The Edmonton Oilers currently hold the longest playoff drought in the NHL. The 2016 postseason marked the 10th straight year fans had to sit and watch a set of 16 other teams duke it out for Lord Stanley’s mug.
A lot of faces have come and gone since Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final—the last Oilers playoff game. Even ownership has passed hands since then, but only one man has been around for the whole journey, and that’s Kevin Lowe.
Lowe currently holds the made-up and totally bogus title of “vice-chairman” of the Oilers Entertainment Group. In any case, team management claims that he no longer has anything to do with the day-to-day operations of the hockey club, and whether we believe that or not, we’ll take it at face value—for now.
With that in mind, we can now safely look back at Lowe’s time at the helm (either as GM or president of hockey operations) and judge it mercilessly. That brings me to the title of today’s list: Kevin Lowe’s 15 Worst Moves as GM/President of the Edmonton Oilers. Happy reading!
15 Jesse Niinimaki
As you’ll soon find out, the list starts off with some of Kevin Lowe’s worst first round draft picks during the time he was GM. Whenever selecting a player in the first round, you at the very least expect the player to contribute to your team for at least a few seasons.
In 2002 the Oilers held the 15th overall pick, and with it Lowe selected Finnish forward Jesse Niinimaki. You’ve likely never heard that name before, unless you’re a fan of the Oilers, in which case you’ve likely poked your Kevin Lowe voodoo doll whilst shouting “and THIS is for the Niinimaki pick!”
Niinimaki never played a single NHL regular season game, and although he’s played pro hockey in Europe for 15 seasons now, the Oilers expected more from their first round selection from 2002. As you’ll soon find out, Niinimaki was far from Lowe’s only first-round bust as general manager.
14 Alexei Mikhnov
Ah yes, another epic bust, this one in the form of Ukranian Alexei Mikhnov. To be fair, Mikhnov did play a grand total of two NHL games with the Oilers in 2006-07. He was soon relegated to the AHL where he finished the season, and promptly returned to Europe upon its conclusion.
Lowe had a propensity to select European players in the first round during the early 2000s (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but it only worked out the one time for him, in 2001, when he went with Czech winger Ales Hemsky.
Mikhnov was picked 17th overall in 2000, which in fairness to Lowe and co. was a fairly shallow draft pool. That being said, a handful of useful NHLers went off the board after Mikhnov in the first round, some of which could have still been helping the Oilers today—Brook Orpik, Steve Ott, Justin Williams, or Niklas Kronwall, to name a few.
13 Marc-Antoine Pouliot
The 2003 draft class was something special. Looking back at it today, it more closely resembles the roster of an all-star team than it does the first round of any single draft year. There were, of course, five or 10 players who were a cut below the rest, though, and one of them was Lowe’s 22nd overall selection of Marc-Antoine Pouliot.
Pouliot was selected 22nd overall in the 2003 draft, immediately before a couple of players you may have heard of in Ryan Kesler and Mike Richards. In addition to that, all-star Corey Perry was also plucked off the board a few picks later (more on Corey Perry in a bit, by the way).
To be fair, Pouliot did experience somewhat of an NHL career; he played almost 200 games in the world’s best league, though he never really stuck or found a role on the team. He eventually defected to Europe, as so many rejected wannabe-NHLers do.
12 2009 Shawn Horcoff Extension
In the spring of 2008, Shawn Horcoff had just come off what could be considered a career year for him, at least from a points-per-game perspective, as he registered 50 in 53 games. His season was cut short due to injury, but you didn’t have to be a genius to look at the past and establish that 2007-08 was a bit of an outlier in terms of his production.
Furthermore, Horcoff still had one more season remaining on his previous deal, meaning there was no real rush to sign the two-way center. Lowe saw it differently, and decided to ink Horcs to a six year contract extension worth an AAV of $5.5 million.
Horcoff remained a reliable option for the PK and a two-way game during his time as an Oiler, but his offense effectively dried up in the first year of his deal, when he notched just 36 points in 77 games. He wouldn’t and hasn’t eclipsed that total since, meaning that his fat extension exactly coincided with a steep decline in production, which was predictable as he was 30 years old when it kicked in.
11 The Sheldon Souray Debacle
Sheldon Souray is perhaps the best defenseman the Oilers have employed since Chris Pronger (sad, I know). The relationship between management and Souray was rocky, to say the least. Frustrated with how he was treated by his bosses, Souray publicly spoke out against the Oilers management team, accusing them of forcing him back to the ice before he was fully healed from a hand injury.
It was an unprofessional on Souray’s part, to be sure, but the way the Oilers management team handled it was far worse. Led by Kevin Lowe (president at the time), the Oilers essentially said that Souray wasn’t welcome back at the upcoming fall’s training camp.
