, should be helpful to further the cause. It would be stupid to try and make moves to improve four or five spots in the standings. Thankfully, MacTavish said as much on Friday, so we are all gearing up for a long winter here. Now as for untouchable players in Edmonton, Wayne Gretzky got traded, so there is no such thing. Everyone should be on the market for the right price.

It is so exhausting and annoying to know that your team is out of the playoffs by the first quarter of the season, for the forever time in a row. The Oilers will probably get destroyed tonight. I give it a 6-1 for the Ducks.