Just about everybody in hockey will agree: Steve Tambellini is a nice guy and nice guys do sometimes finish last. If not last, then close enough to last, in virtually every year he ran the Edmonton Oilers since taking over as general manager from Kevin Lowe in 2008. The mandate for Tambellini was clear – rebuild the organization through the draft and eventually the corner would be turned and the glory days would return.
Well, the glory days may be just around the corner in Edmonton, given the number of blue-chip, high-end prospects all that losing delivered, but if that happens, it will be the holdovers from the old glory days – primarily Lowe and new general manager Craig MacTavish – who will preside over the turnaround.
Tambellini was an ultraconservative, slow-go sort of a manager and probably didn't read the tea leaves correctly, that this year, after all that pain and suffering, the Oilers tangibly needed to make progress and make the playoffs.
A 48-game season provided hope for the NHL's perennial bottom feeders, and yet, while progress was made in Toronto and Montreal and Columbus and elsewhere, Edmonton was in the same old position, floundering for wins at a time of year when a playoff spot was still within reach.
The patience had clearly run out, from the fan base right to the upper reaches of the organization.
Cleverly, MacTavish characterized himself as "an impatient guy," and said he would "bring that impatience to this situation. I think we're at the stage, in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now, that we have to do some bold things. We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk, to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion."
If so, the Oilers could be in for volatile and interesting days ahead.
They could, for example, make their first choice in the 2013 entry draft available for trade to get some of the depth and experience MacTavish wants to add. It may well be that one of their primary pieces – a Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a Jordan Eberle, a Nail Yakupov, a Sam Gagner – will be dangled on the open market. Or more likely an Ales Hemsky.
Bold can be good.
Bold can be entertaining.
But bold moves can also backfire if you don't do your homework. If Edmonton is dangling youth and high draft choices, you can be sure MacTavish will receive a steady stream of calls from his fellow GMs between now and next summer's entry draft, because most teams will be looking for exactly the sort of commodities the Oilers will have to offer.
It is almost unimaginable how quickly things fell off the cliff this year for the young Oilers. Only two weeks ago, they came into Calgary after the trade deadline and crushed the gutted Flames 8-2. Everything looked good. They were right there, in the mix for a playoff spot. A fortnight later, the roles had been reversed, and Calgary beat them 4-1 Saturday night, on home ice, in a must-win situation.
That, for owner Daryl Katz, was the last straw. Tambellini was out and MacTavish was in as GM, with Scott Howson returning to the fold to become assistant GM.
So what's old is new again in Edmonton, an organization that mines its past in the hopes that the future can be found there. MacTavish is an able enough hockey man, but this will be his first go at managing after previously having coached the Oilers for 656 games (posting a 301-252-103 record) and overseeing a trip to the 2006 Stanley Cup final.
"Getting into the playoffs in the NHL has never been more difficult," MacTavish said. "You see that last year, with L.A. getting into the playoffs as an eighth seed. The line from getting in and winning a Stanley Cup is a lot finer than it's ever been before. I don't think we're that far off."
What's happening in Edmonton resembles the situation in Pittsburgh during the early 2000s. The Penguins took their lumps for four consecutive seasons, missed the playoffs badly and were rewarded with high draft choices that produced the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-André Fleury. Craig Patrick was the GM during the down times; Ray Shero took over the first year after the lockout and the Penguins have been exceptional ever since.
Shero's stewardship of all that talent has been well managed, but he will be the first to tell you, it's easier to win when you have the sort of building blocks in place that he inherited.
It will be the same challenge for MacTavish – overseeing the evolution from young and promising to mature and contending. It would appear he has a realistic grasp of the task at hand.
"It makes very little difference what I say today," MacTavish said. "What really truly matters is what we do tomorrow as an organization. Tomorrow is about getting our bootstraps on and putting together the pieces we need to be great."