Souray was the best defenseman on the team at that point, and even if he’d lost a step he easily would have slid into the Oilers top four. But no, Lowe and co. were too butt-hurt to even entertain the possibility of accepting an apology or welcoming back their latest all-star to the fold, so they banished him to the minors.
10 Overseeing the Coaching Carousel
To be fair, the coaching carousel truly started when Lowe handed the GM reins to Steve Tambellini, but he held the title of President during Tambo’s entire tenure, so all decisions went through Lowe to some extent. To fire up the carousel, Craig MacTavish was relieved of head coaching duties (it was time), but his replacement was Pat Quinn, whose methods were slightly out of date.
He was then fired in favor of Tom Renney, who served as coach for two seasons. Renney was erroneously fired in favor of Ralph Kruger, who was a good replacement. It was after this coaching change that Lowe fired Tambellini and brought in MacTavish as the new GM.
That was a bad choice, as were most of MacT’s decisions that followed. He fired Kruger after one half season (the lockout year). That season just so happened to be the team’s best since 2008-09, but I digress. He replaced him with Dallas Eakins, and that failure is already well-documented so I won’t go on about that.
The point here is, how is a team made up of a core of very young men supposed to learn anything when they’re hearing a different message every 12 months?
9 Not Resigning in 2014
It wasn’t too long into the 2014-15 season that the fans turned vitriolic towards the Oilers, and for good reason. They stumbled out of the gate for the second straight season with Dallas Eakins behind the bench, and fans wanted answers as the team was sure to experience its ninth straight season out of the postseason and the calendar hadn't yet flipped to November.
Since he was the only guy who’d been around for all the failures, fans pointed at Lowe as the guy who needed to go. He’d overseen too much failure, and the time had come. They created a Facebook group called “Kevin Lowe Must Go,” took out full page ads in local newspapers, and even bought up billboard space (the recession hadn’t yet hit Alberta, obviously).
As the story goes, it was around this time that Lowe went into Darryl Katz’s office and asked his boss if he wanted him to resign. Katz apparently said no, but Lowe should have insisted. He only lasted one more season as president anyway, and it was another bad one.
8 The Mike Comrie for Corey Perry Trade Botch
Yes, there are two times that Lowe really screwed the pooch when it comes to Corey Perry. After passing him over for Marc-Antoine Pouliot at the 2003 draft, Lowe evidently had a trade lined up that would have sent Mike Comrie to Anaheim for Corey Perry AND a 1st round pick (later in 2003).
The offer seems too good to be true today, but I suppose you do have to keep in mind that Perry had just been drafted. Still though, Comrie wanted out of Edmonton and two first round draft picks is a pretty darn good return if you ask me.
Nonetheless, Lowe wasn’t quite satisfied with the offer, but he had an idea to make it work for him: simply get Comrie to reimburse the fat signing bonus he’d just received from the club. Comrie of course refused, because why would he hand over millions of dollars when he had pretty much no incentive.
And that’s the story of how Kevin Lowe basically won the 2007 Stanley Cup for the Ducks (when you factor in the Chris Pronger trade).
7 The 1st Round of the 2007 Draft
As we’ve already discussed, Lowe wasn’t so adept at the draft tables during his tenure as GM. Perhaps his most disappointing year was 2007 when he held three picks in the first round and more or less squandered all of them.
With his first pick, at 6th overall, he chose Sam Gagner. Gagner had a few good seasons with Edmonton for sure, and he looked to be a key piece for the future of the club. Flash forward to 2014, and the Oilers traded their prized pick for Teddy Purcell after consecutive disappointing seasons.
Let’s take a quick look at the other two picks Lowe had in that first round; Alex Plante went off the board at number 15, and you probably haven’t heard of him so that’s enough on him. The other player drafted, Riley Nash at number 21, is at least still an NHL player, but the fact that Max Pacioretty was the very next pick throws some salt in the wound.
6 The 2013 Press Conference
This presser, which was called to introduce Craig MacTavish as GM (more on that later) is the most egregious example of Kevin Lowe running his mouth to the media, but, in reality, there were several incidences that fall under the Lowe-with-his-foot-in-his-mouth umbrella. I’m going to stick with the now-infamous press conference here because I would end up with an essay otherwise. Here are some excerpts:
“We have two types of fans: we have paying customers and we have people that watch the game that we still care about but certainly the people that go to the games and support we spend a lot of time talking to them, delivering our message.”
“There’s one guy…in hockey today that is still working in the game that has won more Stanley Cups than me, so I think I know a little bit about winning if that’s ever a concern.”
