Edmonton Oilers president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe is a lot of things.
He’d be quick to remind you that he is a multiple-time NHL All-Star and only slightly less frequent Stanley Cup champion from his time with the team that won so many game in the 1980s.
He’s also an indisputably bad NHL general manager who only got his job because of who he is and what he did for the franchise in the past. He’s the executive on whose watch perhaps the ugliest stretch of futility seen league-wide since the Pittsburgh Penguins of the early 2000s.
And so imagine the absolute balls it must take to stick with the Oilers’ long-time tradition of being a good old boys club in naming his new general manager, and meeting all skepticism leveled at him and his decision — the latest on a long list of those that have been questionable at their absolute best, dating back to right around when he took the Edmonton GMing job, and seems destined to expand in perpetuity like the universe itself — by saying, “I think I know a little bit about winning, if there’s ever a concern.”
The fact of the matter is that, unless Lowe means he knows about what it takes to win in the NHL is roughly on par with the rest of ours, the room should have exploded in paroxysms laughter and knee-slapping. What it takes to win in the NHL is good players, and the Oilers haven’t had that lying about — save for that time they traded next to nothing for Chris Pronger somehow — in a good decade at least.
The facts are these: On this guy’s watch, Edmonton has made the playoffs twice since 2000-01, which is an almost stunning run of futility broken up by, as Lowe would have you remember, a team that was “one period away from winning the Stanley Cup.” The fact that he not only remained employed by the team, but actually got a promotion out of the deal, after the organization finally acknowledged it would blow up the roster just four years after that fateful non-Cup run says a whole hell of a lot about the way it’s been run. The fact that he was able to 86 the guy brought in to keep them competitive and then start the rebuild in earnest (having definitively failed at the one and seemingly on his way to having done so at the other), then replace him with a guy he originally fired as coach… well, it all begins to defy reason at some point.
Obviously a lot of this has to do with the organization itself, and the fanboyism engendered by all the winning of the 1980s — insofar as it gets pretty hard to name an Oiler besides Wayne Gretzky or Mark Messier who won at least a Cup with the team and isn’t still involved with it in some way — and the apparent lack of consequences for this decade-plus of failure. The organization is to some extent complicit in the same thing the Flames have been doing for years, which is constantly reminding people of things that happened seven years ago as if they have any bearing on the 29th- and 30th-place finishes of the last few years. Well, at least Lowe is, because at the end of the day this is a GM hire seemingly predicated on that, and certainly not on MacTavish’s involvement with the actual business of running a hockey team; after his coaching days, he was senior VP of hockey ops for less than a year before getting promoted to the big-time, and the man who will apparently be shepherding him on his new career path is Scott Howson, arguably the second-worst general manager of the last several years behind only Steve Tambellini himself.
I wonder, too, about the extent to which Tambellini’s failure as a guy who wasn’t a lifetime Oiler drove the decision to return to the cronyism that doomed the club in the first place, because while all MacTavish would talk about in his presser was the club’s future, all Lowe did was focus on its past. Leaving aside that we’re not exactly talking glory-days type stuff when he brings up his own managerial track record, you’d think he’d want to distract as much as possible from the fact that he’s been asleep at the switch for years now. It’s been said a lot that Lowe tended to give Tambellini considerable leeway in his dealings, and it’s at least good that he’s smart enough to realize it’s not his job, and perhaps that he’s terrible at it.
But what struck me was that Lowe and MacTavish seemed to be at loggerheads. As an organization, you don’t get to lean on your years of managerial, ahem, expertise while also saying that things will be different and you’re just the guy to do it. They don’t let lawyers who get disbarred be lawyers any more, for example, but in Lowe’s case, they let him step behind the bench and wear a nice black robe. That’s kind of amazing, right? All the losing and he fails up and gets to heft more weight in making ongoing decisions. You have to admire how teflon he’s made himself, at the very least. If MacTavish tanks — and given the quality of his young roster players, he probably won’t, especially if he can bring in even two half-decent NHL defensemen — what position is higher than president of hockey ops to which Lowe can get promoted? Will he get to cut Darryl Katz’s hair?
As with the Oilers’ hilarious foray into pretending to care about advanced stats (all I could think about during the presser was the new Oilers GM looking at a poster for a zone entries study at the MIT Sloane Sports Conference and dismissing it as being “that GVT stuff” without a second thought), all this really seems like is lip service, though you couldn’t say to whom, and playing at having an understanding of why things have gone so horribly wrong.
Of course, the real chutzpah exhibited by Lowe at the presser was essentially telling every fan who hasn’t bought a ticket the last few years — for whatever reason; probably all the losing— where they could cram their concerns that he’s horrible at his job. And that, I guess, tells you everything you need to know about this Oilers organization: Everything’s fine until it’s not, but even then the guys who made it not-fine get to make everything fine again. And if you have something to say about it, your stupid ass better buy a ticket first. But then by buying a ticket, you essentially vote with your wallet and give the team no financial incentive whatsoever to change, which is why the Oilers are only now figuring out how bad things have gotten in the first place. If they had somehow lucked into the playoffs this year, which was a very real possibility up until about two weeks ago, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
The way this team is run, the fact that those who’ve run it act as though they’re not one more disastrous personnel decision away from the rink being on fire, and the unmitigated gaul it must take to say fans aren’t entitled to any opinion other than “Taylor Hall No. 1 forever!!!!” suggests that none of this is going to change any time soon. New GM, old GM, doesn’t really matter. It all ends in tears.