Getting the Lowe-Down: Interview with Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, Part 1

By Guy Flaming





Getting The Lowe-down





Oilers GM Kevin Lowe has had an over-filled plate this season. On one hand Lowe has had to deal with the
contract-negotiations-turned-hold-out-scenario of former player Mike Comrie, on
the other hand he has had to balance the financial aspects of a team playing in
a small market and on yet another hand he’s had to find a way to get his team
in contention for the playoffs. Wait,
that’s three hands isn’t it? Well, you
get the picture.

 

It’s nothing new for Lowe who took over the reins of
the Oilers from Glen Sather back in June of 2000. The simple fact of financial life in
Edmonton, a small
market Canadian city, gives Lowe an array of issues that the majority of GM’s
in the league do not have to deal with.
But first and foremost of importance to Lowe is building a team that can
be more than simply competitive on most nights.
The goal in
Edmonton
is that same as it is in
Detroit,
Colorado

or Philadelphia,
to win the Stanley Cup.

 

Lowe has always been the perfect poster child for the
hockey team. He was the first ever NHL
draft choice by the Oilers back in 1979, scored the team’s first ever goal and
he was a member of all five Cup winning teams back in the glory days. The current leader in games played by an
Oiler player, Lowe was also a captain for the 1991-92 season.

 

Lowe returned to Edmonton to finish
his playing career and also to begin his tenure in Oiler management after
spending a few years with the New York Rangers.
A bout with an inner ear infection ended his playing career but Lowe
spent one season as bench boss before he took over as GM and a new era in Oiler
history began.

 

The Lowe regime has already put its stamp on the
organization that has begun to show dividends on the ice. The Sather led team of the 1990’s left the
prospect cupboard virtually bare for Lowe and his management team of Kevin
Prendergast and Scott Howson. After
three years of exceptional signings, dealings and drafting, the Oilers are
arguably a deeper club now than ever before.

 

Tough choices have had to be made in Lowe’s days as
GM. Fan favorites
like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Janne Niinimaa have
been dealt away but in their stead a new crop of players have donned the copper
drop to forge a new age of hockey in Edmonton.

 

Hockey’s Future had the extreme privilege and pleasure
of speaking in depth with Kevin Lowe on a vast amount of topics ranging from
drafting and scouting to the pending CBA talks and life as a GM. Part 1 covers
drafting and scouting.

 

HF:
In regards to the structure of the organization, would it be accurate to
say that you identify the types of players that you feel the system needs and
then from there you leave it up to Kevin Prendergast to go out, find and then
draft those players?

KL: Yeah. We share in what our aspirations are or, in
an ideal world, what our perfect player would be. You can articulate that to someone but unless
they really get it, unless they really appreciate the same style of player as
you, then it doesn’t transform that way.

 

HF:
On
draft day, does Kevin Prendergast make the final call?

KL: He makes
the final call. Let’s put it this
way: I suppose if I felt strongly enough
about a certain player, then K.P. would be respectful of that, but these guys
are out in the field all year long so it’s hard for any manager to override the
wishes of the guy in charge. Having said that, Kevin runs a pretty solid democratic process so
when we’re putting our list together, and I’ve been party to that for a few
years now, there’s a lot of research that goes into it.
We never really get to the point of worrying
about who’s got the final say because we’re all in
agreement by then anyway.

 

HF:
What differences do you see in team scouting from the Barry Fraser days
of the 1990’s?

KL: My only
gauge or barometer is from year to year and listening to our guys and to other
teams. I know that our guys put a lot of
time in and a lot of care and they have a great deal of pride in their work and
Kevin realizes that. So if he sees a guy three times and someone else has seen
him eight times, or two guys have and they’re pretty convinced that they like
this guy, K.P. is going to rely on the fact that he’s got good scouts who care
about their jobs and he’s going to go with their decisions. What more could you ask for really?

 

HF:
In the overall budget, if the organization could be run annually on
$100, how much of that would go just to scouting?

KL: That’s a
good question. Right now we spend a lot
of money on scouting but it’s relative to the overall budget of the hockey
operations. Player salaries are
obviously the largest percentage of that but, let’s put it this way, we
wouldn’t want to spend any less money than we are right now to get the proper
coverage. From my own perspective, I’d
like to be able to see the players more myself mainly because I enjoy it. I like to see the kids when they’re in junior
so I can see how they progress but there’s just not enough time.

