A Guide to Recognizing Your Mediocre GMs, Part 2: Kevin Lowe (Steve Tambellini/Craig MacTavish/Scott Howson)

by Jacob Saltiel
mactavishtambellini

From one meat puppet to another…
from edmontonsun.com

Yesterday’s ambush on the employment status of Steve Tambellini reminded everyone that, though he takes many forms, Kevin Lowe is still in charge of the Edmonton Oilers. Lowe has read his Niccolo Machiavelli. In discussing how Cesare Borgia pacified the residents of Romagna who lived under the rule of a tyrannical aristocracy, Machiavelli described the following 3 step process in The Prince:

1. Appoint a hatchet man to preside over the bloody work of removing said aristocracy: “Thereupon he promoted Messer Ramiro d’Orco, a swift and cruel man, to whom he gave the fullest power.”

Enter Tambellini, exit any attempt to win games.

2. Transfer blame for bloody purge onto said hatchet man: “And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practised, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister.”

Collect draft picks, suck, let marinate long enough that fans blame Tambellini.

3. Brutally execute minister to the delight of subjects: “Under this pretence he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.”

Fire Tambellini, return.

It worked for Medieval Italian politics, and it worked for Kevin Lowe. Well, if by ‘worked’ you mean ‘Kevin Lowe remaining in authority’ rather than bringing actual success to the Oilers. Examining Tambellini’s short and mediocre tenure, what immediately leaps out is how few moves he actually made in his 4 years in charge. Other than unloading All-You-Can-Eat champion Dustin Penner on the LA Kings for picks and Colten Teubert to undue the damage caused by Kevin Lowe signing Penner to that offer sheet from Anaheim, Tambellini hasn’t done much to hurt or harm the Oilers.

Here’s a quick rundown of Tambellini’s other moves:

– Tom Gilbert for Nick Schultz

– Stealing Justin Schultz from Anaheim.

– Re-acquiring Ryan Smyth for sentimental purposes.

– Handing out 6 million dollar contracts to Eberle and Hall immediately upon the conclusion of their entry-level deals in a way that suggests that Tambellini has no idea how leverage and control works for young players.

– Extending declining assets Ales Hemsky and Ladislav Smid.

– Picking up Ryan Jones off of waivers.

– Acquiring Ryan Whitney and a 6th round pick for Lubomir Visnovsky.

– Signing Eric Belanger.

– Signing the drunk driving, occasionally puck-stopping Nikolai Khabibulin.

Most of those moves are depth moves, and any that have been left out of that list are also minor moves with minor consequences. Can anyone think of any former Oilers player of consequence playing elsewhere today?

Tambellini’s main contribution to the Oilers has been to show up to TSN’s overwrought draft ranking show in a suit and grin sheepishly while the panel manages to turn a 5 minute bingo game into an hour or three of programming. Since the Oilers have been consistently abominable, it’s worth asking how they got there, especially considering that the GM with the “block and a bloody knife at his side” actually had nothing to do with their transformation into a horrible team. It can’t even be said of Tambellini that he was either swift nor cruel.

Neither Here Nor There
Officially, Kevin Lowe was GM of the Oilers from 2000 until 2009. In that time, the team finished the regular season in the following rankings:

2001: 6th
2002: 9th
2003: 8th
2004: 9th
2005: LOCKOUT
2006: 8th (Stanley Cup Finals)
2007: 12th
2008: 9th
2009: 11th

That straddling of the playoff line is an impressive balancing act, but also extremely bad for a franchise. Getting in as an 8-seed means one has a high chance of simply getting stomped in the first round, while ensuring a later draft pick. Some may point to the finals appearance as a vindication of ‘get in, and anything can happen’, but that outlier is the result of the one season that Chris Pronger- arguably the most dominant defenceman of his era behind only Nick Lidstrom- played in Edmonton.

In fact, Chris Pronger was so good that season that he managed to get an Edmonton team that included a young Marc-Andre Bergeron to the finals. Habs fans will recall Bergeron for his huge shot and total defensive ineptitude. Oilers fans remember him for tactically injuring his own goalie in the finals.

That Pronger ended up leaving Edmonton wasn’t Lowe’s fault, but perhaps Pronger, wily individual that he is, knew more about the Oilers’ ability to compete than the man in the front office. Lowe didn’t do badly in the trade, getting back multiple high picks and the highly regarded scorer Joffrey Lupul and 7th overall pick Ladislav Smid. Regardless, Pronger’s departure signaled the beginning of the bottomfeeding for Edmonton.

