The term “culture change” is both one of the worst and one of the most common cliches in the NHL vernacular at the moment.
At its lowest, it’s an empty phrase that advocates managerial/coaching change for the sake of change. Because culture is nebulous and internal, the new guy can proclaim it changed whenever he wants, regardless of what he actually does.
In some cases, though, a culture change is exactly what a team needs. No current NHL example is better than the Edmonton Oilers, a team that desperately needs to alter the way it does things.
For a brief time, the hiring of general manager Craig MacTavish seemed like a signal that such change was on hand.
On April 15, 2013, MacTavish was reintroduced to Oilers fans as the team’s new head of hockey operations in a press conference aired live on the team’s official site. After years of indecision and what MacTavish later described as “neglect-style” management, the new general manager offered a bold vision for the team.
“I’m an impatient guy, and I bring that impatience to this situation,” he said then. “I think that 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.”
More than a sense of action, MacTavish conveyed an understanding of the fiercely competitive nature of NHL management and the importance of doing absolutely everything possible to improve the team.
“Every time the alarm rings at my house, I know when I turn the alarm off, there’s 29 teams trying to beat my brains in,” he said.
That sense of urgency, the need to go out every morning and outperform the NHL’s other 29 teams, was exactly what the Oilers had lacked for many years.
For too long, the team had been content on plugging maybes into NHL slots.
Sometimes, it was young players, guys on whom the team rolled the dice and hoped for the best. Other times, it was indifferent veterans, players MacTavish later summed up by saying, “Really, the best they were going to be in any given game was a non-factor.”
The passion and the anger in MacTavish’s words promised a brighter future, a path where the team would be relentless in its pursuit of excellence.
Instead, less than two years later, the Oilers are once again doing many of the same things they did under MacTavish's predecessor, Steve Tambellini.
Take the willingness to sacrifice youth on the NHL altar.
Under Tambellini’s watch, many young Oilers were rushed to the NHL before they were ready, with Magnus Paajarvi and Anton Lander representing the best examples.
Under MacTavish, Edmonton left a centre slot open for Leon Draisaitl. Rather than forcing him to win a job against a veteran, they gifted him the position and hoped he’d be good enough.
Under Tambellini, the Oilers had no problem finding space for fringe NHLers like Lennart Petrell and Ryan Jones, and the team spent big money on reclamation projects like Cam Barker.
Jones was re-signed by MacTavish in 2013-14, while the place of men like Petrell has been filled by people like the now-departed Jesse Joensuu and every available mediocre ex-Toronto Marlie.
Will Acton is the poster boy for this trend. He’d never even scored 20 points in an AHL season when the Oilers gave him 30 games in 2013-14, and then he incredibly made the team out of training camp in 2014-15.
As for reclamation projects, Nikita Nikitin was always a better bet than Barker, but not at the cost of a two-year, $9 million contract.
To be sure, there have been changes. Under MacTavish’s watch, the Oilers have added a number of useful veterans through trade and free agency, with players like David Perron, Benoit Pouliot and Mark Fayne all joining the team. That’s three competent, mid-career veterans in a span of less than two years.
In his entire tenure, Tambellini was unable to add even one.
And it’s also fair to say that sometimes a team like Edmonton needs to gamble on maybes. This is a club lacking at a number of positions, and sometimes there’s nothing to do but roll the dice and hope for a hit.
But even with those caveats, the team’s approach under its new GM is not good enough.
That line quoted earlier about 29 other teams trying to beat the Oilers’ brains in captures the situation nicely. Nothing less than a relentless pursuit of excellence in all positions is good enough, because every team out there is fighting tooth and nail for every possible advantage.
It’s a bloody, desperate struggle, and in that kind of fight, every possible dirty trick and any fleeting advantage need to be pursued.
Edmonton hasn’t displayed that kind of urgency in ages, and it shows both on the ice and in the boardroom.
Take the professional and amateur scouting staffs as an example.
The Oilers have struggled badly going back ages to get value out of second-, third- and fourth-round draft picks, and yet the amateur scouting staff remains almost wholly intact.
The team has had the same problem for years in identifying undervalued players in the NHL, AHL and overseas. However, the professional scouting staff is untouched even as the team gives up on players it prioritized enough to sign:
After an initial spurt of activity, MacTavish’s team is showing the same old habits when it comes to roster construction, too.
Contrast the following quote on the team’s centre position (from an August press conference streamed on the team’s official site) with that comment about impatience or that line regarding 29 other teams trying to beat the Oilers’ brains in:
We’ve got Leon Draisaitl, which is a big question mark for an 18-year-old’s ability to come in. We’ve got Anton Lander, who has shown an ability to score and be a real good player at the American League level. We’ve got Mark Arcobello, who when we sent him back had two points per game at the American League level or very close [to it]; he’s got potential to fill one of those roles. When you look at our depth chart, I understand and certainly agree with that position having the most question marks. I think the onus is going to be on this current group of players to show an ability to be competitive for a playoff position. The onus is going to be on Arcobello, Anton Lander, Leon Draisaitl to show that they’re ready to play. If our team is competitive and we still have a hole or a question mark in those positions, then as the season goes on we get more information, there may be a potential to deploy some of our future assets to fill that current need. That would be something that we would be interested [in doing].
A team like Nashville—at the moment three points out of first in the NHL after missing the playoffs in 2013-14—had major questions at centre and no ability to bring in a real difference-maker. So the Predators went out and signed Olli Jokinen, Mike Ribeiro and Derek Roy to cheap, short-term contracts.
Jokinen’s been a bust and Roy’s been indifferent, but the team hit big-time on Ribeiro, who has 25 points in 28 games.
Edmonton didn’t sign anybody. Like Nashville, the Oilers had major questions at centre and no ability to trade for a difference-maker. Unlike Nashville, the Oilers decided that meant the best course of action was to hope for the best and maybe make a trade in November or December if there was a problem.
It’s December now, and there’s a problem, but of course it’s far too late to fix it.
It’s time for culture change. When MacTavish was hired, he came into the job with a fiery determination to compete fanatically with the NHL’s other 29 teams, to boldly put together the best possible team he could.
The hope was that he could alter the Oilers’ “good enough” approach, the culture of losing that has condemned the team to nearly a decade of irrelevance.
Twenty months in, it appears the team has rubbed off on him more than he’s rubbed off on the team.
Contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.