a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Friday, 27 January 2012

01/27/12 The Story of How We Got Here

When Steve Tambellini took over as General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was already on the verge of collapse. The Springfield Falcons were built well enough before he took over to finish the year in last place in the AHL, while the Stockton Thunder were 8th out of 9 teams in their Conference (but only the 9th team misses the playoffs). The previous management had left the Oilers virtually bereft of organizational depth and there was next to no NHL-calibre talent in the system. Of the regulars on the 2008-09 Springfield Falcons, only Gilbert Brule, Theo Peckham and Devan Dubnyk are in the NHL today.

The Lowe era was so casual about player development that they didn't even have an exclusive AHL team in 2005-06; instead splitting their prospects between the Hamilton Bulldogs and Iowa Stars, where they saw limited playing time.

In his first year as Oilers GM, the team Tambellini started the year with were all holdovers from the previous management. That team was not good enough to make the playoffs, and Tambellini's first major move (Cole and a 5th round pick for O'Sullivan and Kotalik) didn't put them over the top. In 2009-10, just three Oilers regulars were Tambellini acquisitions: O'Sullivan, Comrie and Khabibulin. A season ending injury to the starting goaltender and a load of mediocre players torpedoed the season, and Oilers management was forced to accept that it was time to rebuild.

The old, underachieving core was jettisoned but the options in the system for replacing them were extremely limited. The Springfield Falcons were also in last place for a second straight year; with Dubnyk, Petry and Peckham being the only players from that team who have become legitimate NHLers. Jordan Eberle was the only impact player to join the Oilers in 2010-11 who was acquired in the Lowe era. Lubomir Visnovsky, who will be 36 this August, was replaced by Ryan Whitney who will be 29 on February 19th of this year. Tambellini acquisitions Taylor Hall and Magnus Paajarvi joined the ranks in 2010-11, as did Ryan Jones, Kurtis Foster, Jim Vandermeer and Colin Fraser. Khabibulin returned from injury and put in a nightmarish season and the Oilers finished 30th again.

This year things were supposed to be better. 17 of the players currently on the roster are Tambellini acquisitions, and they have had varying degrees of success. The defense was not constructed properly and lacked experience, and the only possible reason for this is to give the organization's own young defenders more playing time. Whether that is best for their development in the long term remains to be seen, but it has been a major factor in the Oilers' struggles this season. Another round of useless players was removed from the third and fourth lines and replaced with ones that have better track records; including Belanger, Eager and Hordichuk. Despite some of their difficulties this year it's hard to argue that they aren't a better group than Zack Stortini, JF Jacques and Andrew Cogliano. The Belanger signing wouldn't have been necessary if Tambellini had simply held on to Kyle Brodziak, which is one of the most glaringly bad and needless trades of his tenure. But at the end of the day the Oilers are still too young, too inexperienced and lacking in depth to compete at the NHL level.

The AHL level is a different story, however. The Oilers' AHL franchise was brought out of dormancy in 2010-11 and relocated to Oklahoma City. Todd Nelson was hired as head coach, and the team was stocked with quality free agents that will help transition the team until the Oilers' own draft picks are ready to take the reigns. The Barons made the playoffs in their first year and are currently in first place in the AHL.

It hasn't all been roses, though. Tambellini was part of the embarrassment that was the nixed Dany Heatley trade as well. Given the established fact that the Oilers had very limited depth, trading Ladislav Smid, Andrew Cogliano and Dustin Penner at that time could have been disastrous. Not only that, but Heatley is not currently worth Ladislav Smid, Colten Teubert, Oscar Klefbom, plus second and third round picks; which is what the Oilers ended up with. In fairness, however, Tambellini is the one who acquired those assets as well.
Nikolai Khabibulin has been better this season, but overall his signing has been a mistake, and the Kyle Brodziak fiasco has already been covered. The handling of the Sheldon Souray situation was odd, but his grievances went all the way back to his first year in Edmonton when Kevin Lowe was at the helm, so losing Souray was probably inevitable.

Below is a list of Steve Tambellini's key moves since taking over:

- Traded Mathieu Garon to Pittsburgh for Ryan Stone, Dany Sabourin and a pick that became Tobias Rieder
- Traded Erik Cole and a 5th round pick (Matt Kennedy) to Carolina for Patrick O'Sullivan and a second round pick. This pick was traded to Buffalo for Ales Kotalik
- Traded Kyle Brodziak and a 6th round pick (Darcy Kuemper) to Minnesota for fifth and sixth round picks that became Kyle Bigos and Olivier Roy
- Attempted to trade Dustin Penner, Andrew Cogliano and Ladislav Smid to Ottawa for Dany Heatley
- Signed Nikolai Khabibulin to a four year contract at $3.75 million per year
- Waived Rob Schremp
- Signed Mike Comrie
- Traded Denis Grebeshkov to Nashville for a pick that became Curtis Hamilton
- Traded Lubomir Visnovsky to Anaheim for Ryan Whitney and a pick that became Brandon Davidson
- Claimed Ryan Jones off waivers
- Traded Steve Staios to Calgary(!) for Aaron Johnson and a pick that became Travis Ewanyk
- Acquired Colin Fraser from Chicago for a 6th round pick that became Mirko Hoefflin
- Traded Riley Nash for a pick that became Martin Marincin
- Traded Patrick O'Sullivan to Phoenix for Jim Vandermeer
- Bought out Robert Nilsson
- Waived Ethan Moreau
- Signed Kurtis Foster
- Did not re-sign Marc Pouliot
- Forced Sheldon Souray to toil in the AHL on loan to Hershey
- Traded Dustin Penner to LA for Colten Teubert, Oscar Klefbom and a third round pick in 2012
- Bought out Sheldon Souray
- Signed Taylor Fedun
- Signed Lennart Petrell
- Traded Colin Fraser and a 7th round pick in 2012 to LA for Ryan Smyth
- Traded Kurtis Foster for Andy Sutton
- Signed Corey Potter
- Signed Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk, Eric Belanger and Cam Barker
- Signed Yann Danis
- Traded Andrew Cogliano to Anaheim for a second round pick in 2013

Does this man deserve a contract extension? He inherited a team that was never going to go anywhere and then tore it down as any GM would have had to. He's helped to turn the drafting and development side of the organization from an absolute joke to a very respectable facet. He removed the old players who were part of the problem and acquired assets that will be part of the solution. But he's made mistakes along the way as well, and nearly a very big one with Heatley. The embarrassment of Heatley refusing to waive his no trade clause doesn't sting as badly as that deal would have if it had actually gone through.

The biggest problems with this Oilers team have always been that there was no elite talent, and there weren't enough NHL players in the pipeline. Those are problems that Tambellini has taken steps to correct. It's a job that's going to take several years, so we shouldn't be surprised that the team is still losing; especially when injuries strike as they have for the past three years.

Trust in a GM should always been limited to a certain extent, but so far things seem to be going according to the rebuilding plan.

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