For those who don’t remember the 5 years when the Oilers won the whole damn thing, it’s probably a little galling to follow a team whose glory years are a distant bell.
Kevin Lowe parlayed those seasons into a career as an NHL executive and has been the Oilers GM for since the turn of the century.
Evaluating General Managers isn’t an easy thing to do, after all there are several levels of success that can be measured but Stanley is the only one that really counts to fans.
We’re in a transition period for the Oilers and their fans, with the “you’re lucky to even have a team” Glen Sather years having given way to “let’s get through to the new CBA” and then “hey, Katz has money” and now we can see a time when fretting over the Oilers moving to Houston or Walla Walla are no longer annual story opportunities for the likes of Al Strachan and writers of his level (I still don’t know how he’s been forgiven for that statement about the New Jersey Devils employee).
A few years ago I did a “Kevin Lowe in a Box” post at Hockey’s Future. Basically it’s a review of his career in the front office through a variety of questions and hopefully we come out the other end with a reasonable conclusion. Complete theft from Bill James, and the idea here is to take bias and emotion out of the equation and put the facts on the table. You should know I enter this little exercise as a pro-Lowe fan who can certainly see there have been massive errors during his tenure.
- In 8 full years, how many trades has Lowe made? 44. From 2000 summer through 2004 lockout, he made 26, or 6.5 per year. From summer 2005 through spring 2008 he made 18, which is 6 a year but we have this year’s draft to go. Six transactions a year seems like a lot of turnover, but many of these deals affected picks, UFA’s and other assets that didn’t immediately impact the roster.
- How many deals involved draft picks? 33/44, or 75%. This might not be completely accurate, as the Oilers acquired Blake Evans on December 13, 2005 for “future considerations” and I’ve never been able to find out if it was cash, etc.
- How many were financial deals? Before the lockout, the Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Roman Hamrlik deals had that look. Since the lockout, you could say Smyth being traded was about money but I don’t believe it.
- When does he deal? 19/44, or 43% before, during or shortly after the draft. 14/44, or 32% at the deadline. 5/44 at training camp, 2/44 in November (the Guerin/Carter blockbuster and then they dumped Semenov in ’05), 3/44 in December (guys who were struggling, Kilger, Josh Green plus the Blake Evans deal), 1/44 in January (minor deal involving Rory Fitzpatrick). 75% of his deals happen around the draft or at the deadline, which follows a logical path.
- Has he made any flat out steals? For a couple of years, the Poti/York deal was cited as being a steal, now not so much. Based on how it worked out, the Niinimaa/Torres deal was a steal but Janne was hurt and couldn’t deliver the goods. Since the lockout, the Pronger/Brewer deal would have to be considered a franchise altering trade.
- Was he schooled on any deals? The Pronger trade. Lowe dialed back the median age for his roster with the trade and got only one immediately useful part in return. Add to that the fact Lupul was ineffective in all areas and that Lowe didn’t do enough to fill the gap on the blueline and it effectively collapsed the Stanley team. Before the lockout, Weight/Hecht and Parise/Pouliot deals are often mentioned.
- How many of the 44 trades were beneficial? 18. Carter/Guerin; York/Poti; Grier for picks; Dvorak/Carter; Niinimaa/Torres; Nedved/Helminen; Gilbert/Salo; Pronger/Brewer; York/Peca; Tarnstrom/Cross; Spacek/Salmelainen; Roloson/1st-3rd; Samsanov/Reasoner; Hedja/7th; MAB/Grebeshkov; Smyth/Nilsson; Pitkanen/Lupul; Glencross/Tarnstrom. 4 of those trades happened at the ’06 deadline, which would have to be considered Lowe’s high water mark as a GM.
- How many of the 44 trades were negative? 7. Weight/Hecht; Dopita/picks; Niinimaki/Higgins; Parise/Pouliot; Woywitka/Comrie; Chimera/picks; Pronger/Lupul. Far fewer, but the Pronger deal was a massive error, one that will probably go down as one of the 10 or so worst trades in the history of the game. It was that bad.
- How many of the trades were neutral? 19. These are deals like Semenov/7th; Zholtok/Kilger, those kinds of deals.
- How many big contracts? Before the lockout, Lowe gave big money to several players, including Doug Weight (1yr/4.3), Tommy Salo (3yrs/mondo), Mike Comrie (3yrs/close to 9 million), Janne Niinimaa (3yrs/8.5), Eric Brewer (2 yrs/4), Ryan Smyth (2yrs/7), Mike York (3yr/5.6). All of those pale in comparison to the Pronger, Roloson, Hemsky, Penner, Souray deals. The Edmonton Oilers spend much closer to the cap and far more (in comparison to the rest of the NHL teams) than they did before the lockout. The Souray deal is in another league altogether.
- How many contracts blew up? The Roloson deal proved to be too long for too little, but let’s face it several of those guys who had big Stanley runs were overpaid. Roloson, Pisani, you know the list. Collectively they’ve blown up in that the Oilers (seemingly) have more overpaid role players than anyone in the league. The real problem though is the Souray deal, which is a Denver boot on every move this team will make for the next couple of seasons and possibly beyond. I’ll mention the Dustin Penner deal here, although we have a ways to go before making the call on the contract.
- How many contracts were exceptional value? The Pronger deal, the Hemsky deal, the Horcoff deal, the Staios deal. The Oilers do some nice mid-level deals and the Hemsky contract is terrific value.
