Published April 15, 2013
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – The Edmonton Oilers have spent the last several years patiently awaiting another turn at greatness, but eventually someone had to pay the price for the rebuilding project's glacial pace.
When the Oilers fired general manager Steve Tambellini on Monday, it was a clear sign the club is heading into a new phase of recovery, or at least thinks it should be.
Edmonton has spent recent years stockpiling prospects thanks to the high draft picks that come when a team misses the playoffs for six straight years, but the task of getting the Oilers to the next level will now fall to Craig MacTavish, and not Tambellini.
By hiring MacTavish, however, the Oilers aren't exactly signifying there will be drastic changes in the organization's strategy, at least not while team president Kevin Lowe still looms large in Edmonton.
Lowe now gets to put his trust in MacTavish, a familiar face who not only played several years in Edmonton, but also was the last head coach to get the Oilers to the playoffs.
Oddly enough, MacTavish takes over for Tambellini, the man who fired him in April 2009, a little less than three years after he led an eighth-seeded Oilers club to within one win of the 2006 Stanley Cup title. Perhaps, Tambellini should've saw the warning signs that his job was in trouble when Lowe brought MacTavish back into the fold, hiring him as Edmonton's senior VP of hockey operations over the summer.
MacTavish was part of three championship teams during his playing days in Edmonton and was a member of the last Oilers team to lift the Cup in the spring of 1990. Also, a part of that team was Lowe, who even after MacTavish's hiring is still the man calling the shots for the Oilers.
Like MacTavish, Lowe had a history of winning as a player, as he claimed six Stanley Cup titles, including five with Edmonton, during his standout career as an NHL defenseman. Unfortunately, playing on so many great teams has not helped Lowe build a winner from his spot in the Edmonton front office and it's more than fair to lay most of the blame for the Oilers' lack of progress at his feet, and not Tambellini's.
Lowe took over as Oilers GM in 2000 for Glen Sather, the architect of the great Edmonton teams of the 1980s and early 1990s, and eventually was elevated to the post of president of hockey operations prior to the 2008-09 season.
The club has managed just three playoff appearances since Lowe was named GM, and the Oilers' best performance since his promotion to team president was in 2008-09, when they managed to finish fourth in the division with 85 points. However, Edmonton was at or near the bottom of the league standings in each of the next three seasons and wound up with the No. 1 overall pick at three straight NHL drafts from 2010-12.
The big problem for Lowe is that the club's recent No. 1 picks -- forwards Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov -- have generated a great deal of excitement for the franchise, but the trio's presence has done little to change Edmonton's fortunes in the standings.
The Oilers are better this season than they were in 2011-12, when they finished 29th out of 30 NHL teams, but they still seem to have a long way back to respectability. Edmonton fought valiantly to qualify for the playoffs in 2013 and was in the thick of the West's postseason race until suffering regulation losses in each of its last five games.
As it stands, the Oilers would need a miracle to not miss the postseason for a seventh straight year. The club is eight points out of a playoff spot with just seven games left on its regular-season schedule, meaning "the wait 'til next year" mantra is still in effect.
Lowe made it clear Monday that he's not happy with the team's progress at this point, but he never seemed comfortable implicating himself for his role in the situation.
In fact, during a tense press conference to announce the GM change on Monday, Lowe actually said, "It's fair to say that half the general managers in the National Hockey League will trade their rosters for our roster right now."
That's kind of an odd statement to make after firing a general manager and one that does little to appease the worries of an Edmonton fan base desperate to see the franchise's return to prominence.
"Despite showing improvement in areas this season, we are not where we want to be right now, nor where we should be," Lowe added. "We feel strongly we need to make changes right now.
"We need to get better immediately. That starts today with this announcement."
And if the Oilers don't get better, then what? Will it then be time for Lowe's head to go on the chopping block or will he get another lease on life while MacTavish is the one forced to pay?
With each season that passes without a playoff appearance, it's only fair that the patience due Edmonton's rebuilding project gets slimmer and slimmer. After all, in a sport where over half the league qualifies for the playoffs, it should not take the better part of a decade to achieve the minor goal of returning to the postseason.
All the while, Lowe continues to live in a future that has yet to arrive, one where his slow-moving vision of the Oilers has borne the fruits of his patience and proved all the doubters wrong.
The problem for Lowe is a few years ago he had all of Edmonton and most NHL fans believing in that version of the future. It's safe to say that's not the case today.