Lowe Tide

It’s really post-Pronger that the wheels come off. In rapid succession, Lowe achieved the following things:

– Offer sheeting Thomas Vanek to a then-ridiculous $7+m/year contract that Buffalo could have easily matched, which they promptly did.

– Offer sheeting the only so-so Dustin Penner, which enraged Brian Burke. Worse than the trashtalking that Burke gave Lowe in the media, he simply took the draft picks from Edmonton.

– Lowe made fan-favourite Ryan Smyth cry over a few hundred thousand dollars, receiving a bunch of prospects that never turned into NHL regulars and a 1st round pick.

– From that Pronger trade, Lowe quickly turned an injury-plagued Joffrey Lupul into Joni Pitkanen. Then, after a year in which Pitkanen struggled on a bad team, turned him into Erik Cole. Then, after Cole struggled on yet another bad team, he traded Cole for Patrick O’Sullivan (Patrick O’Who? O’Exactly!) and a 2nd round pick. Until this season, all three of those players went on to have productive seasons elsewhere, and Edmonton was left with none of them.

– Finally, he traded away Jarrett Stoll and Matt Greene- both useful players- for Lubomir Visnovsky, who lasted all of 107 games before being packed off to Anaheim by Tambellini.

Along the way, Lowe succeeded in burning bridges with both Anaheim and the Sabres, and possible making other GM’s nervous about their restricted free agents. While Burke can be a bit of a blowhard, he might have been right about Lowe screwing with other team’s salary cap management to minimal effect.

The pattern of these various moves seems to be creating holes, then filling them in ways that create other holes, necessitating further moves that, predictably, created more holes. After the Lowe era of big trades and lots of movement, it seems almost as if the mandate for Tambellini was to do as little as possible while the hoard of picks and prospects develop. The young Oilers need help, particularly on defence and in goal, before they start winning. Tambellini’s firing is questionable because the Oilers were never going to go from worst to first given the youth of their core and lack of proven veterans.

For the next stage, Craig MacTavish returns in a nice reversal (replacing the man who fired him) with Scott Howson, former Blue Jackets GM and former assistant GM in… EDMONTON(?!) serving as caddy.

Speaking of which…

The Replacements
It’s hard to say what MacTavish will be like as GM. He was a good coach, but he’ll have learned his management skills from Kevin Lowe and Tambellini. Sure, he’ll have ideas of his own, but the culture he’s been brought along in isn’t exactly progressive. A cynic might suspect that he’s merely serving as the public face of a management team being taken over by Howson. Astute Edmonton fans probably wouldn’t accept the mediocre former Columbus GM, but they certainly won’t boo/hate upon local hero C-Mac.

As for Howson, his stock might be high right now because of the Nash trade looking much better than it did a year ago. This shouldn’t obscure the fact that this is the same man who gave $6m/year to James Wisniewski. He also traded the Couturier pick, the improving and already talented Jakub Voracek, and a 3rd rounder to Philly for Jeff Carter, who was promptly traded to LA for Jack Johnson and a first. Johnson is wildly overrated, and pretty much every other asset aside from the 3rd pick would have helped Columbus more.

Like Lowe/Tambellini, Howson seems to enjoy putting 18 year old rookies on the team ahead of schedule (paging Ryan Johansen). It’s a massive warning sign that a team can’t develop prospects when you consider that the only two 1st round picks the Blue Jackets have ever drafted that remain with the team are Ryan Johansen and Ryan Murray. Every single other one either plays elsewhere (Brassard, Nash, Moore, Klesla, etc…) or turned out to kind of suck (Zherdev, Filatov, Brule, etc…). Now, Howson can’t possibly be to blame for all of that, but one has to wonder what exactly about his resume indicates that he’s the man to turn this group of talented young stars into a playoff machine. Given the exact same mandate in Columbus, he failed miserably. Columbus’ 2011-2012 season was worse than a gong show.

It’s more than worth noting that Howson’s career pre-Columbus was as Kevin Lowe’s right hand man. So, what’s old is new again, except that it never realy changed. Ever a Lowe proxy, the big difference is that the mail Howson’s carrying has MacTavish’s name on the letterhead. So, Oilers fans, your best hope is that the return of this brain trust will come with some new ideas. Which, uh, given the track records involved, is small consolation. It will, however, be amusing to have MacTavish quotations back in the NHL on a regular basis.

As for Tambellini, he might have gotten out at the right time. The patience he displayed in watching his team bottom out and gain valuable young prospects is admirable. Having never been given the option to really go for it, he at least didn’t make any comical errors.

Would that Lowe and Howson be able to say the same.

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