The Edmonton Oilers burst onto the NHL scene in the 1980s, dominating the league for the better part of a decade and winning five championships along the way. No one can ever take those successful years away from Edmonton, but ever since then the franchise has been somewhat of a mess—especially for the past 10 years or so.
The decline of the franchise started in the early-to-mid 1990s. Those were some pretty dark days for hockey in Edmonton, yet it was Aurora Borealis compared to the situation the fans have endured for the past decade.
The ‘90s Oilers were financially handicapped, so that had a lot to do with that era’s lack of success. When the salary cap was implemented after the 2004-05 lockout, it was supposed to even the playing field for the Oilers against the big budget teams of the league. When Daryl Katz bought the team from the EIG in 2008, that solidified it. They had a filthy rich owner who was willing to spend to the cap annually. The Oilers were ready to dominate.
Well, that didn’t happen, as we all are well aware. The franchise instead embarked on a decade that saw a series of management mistakes staple them to the cellar of the league, which is where they still reside today.
Today we’re going to look at the 25 worst management mistakes the Oilers have made in team history. Yes, there are a few from the 1980s and 1990s that made the cut, but you’ll find the vast majority have occurred in the past decade, which makes a lot of sense if you think about it. The majority of these moves were made by either Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, or Craig MacTavish.
Enjoy; here are the Top 25 Worst Management Mistakes in Edmonton Oilers History.
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25 Jeff Petry Saga
It’s common knowledge that the Oilers of today are in desperate need of help on the back end, which is why the mishandling of Jeff Petry was such a blow to the team.
In the 2014 offseason, GM MacTavish signed both Justin Schultz and Jeff Petry to one-year contracts. This made a little sense at the time, and it was ultimately MacTavish choosing Schultz over Petry. That was, obviously, a poor choice, and today neither rearguard is skating with the Oilers.
24 The 2008 Shawn Horcoff Contract
It was an interesting series of events. Shawn Horcoff was having a fantastic 2007-08 season, as he registered 50 points in his first 53 games, earning a spot in the All-Star game. However, he got injured at said All-Star game (or right before? After? It’s unclear…) and missed the remainder of the season.
With another year left on his contract, there was no rush to ink Horcs. GM Lowe saw it another way, and decided to sign Horcoff to a six-year contract extension that came with a $5.5 million AAV cap hit and ran through 2014-15. While he was injured. Horcoff never returned to anything close to his near point-per-game form, making the contract one of the worst in the league for five seasons or so.
23 Publicly Doubting, then Ditching Devan Dubnyk
Another beauty MacT move here. In a 2013-14 pre-season presser, MacTavish was asked if Devan Dubnyk was a capable NHL starter. MacT’s answer was a little longer than this, but here’s the money quote:
“I've always believed that when you're assessing goaltenders, if you have to ask the question you know the answer.”
Needless to say, Dubnyk had a rough start to the season (who’s to say if it was because of all that extra pressure placed upon him by his GM) and the Oilers traded Dubnyk, ultimately in favor of a Viktor Fasth/Ben Scrivens tandem. Just over a year later, Dubnyk was nominated for the Vezina Trophy.
22 Eric Belanger Signing
When GM Tambellini signed veteran UFA forward Eric Belanger to a three-year contract in the 2011 offseason, it seemed like a decent signing. Belanger had a history of consistency and reliability.
In hindsight, Tambo’s scouts obviously hadn’t done the proper assessment of the player, as Belanger was terrible for two seasons in Edmonton before being bought out. Tambellini made so many bad signings in his time behind the wheel, with this being one of the worst.
21 George Burnett Hiring
The Oilers have been pretty bad at hiring/firing coaches for 25 years now, and George Burnett was one of the worst of the bunch. Hired to start the lockout shortened 1994-95 season, Burnett didn’t even make it until the end of the 48-game campaign.
The Oilers hired Burnett from their farm club at the time, the Cape Breton Oilers. Burnett is proof that hiring from within the family isn’t always the best strategy.
20 Sheldon Souray Situation
Signing Sheldon Souray was a pretty decent boon for the Oilers at the time. They desperately needed help on the blue line, and Souray was a legit top-pairing defender. Management’s handling of Souray was the problem here.
Souray sustained a handful of injuries during his tenure as an Oiler, and that may have been frustrating for management. Souray was rushed back to the ice by Oilers brass on one of these occasions, a move that Souray cited as the reason he requested a trade from Edmonton in 2010.
19 Dustin Penner Offer Sheet
Kevin Lowe was a little trigger happy with the offer sheets in the 2007 offseason (more on that later), but the one he eventually did land was Dustin Penner. Penner wasn’t entirely useless as an Oiler, even registering a 32-goal season in 2009-10.
Offer sheets, however, aren’t really for teams looking to build for the future, as they deplete your draft picks if they’re not matched. The Oilers ended up passing Anaheim a lot of valuable picks in exchange for “pancakes,” losing a first, second, and third round pick in the process.
18 Miroslav Satan Trade
The Oilers made a deal with the devil (I think I’m funny) by sending Miro Satan to the Sabres in 1997 in exchange for Craig Millar and Barrie Moore. Millar and Moore combined to play a whopping 40 games for the Oilers.