 

HF: In the last few drafts, you’ve made
concerted efforts to move up considerably in the pecking order. Is it too early to say if this year that
might be in your plans again?

KL: Yeah it’s
too early to say right now. In the last
couple of years we did because there were particular players that really
interested us. We definitely tried to
move up into that fourth spot a couple of years ago to take (Joni) Pitkanen and we were right there being considered (by
Tampa) and interestingly enough we were going to take Pitkanen

with that same pick that Philly did.

 

HF:
I thought your target was Joffrey Lupul when you were trying to move up that year.

KL: We would
have taken Pitkanen at 4 but we tried to get higher
again after the
Tampa

deal fell through. Certainly we had
strong interest in Lupul. This year there are definitely some players
but keep in mind that with what’s happening with the new CBA that I don’t think
too many people are going to be willing to give up their drafts. You might have to get pretty bold but even
having said that, I guess the good thing about us is that our players are
priced right relative to what the new economic system will be so there could be
some attraction there. It’s too soon to
say really, this could be the year that we have no plans on doing that or it
could be the year where we get calls ourselves so you never know. There are a couple players in particular that
we’d love to get but they’ll be hard to get.

 

HF: Have you
identified needs that you want to address for this coming draft?

KL: I think
goal scoring and you can never have enough good defensemen, particularly a
puck-moving guy. We need to continue to
solidify our depth in net. We certainly
like what Ty (Conklin) and Jussi (Markkanen) are doing and with (Jeff)

Deslauriers coming and Tyler Moss, who gives us some comfort, we have to
start getting to the next wave of depth.

 

HF:
Did you attend the Top Prospects game in
Ontario and what
was your reaction to the trick shot that Robbie Schremp
pulled off there?

KL: I was
there yes. You know, I see my son trying
that move now and he’s ten years old! I
think the players monitor that and regulate that themselves
and if a guy feels comfortable enough with himself and that he’s not going to
get his head taken off by doing something like that then by all means. We’re in an entertainment business. Generally in the NHL if you tried that stunt
you might have someone trying to knock your block off the next shift. I didn’t look at it in that game a say ‘wow I
dislike that kid’ or anything. I didn’t
really think much about it, it was just there as something that happened in the
game.

 

HF: In this day and age when it comes to
goal scorers, unless you can buy one on the free agent market, do you have to
rely on the draft to get one?

KL: Yeah.

 

HF: Is that
because they’re so valuable these days that it’s hard to acquire one via trade?

KL: I never
commented one way or the other whether Joffrey Lupul (for Comrie) was available but certainly it
was much talked about and generally when there’s smoke there’s fire so…

 

Getting a scorer via trade is one way but
you’d have to give up a pretty good young player to get one for sure.

 

HF:
You mentioned the Comrie trade, I don’t want to dwell on it because I’m
sure you’re sick of talking about it too.
The one thing I want to ask about it is in regards to the timing because
you received a prospect and draft picks in the deal. Was that a deal that was only available at
that time or could you have made that same deal after the season at the draft?

KL: There was
some interest in him at the 2003 draft but it never got very far. I don’t think the deal we made could have
been done at the draft. All along I was
fixated on just doing the best deal and getting any sort of combination of a couple first rounders and a pick,
be it a scorer of some type or a defenseman.
We knew that we were giving up a good young player and we wanted to
maximize the return on our investment.

 

HF:
Was that whole situation for you getting to be a headache that you
wanted to get over and done with before it became a distraction for the
team?

KL: Yeah, but
other than the void of personnel, especially with (Reasoner) getting injured
and (Marchant) gone, it wasn’t bad. We
played fine until late November, in fact we played unbelievable and we thought
internally that the team was good enough the way it was and then all of a
sudden we started to stumble and (the Comrie camp) was trying to turn the heat
up a bit. I just monitored it daily and
weekly and as long as it wasn’t a distraction to the players and the team
wasn’t taking too much of a hit publicly, I knew that in those things the longer
you can wait the better it is. In
Philly’s case they envisioned that they needed a little more up front and they
had the assets to do it. That’s one
thing I admire about
Philadelphia

is that they’ve acquired assets over the years and they use them when the
opportunity presents itself and that’s what I hope to be able to do moving
forward.

HF:
How important is it for you to get an offensive minded blueliner for the
system or have you addressed that to some degree with Tom Gilbert?

