Strategic Initiative (The Rebuild) – by Norweigan Oiler

By , January 29, 2010 12:01 am

My Take on Taking Strategic Initiative

As from a grotesque fairy tale, the doomsday prophets of this forum emerge from their lairs to claim their spoils. Unfortunately, many are too busy giving themselves credit to receive additional pats on the back. These grim losing days, growing ever so familiar as it rhymes so well with our past, do seem to narrow our vision to the level of 2008-Hemsky looking for the power-play back door pass. If it is possible to describe this season as a reversion to the performances we have become all to familiar with (although reversion implies some change) so the fans revert to their explanatory theories. Most of the time they orbit, like trusty lunar objects, around reactive measures – the sacking of a coach, the removal of a player, the stripping of a captaincy or the execution of the executives. What about pro-active approaches? As Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Once again I will shamelessly forge my arguments in the foundries of far greater speakers than I, as Dwight D. Eisenhower said: “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Planning, at least planning discernible from the outside, has been glaringly absent in recent years. Seneca noted that “If you do not know to what port you are sailing, no wind is favourable” and that still illustrates how one should “Never confuse movement with action” (as Hemingway put it). And mounted loyally astride on the directionless Oiler prairie horse are the fans, though we seem to face backwards far too often. It is always about blame here, now we’re busy figuring out if Lowe or Tambellini is most responsible, naturally so, because as with most mammals the droppings of the equus is left in its trail. But what about the road ahead?

I shall in no way proclaim to possess any definite solution, as obstructed, uninformed and limited as my insight into the dynamics of the General Management of a NHL team is, but I will attempt to illuminate what emphasis I believe to be rational from what understanding I have formed.

The Edmonton Oilers: Planning for the Future

Stage 1: Establishing a Team Philosophy & Taking the Initiative

Robertson Davis’s observation fits uncanningly well for a team with a glorious past, but with a obscure future: “The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealised past.” Retaining admiration and respect for the past achievements of the team is a backbone on which you can attach future values, but trying to re-create or revert to some kind of formula of the past seems a waste to me. The conditions for success are not the same and we are better off looking forward for answers.

It is also time to stop trying to mould our game on other teams (such as trying to mimic Detroit’s so-called ‘puck-possession’ game, etc.) We should determine our own philosophy and have others attempt to replicate it instead. This is where I apply the term ‘strategic initiative’, we must never stop learning from other teams, but walking in other teams’ footsteps (or strides…) will never propel us into first place. Stop looking at single elements of teams (Detroit’s skill as a defining element, San José’s size as a single element, etc.) as something to aim for in itself. Success is built from many building blocks, but the structure of it can vary. Limit yourself too much and there will be a shortage of material from which to construct. Veer too much and there will be no structure at all.

1) Roster makeup: I propose that the Oilers seek to balance their approach a bit more, supplement their current strengths with a bit more size, but avoiding another pendulum swing causing us to cry for someone who can hold on to the puck when all the newly acquired ‘size’ has caused a turnover. I would like to see a healthy blend of skills, focused on a strong, versatile center line and a blueline with authority in their own end as well as ability to carry the puck. Emphasise on character toughness, not just physical strength. Not everyone needs to throw, or is most effective while throwing, big hits. Playing big is a result of confidence in both oneself and the team around you – yet somebody needs to lead the charge. These are ideals that most (if not all) teams seek, so I will spend more time drawing out specific examples from our team below.

2) Prospect Development: I am a keen believer in bringing up players in a position where they can succeed. More often than not that means not rushing players, but allowing them to be leaders of their level as much as possible without depriving them of the challenges necessary to step up to the next plateau. Training camps are fine for evaluation, but over-estimating the readiness of younger (especially undersized) players should be avoided. Taking the route through Springfield is not likely to be as risky as being brought up ‘too early’ to the NHL.

