When GM Steve Tambellini and Kevin Lowe were forced to let Craig MacTavish go due to a few seasons of little success, many in the organization looked like they were ready to ask the tough questions.
Where had the organization gone wrong?
Ales Hemsky is on a point-per-game pace and Dustin Penner is poised to set career highs. Lubomir Visnovsky is finally healthy and leading the troops on the blue.
Still—why can't this team compete?
Some at the time questioned whether Craig MacTavish had been given all the tools to succeed. Others wondered whether the players were living up to their contracts. Most wondered whether MacT's voice had finally lost control of the dressing room after resorting to lambasting players in the media.
At that time Tambellini delivered what has already become an infamous speech on how the Oilers had gone from a blue collar, blood-and-vinegar type of team to a soft, unwilling-to-compete kind of team.
He addressed our questions on MacT, the players, and the dressing room.
He said everyone was to blame and nobody was to blame.
He made promises on how to make the team better.
He did things to show that merit transcended the Old Boy's Club mentality.
And we believed in him. To some extent, we still do.
After the loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Nov. 21, Tambellini stated that he was confident that his team was good enough and to wait for the injuries to abate before judging the balance of his team.
Though it is true that the team is leading the NHL in man games lost to injury, it is not the team's place in the standings that has fans riled.
It's the quality of play: the on-ice product.
The team may be injured—but the winning attitude is missing.
Is it because the players don't care? Maybe, but I doubt that to be the prevailing reason for a team that racks up so many injuries. Obviously, they're playing hard enough to put their bodies on the line.
While Ryan Stone and J.F. Jacques are among the energy players recently roused, or about to return from the injury list, many of the players who were hurt during the Oilers' early-season success have since returned with little or no effect on the team's ability to compete.
Among them—Fernando Pisani - before his collitis returned; Steve Staios - after his concussion symptoms declined; Sheldon Souray - after his head cleared up.
The team's performance didn't improve.
Is that as big of a surprise as it should be?
When Tambellini promised a team with more desire, more pluck, more energy—a team that would be harder to play against—we bought in to the promise.
When the Oilers hired Quinn, Renney and Fleming and Sillinger and other elders of hockey-related repute—we drank the kool-aid.
We were saved, we thought.
The addition of Stone and starter Nikolai Khabibulin have been the most important moves so far. But when Tambellni did little else to improve the roster, fans started asking questions.
Outside of the aforementioned trades, Tambellini may actually have made it harder for the team to compete.
For example, consider the additions of Mike Comrie and Patrick O'Sullivan.
Comrie was a feel-good story for Oilers fans: A hometown boy who went wayward and returned a man. Great for the Oilers.
O'Sullivan was a coveted junior player who has since bounced around the NHL to little surprise from the GM's who have previously felt unable to coax the "extra level" out of him. He's our man now.
When he added Comrie this off-season and picked up O'Sullivan at the trade deadline, what team need was Tambellini addressing? Does he know what the team lacks?
When we were told about adding players who were willing to do the hard things to succeed and win—which players was he targeting? Did he have anyone in mind?
When he let Curtis Glencross (yes, I know this was last summer, but the story is the same), Ales Kotalik, Kyle Brodziak, and Rob Schremp walk...how was he doing his part to ensure the Oilers would not become a cap nightmare?
(Think what you will about Schremp, he's still much more affordable than Robert Nilsson and O'Sullivan, who are not exactly shining examples of Quinn's "crust" that we have been waiting for them to display, either.)
Now don't get me wrong, I'm actually a fan of Comrie and O'Sullivan and think they're great NHL players. But it boils down to: If you don't need it you don't need it.
And though Comrie's contract is affordable, his skills are unnecessary for our lineup and O'Sullivan is a shade expensive for his level of production.
But wait, says Tambellini.
Wait until these players come back from injury.
For a team slipping further and further into lottery pick contention, there is no more time for waiting.
Thea team needs to decide to build a roster that can compete, or not.
With a team that looks like a poor man's version of last year's roster, it's hard to understand whether competition is the word that comes to mind with the recent performances that we've seen.
Even if the Oilers were building a developing team instead of a playoff contender (though I suspect Quinn expects to see some post-season action in the near future) it's hard to imagine that developing a winning strategy is not part of the overall plan.
If you think a developing team shouldn't try to ice a roster that competes (yes, that means acquiring players that will give a team the chance to win on every night) then you're watching the wrong sport. Learning how to win, and learning to do what winning requires is the most important lesson a developing team needs to learn.
Adding players that compete is not mutually inclusive with signing hockey superstars—that's a major misconception.
Unfortunately, that's a misconception that seems to cloud the judgment of Steve Tambellini.
Edmonton doesn't need Dany Heatley. Or Marian Hossa. Or Jaromir Jagr. Or Thomas Vanek.
What Dustin Penner has shown so far this season is that a player given the right initiative and opportunity will find a way to succeed.
Has the Oilers organization given all existing players a chance at success?
On a roster bereft of defensive players like Pisani, or Brodziak either in development, or healthy enough to play, it's no wonder the team is outshot on most nights and has trouble in the defensive zone on penalty kills; it's no surprise that the Oilers are wost in the league in faceoff percentage.
We've acquired all this skill and have nowhere to use it because we're stuck in our own zone chasing the puck.
Is it too soon to question Tambellini's competence? I think so but the clock is damn near 11 o'clock.
It's true that the acquisition of Stone and others like Chris Minard and Dean Arsene have made this team better - but at the AHL level.
Will this team ever be competitive when they are devoid of role players at the NHL level? Arsene may still become the next Jan Hejda, but should we bank on uncertainties throughout the lineup?
Tambellini started by questioning his team's "level of compete" and promising answers for that problem. Now Quinn is questioning his team's "level of compete" and waiting for those answers from Tambellini.
Does Tambellini have answers?
Or is just that he is as unwilling, or possibly as unable to do what it takes to make the Oilers a winning organization as the players, or coaches (like MacTavish) who usually shoulder the blame?
Is it fair to ask Andrew Cogliano to turn into Todd Marchant?
Do fans think it plausible to expect Tom Gilbert to play like Bryan Marchment?
Perhaps we should wait for Robert Nilsson to turn into Brendan Morrow.
You and I and anyone reading those suggestions would know they are ridiculous expectations. We have good players on this team who are capable of playing certain roles and learning other roles. At their current age, defensive responsibility is crucial to becoming a good professional but putting players in a position where they can't succeed is not a recipe for success.
The bottom line is, we have too many players trying to earn the same roster spots. Part of this bottom line is that we don't have established role players on a team that is supposedly able to roll four lines.
These are problems of a team in training camp, not a team that is 23 games into the season - injuries or not.
Forget Jagr. Erase all memories of Hossa and Heatley.
Let's even forget about Glencross and his Calgary-bound ways.
As a team, the Oilers need to focus on evaluating their current roster and what they need to add or subtract.
It may not be pretty, but it's the job that Tambellini promised to do.
The time is now for the promise to be kept.
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