In the first part of this two part series, I invited readers to peruse Detroit GM Ken Holland’s Nine Secrets to Stanley Cup Success and compared the Red Wings’ winning formula over the last decade to the approach of the Edmonton Oilers, a club currently mired in last place in the Western Conference.
In the second part, I’ll focus on Holland’s final four keys to success to see how the Oilers stack up in the critical areas of Ownership, Salary Cap, Reclamation Projects and Patience.
In May 2009, Sports Illustrated voted Detroit Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch the best owner in the NHL. I would suspect it’s a title to which Oiler Owner Daryl Katz aspires.
An introduction to the Oilers’ reclusive Owner Daryl Katz
In many ways, the two men are similar. Both are local boys made good, notable for their philanthropy and recognized as veritable pillars of their community. Both are owners of their city’s most respected sports franchises: Katz with the Oilers, Ilitch with the Red Wings and Detroit Tigers.
Fortunately for fans of the Red Wings and Oilers, both are also avid sports fans who are strongly committed to winning. In Ilitch’s case, the Wings declared a $16 million operating loss in the last year before the salary cap, a strong testament to Ilitch’s commitment to win at any cost. Over his shorter tenure, Katz has been similarly aggressive with the Oilers, consistently supporting a payroll at the upper limits of the salary cap and aggressively pursuing free agents with lucrative contract offers.
Holland is clear in his comments that Ilitch is the man he goes to when he needs to get something done and Ilitch makes it happen, sparing no expense to make the Red Wings a winner and a first class organization.
Publicly, Katz has pledged a similar commitment to re-establish the Oilers as one of the league’s elite teams, but doubts persist as to the reclusive Oiler owner’s private agenda. Critics of the team’s inner circle point to Katz’ close friendships with Oiler President of Hockey Operations Kevin Lowe and Center Shawn Horcoff, fearing the Oilers’ Owner lacks the impartiality and killer instinct needed to hold each accountable for their part in the team’s current slide into the cellar. Further, while Katz has been impressive in broadening the acumen of his management and coaching staff, adding GM Steve Tambellini and the two headed coaching monster of Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, he has yet to make an impact on the team’s on-ice fortunes. Well publicized pursuits of super snipers such as Marian Hossa and Danny Heatley have resulted in nothing more than wasted time and bruised egos for an organization and fanbase continually shunned by players unwilling to ply their trade for a perennial loser located 400 miles from the Arctic Circle.
In Katz’ defense, it was 15 years under Ilitch’s stewardship before the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup while the Tigers were even worse from a competitive standpoint, logging 12 losing seasons in 13 tries with Detroit’s pizza baron paying the bills. As Holland emphasizes (more on that in a moment), patience is one of the keys to building a championship organization. Unfortunately, after 5 seasons out of the playoffs in the last 7 years, Oiler fans want to see improvement now.
Should the Oilers notoriously reclusive owner continue to remain invisible and seemingly uninvolved, it’s only a matter of time before Katz’ ersatz hockey empire sinks under a tsunami of empty seats and shrinking revenues.
While the Red Wings have the bargain contracts of legitimate superstars such as Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg & Johann Franzen serving as evidence of their mastery of the salary cap, the Edmonton Oilers have Shawn Horcoff. Untradeable and unproductive, Horcoff’s $33 million contract is arguably the worst in the league and stark evidence of the Oilers’ gross mismanagement during the salary cap era.
With Horcoff’s signing, the Oilers committed a massive chunk of their payroll to a defensive center with limited upside, a dubious decision that flies in the face of one of Holland’s core tenants to not put big money into ‘guys who only defend.’ Former Oiler GM Kevin Lowe made similar miscalculations with wingers Ethan Moreau and Fernando Pisani, rewarding two players best described as ‘third line grinders’ with inflated contracts following the team’s Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.
In championing the long-term signings of players such as Horcoff, Moreau & Pisani as well as winger Ales Hemsky and defenseman Tom Gilbert, Lowe publicly confirmed his assessment of these select few as the Oilers’ leadership core and key building blocks for team success. While Lowe’s strategy to build the team around a core group of key personnel emulated Holland’s approach in one sense, Lowe made a critical management error overestimating the financial value of leadership without the additional attributes of surpassing talent and on-ice production.
In committing a vast percentage of their available payroll to Pavel Datsyk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johann Franzen & Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit have done so secure in the knowledge that these players are not just team leaders, but they also have a proven track record of production and consistently rate amongst the league leaders in several offensive categories. By contrast, Lowe’s leadership group was rewarded with lucrative contracts largely on the basis of a single productive postseason, essentially committing the bulk of the team’s payroll on the promise of ‘future potential’ as opposed to historic production. Inevitably then, when some of these players failed to elevate their game, the Oilers found themselves in an untenable position: unable to address their talent deficiencies due to a lack of available payroll and thus unable to improve their on-ice performance due to a dearth of true blue chip talent.