3) Build from within: Says it all. Drafting should allow the organisation to develop both the player himself and the sense of loyalty between the two. I am not saying that some unbreakable bond can be established, but allowing prospects both the time and chance to succeed at your club hopefully leads to a club culture where re-signing is easier and hence creating a better atmosphere within and reputation in the league at large.

Stage 2: Identify Building Blocks
The most important element in this strategic initiative is to think long term and not to sail for safer waters just because a storm is brewing. Veering from the set course will only make the journey that much longer. Continuing the maritime anology, there is nothing wrong, however, with some well timed piracy. Should a good opportunity to steal a player or two, take it, but don’t change the course too much in the process. That lesson should be hard coded after the Hossa, Jagr, Heatley failures.

As anyone will have noticed, I figure this to be a long term endeavour. Naturally, it is easy to give up on most players in times where the chilling plus/minus stats freeze the fans’ love, appreciation and respect. Even if the puzzle is currently incomplete, providing nothing but an obscure image of what may be, not all of the pieces are necessarily worthless as such. They just have to be put in the right place and be complemented with the right acquisitions.

The current roster is one I would divide into the following (general) groups:

Future Building Blocks
(Players that should be kept unless highly favourable deals come our way, which is not much of a worry for any team. Call these de facto ‘untouchables’)

* Ales Hemsky (Who is still young enough to play a vital role in the future, has world class skill and does have the ability to improve the play of his teammates)

* Sam Gagner (His vision and playmaking ability is undeniable, is becoming a more gritty and determined player, though he still too inconsistent to elevate the team at the moment.

* Andrew Cogliano (Despite his lack of production, I see an extremely determined, fast and gritty player in Cogs. He has some ways to go in terms of strength on the puck, but his agility and speed outweighs much of his size disadvantage. He also appears to be setting high standards for himself and I see a future leader in him)

* Gilbert Brule (Another undersized player who possesses much character and determination. With the right complementary players he can excel, as he has shown at times playing with Penner. Gritty, fearless and a decent two way player)

* Ladislav Smid (Possesses most of the qualities that define what kind of defenseman I think the Oilers should acquire more of. Gritty, yet agile and able to carry the puck into the zone. His production is not the best, but he certainly has the make of a minute-logging #3-4 defenseman. Clearly has a positive personality and possibly also a good leader in the future)

* Dustin Penner (Certainly has a place on the team if he plays like he has this year. Still has to show consistency, but that is the case with nearly all of our current players)

* Lubomir Visnovsky (One whose fate is tied with Souray’s, but between them I think I’d keep Lubo – he’s more versatile, as good defensively and clearly elevates the play of his defensive partners. Has a very positive demeanor, is a different kind of leader, but valuable nonetheless. I don’t see his salary as a problem as long as other players can be traded – we have to reach the cap floor (though it is likely not going to be a problem…)

Possible Keepers(?)
(Players with the potential to be keepers, depending on other deals and how they develop in the near future)

* Denis Grebeshkov (His fate is inevitably connected with his RHD counterpart, Gilbert. Yet I believe Grebeshkov to possess greater talent and potential than Gilbert. Though smaller than Gilbert, Grebeshkov has shown he can throw some good checks, has as good vision and passing as Gilbert (if not better) and paired with a more stable partner he can flourish as he did last season)

* Robert Nilsson (Excellent hockey mind, and I think he can contribute – but he is perhaps more reliant upon having complementary linemates than a few others. If he could land us a good deal, sure, but I would not at all seek a deal at any price)

* Jeff Deslauriers & Devan Dubnyk (Finally getting playing time, yet under less than ideal circumstances. Not at all untradable, but it is unlikely with the market for goalies than any significant deal comes along. In the meanwhile we should wait and see with these goalie prospects)

* Zach Stortini (Fills his role, has improved defensively. Slot him in for 4th line duty and we’ll have a loyal, hard working grinder at good value)

Temporary keepers
(Players that aren’t untouchable as such, yet can provide leadership, some stability and fill the holes while prospects are developed or simply fill lower line roles. Naturally, these are tradeable players, but not necessarily first in line for the bus out of town)