Satan, on the other hand, went on to have a great NHL career. He retired with 735 points in 1,050 games played, and the Oilers have certainly regretted it ever since.
17 The 2012 Draft: Yakupov Over Murray
The Oilers held the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft for the third year in a row, and they were looking to add another quality top pick to their roster. They’d selected forwards Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins the previous two years, so organizational need was on defense.
According to Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, Oilers management and scouts held a meeting on the eve of draft day, and the scouts voted 9-2 in favor of selecting top-ranked defenseman Ryan Murray over Nail Yakupov. The Oilers “brain trust” overruled the vote, and now Edmonton has an enigmatic unproductive winger instead of a solid, potential franchise defenseman.
16 Lowe Running His Mouth
I’ll admit this is a vague entry for this list, but I think it’s important. Kevin Lowe was widely respected in Edmonton for his time as a player before he stepped into a management role with the Oilers. Since then, his reputation has deteriorated to the point where he likely has trouble visiting a grocery store in the city.
The sad part is, it’s not just the lack of success that’s hurt his rep (though that hasn’t helped). Lowe has a propensity to run his mouth when asked a simple question. From his “six rings” comment, to his division of fans into separate tiers (essentially based on the amount of money they spend), to his public tiffs with opposing GMs, and especially to this letter he penned to season ticket holders in 2007, Lowe has become public enemy number one in Edmonton.
15 Post-2006 Contract Extensions
After the Oilers fell just one game short of the Stanley Cup in 2006, GM Lowe wasted no time in signing his core to generous contract extensions. Fans at the time agreed with the move, but in hindsight it was ill-advised.
Not only did some of the contracts inhibit Lowe’s ability to keep fan favorite Ryan Smyth (more on that later), but he was inking these players to extensions immediately after they all played the best hockey of their careers. Regression was inevitable.
14 Griffin Reinhart Trade
This may seem a little high on this list, especially because it hasn’t even proven itself to be a terrible trade yet for sure. However, I believed that the trade Peter Chiarelli made last June to acquire Griffin Reinhart was pretty bad at the time, and I still believe that. (FYI, the trade was Reinhart for a mid-1st and high-2nd round pick).
What’s puzzling about this trade is that it’s a well-established fact that the Old Boys Club were giddy for Reinhart in his draft year thanks to his fine work with the WHL’s Oil Kings. Is it possible Chiarelli was listening to the old regime when he really shouldn’t have been?
13 The Handling of Justin Schultz
Oilers fans were over the moon when the team lured college free agent Justin Schultz to E-Town in 2012. Finally, an elite free agent chose to come to Edmonton! Finally, that stud defenseman the Oilers need so badly has arrived! And they didn’t have to forfeit a single asset!
Well, as it turned out, Schultz wasn’t as good as the scouts were saying he was. He had a solid rookie campaign, but his play deteriorated immediately following that season and never rebounded. However, the Oilers just couldn’t accept the fact that he was best suited as a third-pairing PP specialist and they continued to play him 22 minutes a night in a top-four EV role for several seasons, which still makes no sense to anybody.
12 Ray Whitney to the Waiver Wire
Ray Whitney started the 1997-98 season with the Edmonton Oilers. He’d played 172 NHL games with the Sharks already, so it’s not like he was a fresh-faced rookie at the time. Nonetheless, the Oilers decided they’d seen enough of Whitney after just nine games with the club, and they placed the winger on waivers.
The Florida Panthers claimed Whitney, and he made the Oilers regret it immediately. That very season he went on to record 61 points in 68 games with the Panthers. When he called it a career after the 2013-14 season he’d played 1,330 games and recorded 1,064 points.
11 The Botched Mike Comrie/Corey Perry Trade
Back in 2003, GM Kevin Lowe had a deal lined up with Ducks GM Bryan Murray that would have seen the Oilers procuring the services of one Corey Perry (PLUS a first round draft pick) in exchange for Mike Comrie. Murray was willing to pull the trigger, but Lowe called the deal off at the 11th hour because the Ducks refused to cover Comrie’s $2.5 million signing bonus he was owed.
Comrie was then dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers instead in exchange for Jeff Woywitka and picks that turned into Robbie Schremp and Danny Syvret. Yep, it happened.
10 Nikita Nikitin Signing
What a disaster this turned out to be. GM MacTavish first traded a draft pick to Columbus for the negotiating rights to Nikita Nikitin, who was set to become a UFA. Then he signed the Russian defenseman to a two-year, $9M contract.
What’s so frustrating about this for Oilers fans was that there was already plenty of evidence that Nikitin was barely an NHL defenseman, let alone a top-4 D-man (which is what you expect with a $4.5M cap hit). He had been a healthy scratch in Columbus a plethora of times in that previous season. Nikitin played most of 2015-16 on the Oilers farm club in Bakersfield. This is a team that has terrible defensive depth, keep in mind, so he should have at least been able to crack the roster.