Unfortunately for the Oilers, overestimation of their talent does not end with their homegrown prospects (Horcoff, Hemsky, Pisani, etc.) but extends to their free agent signings as well. From the defensively challenged Sheldon Souray to the maddeningly inconsistent Dustin Penner to the oft injured and aging Nikolai Khabibulin, Oiler free agents have established a worrisome pattern of team management overlooking critical player flaws, again in the misguided belief that better days lay ahead. Thus, while Lowe emulated the Red Wings approach, investing a key chunk of his payroll in offensively talented defensemen such as Souray, Lubomir Visnovsky & Tom Gilbert, the results fell far short of the Red Wings, primarily due to insurmountable deficiencies in each players’ skill set. Souray is a undeniably charismatic leader with a booming shot prone to crucial mental lapses in the defensive zone. Visnovsky is a slick and skilled rearguard with a similarly impressive blast from the point whose lack of physical size renders him ineffective in clearing the slot. Gilbert is a smooth stickhandler and prescient passer who is continually pushed off the puck on the boards by players with more grit and desire.
With their latest free agent acquisition, the ill advised signing of Nikolai Khabibulin to a 4 year / $15 million deal, the Oilers have not only ignored Holland’s mantra to forgo massive expenditures on goaltending, they failed to perform the proper due diligence on a player dogged by injury woes in recent years and have paid the price. Since the Bulin Wall fell in late November with a potentially season ending injury, the Oilers hopes for the postseason have crumbled alongside their fallen comrade with no return in sight scheduled for a player Oiler GM Steven Tambellini hyped as one of the Top 5 goalies in the NHL and Edmonton’s key offseason signing.
As always, the bottom line tells the tale. Only 5 teams have a higher payroll than the Edmonton Oilers in 2010. Only 1 team, the Carolina Hurricanes, stand between the Oilers and the league’s worst record.
Some might argue, and rightfully so, that the Red Wings have gotten mixed results from their reclamation projects. For every player who turned his career around in a Red Wings jersey (Chris Osgood, Danny Cleary, Brad Stuart) there have been fading stars who fizzled in Hockeytown. Todd Bertuzzi and Luc Robitaille both arrived in Detroit with youth and skills fading and failed to re-establish themselves as dominant scorers during their swansong in Motown. With Dominik Hasek and Chris Chelios, Holland also exhibited a debatable tendency to hang on too long to aging players far removed from past glories when a roster spot may have been better used on younger, emerging talent.
For the Edmonton Oilers, the results from reclamation projects have been decidedly mixed as well. The post-lockout signing of Michael Peca yielded solid returns in 2006 with the savvy two-way center playing inspired hockey in Oiler silks while leading the team to a surprising berth in that season’s Stanley Cup Final. In the same year, Minnesota Wild castoff Dwayne Roloson finally established himself as a true starter and star, rewarding the Oilers’ faith in him as he backstopped the club in stellar fashion during their Cinderella run.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Eric Cole failed miserably in his short tenure as an Edmonton Oiler, lasting less than a season before the team packaged him out of town in a 3 way deal with the LA Kings and Carolina Hurricanes.
Also lasting less than a year was the team’s failed dalliance with declining center Adam Oates who registered a mere 2 goals in 60 games in an Edmonton Oiler uniform before calling it a career in 2004.
Most disheartening are those instances when the Oilers have given up on talented prospects like Danny Cleary and Boyd Devereaux only to see those players reinvent themselves in Detroit as gritty role players and successful ‘reclamation projects.’ The Oilers are hoping to effect a similar rebirth in project players such as Gilbert Brule, Patrick O’Sullivan & Mike Comrie. Thus far, the results are underwhelming, though Brule in particular looks to be an emerging talent worth the effort.
While it is admirable and understandable that Holland extols the virtues of patience in the building of a championship caliber hockey team, it must be emphasized that such patience is contingent upon the organization achieving progress and improved play with each passing day, month and year. As long suffering Oiler fans are all too aware, it has been over 3 ½ seasons since the Edmonton Oilers have qualified for the postseason or shown any signs of becoming a championship contender.
Sitting dead last in the Western Conference with a 4th consecutive season out of the playoffs looming, the vicious realization is finally hitting home for those that prowl the corridors of power in Rexall Place: Building a NHL Champion in 2010 is a considerably taller task in 2010 than it was in 1980 when two amazingly fortuitous drafts formed the foundation of a high flying hockey dynasty.
In the era of the Salary Cap, consistently drafting and developing top flight talent has now become paramount. Trades and free agents signings can put a team over the top, but the margin for error is considerable with poor signings capable of paralyzing a team, both now and in the future. Most importantly, the days of dynastic dominance are over with parity now reigning in the modern NHL. In 2010, the ice is tilted in favor of those teams willing and able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances both on the ice and off.
With the Edmonton Oilers hitting rock bottom in the league standings and the personnel remaining status quo, the silence of Oilers’ GM Steve Tambellini is deafening. Following last season’s firing of Head Coach Craig MacTavish, Tambellini pledged the team would get bigger and better. Since then he has failed in his ill-advised pursuit of malcontent Danny Heatly, signed sickbay mainstays Mike Comrie and Nikolai Khabibulin, and the club is threatening to set the mark as the worst squad in team history.
This is not progress.
The time for patience has ended. The time for change is long overdue.
The architects of this ineptitude (Kevin Lowe, Kevin Prendergast, Shawn Horcoff, Ethan Moreau, Tom Gilbert, Sheldon Souray) must go. That is the first step.
The next step is implementing a plan for a true organizational and team rebuild.
Until they do, the Edmonton Oilers will continue to resemble those ignominious Red Wings teams of the 70’s and not the Detroit teams of the last decade that have firmly established Hockeytown as the home of the NHL’s premier organization.