He really comes off as an arrogant A-hole here. He divides fans into two groups—the rich and the poor, essentially—and is pretty clear as to which group he supports and prefers. Then he goes on about how he has won so many Cups but conveniently omits the important fact that his ring count as a member of team management remains at zero. Just a disgusting display of deluded arrogance here.
5 Feud with Brian Burke/Other GMs, and Burning Bridges
Not only did Kevin Lowe run his mouth to the media as GM/president of the club, but he even picked a few spats with opposing GMs, burning bridges along the way. There was that one fateful summer back in 2007 when Lowe got a little trigger happy on the offer sheets in an attempt to keep his team relevant (it failed, and angered opposing GMs in the process).
There was the public spat Lowe had with Brian Burke back in 2009 in which they traded schoolyard insults until the NHL stepped in and told them to cut it out (thanks Gary “Fun Sponge” Bettman). This essentially burned the bridge between himself and Burke, making deals between the two clubs moving forward impossible, at least while the teams were helmed by the disgruntled GMs.
It got to the point where Burke reportedly wanted to rent out a barn in which to fist fight Kevin Lowe; Bettman also put an end to this, which is unfortunate because such an event would go a long way in growing the game in America.
4 Hiring Steve Tambellini as GM
After stepping down as GM and assuming the role of president of hockey operations, Lowe’s choice for his replacement was one Steve Tambellini. It all depends on who you ask, but most Oilers fans will tell you that Tambellini is the worst GM in team history, and possibly in NHL history.
Personally, I think his successor gives him a good run at that honor, but nonetheless, it’s safe to say that Tambo was a dud of a GM. During his approximately five seasons as Oilers GM, he made very few moves of note, and he gained a reputation for being perhaps the most timid and dormant GM in the league—all while his team hovered at or near the NHL’s basement.
Lowe also gave Tambellini a little bit too much leeway as well, letting him occupy the GM seat for half a decade while the team not only failed to improve but essentially went down a long path of regression.
3 Hiring Craig MacTavish as GM
When Lowe finally decided to fire GM Steve Tambellini in 2013, fans were pretty excited. Finally, a new direction for this floundering hockey club! When it was announced that former head coach and long-time Oiler Craig MacTavish would be replacing him, fans were again confused.
They were simply unsure of how hiring yet another member of the 'Old Boys Club' represented a sweeping change for the franchise. To be fair, the fans were onto something, and they made some good points. Even the Edmonton MSM—usually a group who’s happy to tow the company line in exchange for access to the club—were critical of the move, which led to that fateful press conference (outlined in #6 on this list).
Many gave MacT the benefit of the doubt, but it didn’t take long for the doubt to take over. During his brief tenure as GM, MacT made a plethora of terrible moves, most notably trading for Nikita Nikitin’s rights and then signing him to an inflated contract. It was all bad.
2 Kruger Firing/Eakins Hiring
(To be fair, this was officially a MacT move, but Lowe oversaw all hockey moves as president, so the blame is found at his feet as well.)
Yes, there is a separate item on this list dedicated to the coaching carousel, but the Ralph Kruger firing/Dallas Eakins hiring is well deserving of its own entry. Kruger had worked his way up through the Edmonton Oilers coaching ranks, finally getting a shot as head bench boss to start the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
Kruger showed well in his first season (er, 48 games) as an NHL head coach, leading the Oilers to a 24th place finish. Yes, that’s not a great success story, but it is when you consider that it still stands as by far the best finish for the club since 2009.
Following the (relatively) successful campaign, MacTavish interviewed Dallas Eakins for an associate coaching position. MacT was so impressed with Eakins that he made the decision to unceremoniously fire Kruger (seriously, he did it over Skype) in favor of Eakins. Eakins is now considered to be one of the worst coaches in Oilers history, so this was obviously a poor decision.
1 Trading Ryan Smyth
It was Feb. 27, 2007, and the trade deadline was fast approaching. Lowe had been in negotiations with franchise cornerstone Ryan Smyth’s agent, Don Meehan, for months. Smyth had repeatedly taken a hometown discount on all of his previous contracts, and simply was requesting fair market value for his next.
As the clock ticked, fans started to sweat. What happens if they don’t reach a deal? Is it possible the Oilers lose Ryan Smyth for nothing this summer?
Then, the unspeakable happened. Lowe traded Smyth, who had bled blue and orange for 12 seasons, to the New York Islanders for what eventually ended up being spare parts. When details of the failed negotiations began to emerge, fans were livid with Lowe, who apparently let Smytty walk over a squabble of a few hundred thousand dollars per year. It remains to be the second-most disappointing trade (or perhaps third-most, if you’re super disappointed by the recent Taylor Hall deal) in team history.