9 Kevin Lowe Gets Offer Sheet Trigger Happy in 2007
We already mentioned the Dustin Penner offer sheet that wasn’t matched, but I felt a separate post was necessary for the summer of 2007 when K-Lowe got trigger happy with the offer sheets, burning bridges between himself and two different GMs in the process.
First, he offered former Sabres sniper Thomas Vanek a seven-year contract, which was matched by Sabres GM Darcy Regier. Then he threw one at Penner, which Anaheim was unable to match. This was a bad strategy for a few reasons: 1) offer sheets mortgage the future for a “win now” mentality, something the 2007 Oilers were obviously far from; and 2) it pisses off opposing GMs (not just the ones you’re screwing over, either), making future trades much more difficult to pull off.
8 Oilers Take Steve Kelly Over Shane Doan
In 1995, Edmonton hosted the NHL Entry Draft at Northlands Coliseum. Fans in Edmonton were abuzz, as they Oilers held the sixth overall pick that season, and it was sure to net them a pretty darn sweet prospect. Also, as it happened, Alberta boy Shane Doan was projected to go around sixth that year.
As Sather approached the podium after the Lightning called Daymond Langkow’s name, fans in Edmonton started chanting Doan’s name—they wanted to see the local boy in Oilers silks. Instead, Sather chose Steve Kelly, and Doan went to the Jets seventh overall. You know the rest.
7 Oilers Fire Tom Renney
Tom Renney was hired in the 2010 offseason to replace the late great Pat Quinn (a hire that almost made it onto this list). Renney was a great hire by Tambellini, but it’s too bad good ol’ Tambo never realized that himself.
After two seasons with the club, the Oilers fired Renney. This made sense in a way, because the Oil finished 30th and 29th under Renney. In another, much more accurate way, Renney should have been retained. He was a good coach who’d developed strong relationships with the young core at the time, and as we know now the coaching carousel did not work well.
6 Oilers Hire Craig MacTavish as GM
The Oilers fired Tambellini in 2013, which was a brilliant move because Tambellini was terrible. They hired Craig MacTavish to replace him, however, and that was a terrible idea.
MacTavish had no business being an NHL GM. After being fired by the club (as coach) in 2009, MacT went out and got an MBA or something (who cares), and all of a sudden he was eligible to be an NHL GM. This was the nail in the coffin for the Old Boys Club, who fell under heavier scrutiny because of this hire.
5 Paul Coffey Monetary Dispute
The 1980s Oilers were full of superstars, and the best defenseman they had was far and away Paul Coffey. It wasn’t feasible to keep the dynasty core together forever, and Coffey was the first to go. Unfortunately, the decision to trade Coffey was financially driven.
GM Glen Sather couldn’t come to terms on a new contract with Coffey, and eventually dealt him to Pittsburgh for a package highlighted by Craig Simpson. The Oilers would of course go on to win two more Cups in the next three years, but Coffey’s departure signaled the beginning of the end for the dynasty, as he was the first major piece to leave town.
4 Craig MacTavish Hires Dallas Eakins
When president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe named Craig MacTavish GM in the spring of 2013, one of his first moves was a controversial one. He fired head coach Ralph Krueger, who’d just coached the team to its best finish in four years (24th place) in the 48-game 2012-13 season (his first as head coach).
When MacTavish fired Krueger, he had recently interviewed Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins for an associate coach position. MacT was impressed by Eakins—so impressed, that he decided to cut Krueger loose via Skype and hire Eakins as the head coach. We all know how well that worked out.
3 Mark Messier Trade
While the Paul Coffey trade signaled the beginning of the end, the Mark Messier trade was the end of the end. The Messier trade was even worse though, because the return was even less than what Coffey garnered: a package of players that featured Bernie Nicholls and Louie DeBrusk.
Messier would of course go on to lead the New York Rangers to their first Stanley Cup in over 50 years just a few seasons later, which was just about the time that Oilers fans were learning what life was like at the bottom of the NHL standings.
2 Ryan Smyth Trade
It was the 2007 trade deadline when Kevin Lowe broke the hearts of an entire city over a few measly dollars. Working hard to negotiate a contract extension before the fast-approaching deadline, Lowe and Smyth’s camp never could reach an agreement, apparently squabbling over just a few hundred thousand dollars per season.
Not wanting to lose Smyth for nothing, he sent the fan-favorite winger to the New York Islanders for Ryan O’Marra, Robert Nilsson, and a first round draft pick (Alex Plante). That’s not exactly great return for one of the greatest Oilers of all time, and fans knew it.
1 The Sale of Wayne Gretzky
What else? Villainous former owner Peter Pocklington was a prolific businessman, but in the late 1980s some of his other ventures were floundering. The easiest fix for him was to of course sell his greatest asset—the best hockey player in the world— Wayne Gretzky.
After negotiating with a few other teams, Sather decided that the L.A. Kings were offering the most attractive package and he pulled the trigger. Part of that package was $15 million in cash, which would help Pocklington in his other business ventures but did absolutely nothing for the fans. The day after the trade, Pocklington was burned in effigy by fans outside of Northlands Coliseum.
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