Spector on NHL: The heat is on Oilers brass

The heat is on general manager Steve Tambellini to start shaping the Edmonton Oilers. (CP/John Ulan)

EDMONTON – As Year 3 of the Great Rebuild closes in Edmonton, a strange irony begins to emerge.

The rebuild, per se, is going very well. There are at least four players here who will play in Olympic tournaments and World Cups one day, and two or three more solid young names in support – more than enough of a core around which this thing could succeed.

The trouble, alas, resides in the remnants. The veteran players who have been here – or have been brought in more recently – whose help for the pack of kids that have been assembled, have been almost nonexistent.

The Oilers lost 3-1 to the Phoenix Coyotes Wednesday night. They are done now, five points and four teams removed from a playoff spot with eight games to play.

That much is not earth shattering in Oil Country. Three years into this traditional, patient rebuild, the playoffs weren’t a must. Next year, yes, but not this.

What has become clear here is that the kids are delivering.

Here’s the big question though: Can the general manager do the same?

We’re never overly sure who has the final say at Oilers HQ, but even if general manager Steve Tambellini is the front man for the conglomerate of himself, team president Kevin Lowe and his right-hand man Craig MacTavish, then that too is fine. There’s nothing wrong with a team effort – if it gets results.

But who on the team takes responsibility for Ales Hemsky, the epitome of poor leadership and professional indifference, who stands as an awful example for an impressionable core.

When you talk about changing a losing culture, you talk about moving out Hemsky – a player seemingly satisfied with an April exit, season after season.

Hemsky doesn’t work on his game post-practice; he doesn’t produce during games; he is eternally injured; he is overpaid for his production. If he had signed a five-year deal instead of a two-year contract, and cared a bit more, he’d be Mikhail Grabovski.

When it’s all over, and the 19th game has passed in which Hemsky has delivered but a single goal for his $5-million salary, he didn’t even have the stones to stand in front of a media microphone Wednesday. Again he refused to talk post-game, leaving his coach Ralph Krueger to trot out the litany of excuses that this organization has collectively proffered for No. 83 for years now.

“It’s been a month on a foot injury…,” said Ralph Krueger. “He’s not at 100 per cent … You know he’s limited with the injury he has… That’s been a factor in his lack of production….”

Excuses, excuses, excuses.

They’re for losers, and that the Oilers have been – for longer than any other NHL team, once the Maple Leafs qualify for the playoffs this year.

Yes, the time for patience officially ran out on Wednesday night, at approximately 10:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time, on April 10, 2013.

For three seasons it’s been OK to hang with the program. That’s how you rebuild. Now, it’s time for the GM to stop drafting, and start shaping.

The heat is on Tambellini here, as it should be. And his track record is not great.

Some recent signings have included Eric Belanger, Ben Eager, Darcy Hordichuk and Ryan Smyth. The former three have been absolute busts, while Smyth – God love him – may have the heart to fulfill the final season of his two-year deal next year. But he may not have the legs.

The Oilers brass has done well drafting at No. 1, pulled off a coup in landing Justin Schultz, and they’ve developed players like Sam Gagner, Magnus Paajarvi and Ladislav Smid. Despite two bad goals Wednesday, it says here that Devan Dubnyk is more than enough goaltender for which to move forward.

There’s surely plenty of hockey team here, and the rebuild still mirrors Pittsburgh and Chicago far more so than the Islanders, Columbus or Atlanta.

But now it’s crunch time.

The veterans aren’t good enough. Period. Changing them out will require some GM savvy. Surely, the prospect of a brave trade or two has gone from something in the distance to Page 1 of Tambellini’s to-do list.

“When you look at what’s going on in our room behind the doors … we’re pleased with what (the Oilers veterans) giving us as far as helping this group grow and learn,” said Krueger.

Fair enough. But after Year 3, the program officially turns from growing and learning to winning.

As the Oilers playoff chances disappear, so too does the grace period.

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