* Nikolai Khabibulin (Again, the market limits most realistic deals. Should be able to mentor the youngsters to some degree)

* Ryan Potulny, JF Jacques, Ryan Stone – (All decent role players with good contracts, unlikely to bring in much in a trade, so for the moment they should play lower line roles and be replaced as better prospects emerge – if they do…)

Tradeables
(Players I would look to 1) Actively trade if possible, without bringing in contracts that are insensible to the long-term plan or 2) Allow to walk when their contract is up)

* Patrick O’Sullivan (The excess of smallish players forces someone to the outside. His salary is what tips him into this category over for example Nilsson)

* Shawn Horcoff (A deal seems unthinkable at the moment, so I’d prepare to let his contract run out. As long as his salary alone is not what keeps us from signing younger, better players he seems to be staying. Waiving him is not an option in my opinion, he still has something to bring, but not at all in the capacity he has been expected to this far.

* Ethan Moreau/Mike Comrie/Steve Staios/Fernando Pisani/Jason Strudwick (Shiver, Moreau’s one of my favourite players for his grit and relentlessness. Yet, keeping with the philosophy of looking forward, Moreau is a tradeable asset that could well bring in a mid-level prospect/draft pick still – similarly so with Steve Staios, Jason Strudwick and Fernando Pisani – the latter’s contract is expiring anyway. Comrie is good value-for-money so I wouldn’t mind seeing him return until bigger top 6 forwards come along, but he is not an essential piece of our future in my opinion)

* Sheldon Souray (As mentioned, his fate is by virtue of age/salary considerations tied with Lubo’s, but I think Souray should be the one to be moved. I certainly think his type of player is valuable, but his age is not in sync with the timeline I envision)

* Tom Gilbert (Again, linked with Grebeshkov, but I think we could move Gilbert and more easily bring back a player of similar ability and lower salary – however his handedness gives him an edge over Grebs as RHDs are harder to come by. I don’t see the will to win in Gilbert, way too often he is too soft, unconcentrated and slow – although, at the moment, the same can be said of Grebs. It comes down to belief in future ability and potential I suppose)

Obviously, it is not realistic to be able to move all these players and in the process only bring in younger, better players – and those who are not moved this deadline or the next are players whose deals will have to be played out. During that time, however, it is requisite that new acquisitions are still given a chance to break into the lineup in the best way possible, having priority over players deemed to have little long-term future at the club.

Prospects to keep
(Players either unsigned or in the minors we ought to hang on to until they can mature their game and take the next step)

* Jeff Petry (I hope to see him become at least a #3-4 two-way defenseman)
* Jordan Eberle (At least a top 6 forward, power play regular)
* Magnus Pääjarvi-Svensson (Same as Eberle)
* Anton Lander (Hopefully a potential 3rd line 2-way player of good quality and versatility)
* Taylor Chorney (as Petry, however seemingly a bit less talented?)

These are, naturally, also players that can be moved should a deal come along, but bar some marvellously lop-sided deal we could be well off letting these players develop into bigger roles (There is a range of other prospects to rate, though my knowledge of them is even more limited and this essay has already spiralled out of control, so I shall discuss them upon request if I at all can.)

Stage 3: Acquire future assets to fill the gaps

Hopefully a combination of the tradeable assets could bring us an additional first round draft pick this year, even if it is in the 20-30 overall range. Stacking up on draft picks whenever possible is a foundation for having options in the future (see for example the Kings opposed to the Panthers, one has traded for picks, the other has traded away a number of good picks in recent years)

Just as a final note, I would take an extra look at players like Jack Skille (whose position on the Hawks depth chart is low due to the overall quality of their forward corps) David Steckel (an excellent role player, yet possibly unattainable due to his salary and figure as an important role player) Matt Lashoff, Oskar Osala, Nick Petrecki, etc. (Just throwing some names out there, their value, potential and availability are of course debatable)

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