- How many NHL free agents did he sign? These are free agents who weren’t traded for first, which means names like Roloson aren’t included. The first player mentioned in this category is Steve Staios, who has had a really nice career in Edmonton after coming over from Atlanta. Adam Oates was also signed, and Igor Ulanov too, all before the lockout. Since then, Lowe has had more success on the free agent front, from minor players like Todd Harvey to big ticket items like Dustin Penner, Sheldon Souray, Petr Sykora. He’s also signed some useful defenders in that time, like Daniel Tjarnqvist and Dick Tarnstrom. His signing of Mathieu Garon was a fine move and offsets some of the impact of the huge dollar deals.
- How many minor league free agents/college kids/undrafted juniors has he had luck with? Scott Ferguson, Dominec Pittis, Ty Conklin, MA Bergeron, Mike Bishai and Steven Valiquette were all brought in and at least played for the Oilers before the lockout. Two of these players (Conklin, Bergeron) played significant roles on the hockey team. After the lockout, the Oilers had good fortune with Patrick Thoresen and a player to watch this fall is Bryan Lerg, who was acquired in an “under the radar” manner ala Bergeron.
- How have things gone at the draft? We’re now at a point where we’re giving credit to Lowe for things others in the organization are responsible for but it’s worth mentioning he put them in place and gave them authority to make the picks. Ales Hemsky, Sam Gagner and Andrew Cogliano represent an improved record in the first round, and Jarret Stoll, Kyle Brodziak, Matt Greene and Zack Stortini prove the procurement department can uncover gems outside the first round. I’d give the Oilers a solid 80% rating at the draft table with Kevin Lowe as GM. They’ve been good. Honest.
- What are his strengths? Kevin Lowe delivered on his promise to make it to the 2004 CBA with a young, inexpensive team that was ready to succeed. He stripped it down to the core, and dealt off most of his high skill guys, but no one on the roster made close to 5 million. A couple of summer deals for Pronger and Peca, add to that several excellent decisions at the deadline and the Oilers came within a hair of a Stanley. He’s also a very impressive “face” of the organization, a player whose connection to the glory years gives fans a sense of comfort even when the club is routinely missing the playoffs. He was hired when the team was in “survival” mode and continues to be a champion in those areas of procurement (small trades, under the radar free agent signings, the draft).
- What are his weaknesses? He has a few. First, Loyalty. Rumors have Buchberger and Simpson coming back to the mother ship this summer and that falls in with previous management decisions. It’s ridiculous to argue that all of these men are the best possible candidates for the job. I’m not saying Charlie Huddy isn’t good at his job, or Craig MacTavish or even Kelly Buchberger. However, fresh ideas come from fresh minds and these men have spent years together dating back to early manhood. Second, Contracts. His contracts have always been a worry and this summer’s promise could easily be erased with another rash move. Third, Pride Goeth Before a Fall. Kevin Lowe has been in reaction mode since the Pronger trade, seemingly eager to regain his previous reputation. His Penner Souray contracts have had a major impact on the hockey club and the future. His “is it me?” interview in the Edmonton Journal gave us a glimpse into his mindset and his priorities and he has been scrambling ever since. He had a beauty summer starting last season when signing Garon and dealing for Pitkanen, but the Penner and Souray contracts diminished those moves and more.
- Anything else? Yes. It’s very important that we put to bed the “Ryan Smyth $100,000 difference” idea. If you look at the events that followed the Stanley run and put them in proper order everything becomes clear. Let’s say that at the trade deadline in 2006 or thereabouts Ryan Smyth went into Kevin Lowe’s office and said “hey Kevin, I’d like a new contract.” After the season ended, with Pronger’s trade request about to become public, with the draft coming up and with many big money decisions to make, the Edmonton Oilers did the following:
- June 28: Declined the $1.9M option on Ty Conklin’s contract.
- June 30: Declined the option on Todd Harvey’s contract.
- June 30: Signed Fernando Pisani to a 4yr/$10M contract.
- July 1: Signed Dwayne Roloson to a 3yr/$11M contract.
- July 3: Traded Chris Pronger for Joffrey Lupul and others.
- July 4: Signed UFA Marty Reasoner to a 2yr/$1.9M contract.
- July 6: Signed UFA Daniel Tjarnqvist to a 1yr/$1.625M contract.
- July 10: Oilers trade 7th rd pick to Buffalo for Jan Hejda.
- July 12: Signed Shawn Horcoff to a 3yr/$10.8M contract.
- July 20: Signed Craig MacTavish to a 4yr extension.
- July 21: Signed Tom Gilbert to a 2yr contract.
- July 22: Signed Jarret Stoll to a 2yr/$4.4M contract.
- July 25: Signed Ales Hemsky to a 6yr/$24.6M contract.
- August 11: Signed Petr Sykora to a 1yr/$2.9M contract.
The Edmonton Oilers made their decision on Ryan Smyth long before they traded him, and Smyth himself must have known it wasn’t going to happen. Somewhere between Fernando Pisani’s contract and Shawn Horcoff’s contract logic dictates the Oilers would have signed Ryan Smyth if they felt he was part of the future.
They didn’t. It’s the same this summer with regard to Shawn Horcoff. The Sheldon Souray and Dustin Penner deals are going to look even more ghastly should Edmonton sign Jarret Stoll and allow Shawn Horcoff to come to camp as an impending UFA.