KL: We’d like
to think that we have, to some extent. Tom
Gilbert
is a puck-moving guy and (Jeff) Woywitka and (Doug)

Lynch both move the puck well so I think with those guys coming and what
we have here, there’s probably a little less urgency. Mind you, none of them are the prototypical
high-end power play guy but very few teams have that guy anyway so I think down
the road that group of guys will move the puck.
Those are all guys that can play on the power play and not hurt you.

 

HF: For the last few years, when you have
made trades it is usually the Oilers who are giving up the bigger names in
exchange for young kids or draft picks.

I was going to ask if you ever foresee the day when it might be the
other way around but you recently did that somewhat when you moved Tommy Salo
for a prospect player.

KL: (laughs) That’s right. Our expectations, and I’ve said this for a number of years, 2004
is in a lot of ways a finishing line or for us, it’s more of a starting
line. Our goal was to get to 2004 and
our expectations are that it’s a new starting line and that there will be a
time and place where we just make good hockey deals to help the hockey team.

 

HF:
You mentioned Woywitka and Lynch a moment ago. When you acquired Jeff from Philly, was the
fact that he and Doug were good friends and teammates for years in
Red Deer factor
into the attraction at all?

KL: Not as
much as the fact that we had seen them both play a lot while they were in
Red Deer. Both played in a good junior program and both
won a championship too so it was more so that then because they were
teammates. I was pleased to hear that
(Lynch) was so helpful to Jeff when he first got to
Toronto and
there’s familiarity there for sure. Guys
never hate each other but even if someone would have said that they weren’t
friends I don’t think that that would have prevented us from doing the
deal. We’d scouted both of them a lot
that draft year and we had them both on our radar screen.

 

HF: Has there
been any progress with the contract talks with Kyle Brodziak and Jeff
Deslauriers, the two prospect players you need to have signed by June 1st?

KL: Nothing
new to report there. Both guys are going
to the playoffs so we’ll wait until they’re done. In both cases we like the players and from
all accounts they like the organization.

I would suspect that in both cases their agents would see a great opportunity
here, Brodziak’s a center and Jeff’s a goalie, there’s a good future here and a
good opportunity here for them. I
suspect that they would analyze that so I don’t expect any problems.

 

HF:
Jani Rita’s contract is up this summer, does he still figure into the
long term plans with the Oilers?

KL: (sighs)
Yeah he is. There have been some
unfortunate developments in the last couple of years that have hindered him
and, in fairness to him it’s not his fault.

Last year hurt his development a little bit, to me, because of the
shared affiliation. That was one of the
negatives for sharing a minor league team because his ice time was cut back
considerably since Montreal
had a lot of good players there as well.
Everybody was vying for ice time and the coaches had to be very
democratic about that, half to the Oilers half to the Canadiens. As a result, Jani started the year on the
first line but like a lot of players, he hit a wall and at some point in the
season they put Tony (Salmelainen) up there and that line played
well so Jani never really got his ice time back. If you don’t get the ice time it’s hard to
put the stats up. In fairness to him,
we’ve had him up and down a few times and hardly played him and that’s hurt his
confidence a bit. He’s an NHL caliber player and we’ve talked to him and asked him to
just be patient and to keep working hard.

I saw him play a couple games a few weeks ago and I know he’s going to
play in the NHL and I’d just assume and hope it’s for us.

 

HF:
Will you have to protect him in the waiver draft this year, assuming
there is a season of course?

KL: I think
this coming year we would. Wait, where’s
my reserve list? (Pulls out a file and
double checks) OK, he’s exempt from the
waiver draft but he would need to clear waivers to be sent down. Depending on how things unfold, I don’t think
that’s anyone we want to expose to waivers so we’ll have to figure out
something. Who knows with whatever the
new CBA is, they might increase roster sizes you
know?

 

HF: Which
players do you expect to really challenge for a roster spot next year?

KL: Tough to
say that right now. Guys are really
coming on in
Toronto
right now, some who we projected early on this year to still be a few years
away. Joe Cullen and Brad
Winchester
have really come on and these are guys who aren’t even the
obvious choices. Lynch has had a heck of
a year and Woywitka has really come on too.

Then you have the usual guys like Rita and Salmelainen. Mike Bishai, I don’t want to say he
came out of nowhere, but our projections on him were for a couple of years, but
man he hasn’t shown us one thing that says he can’t play here. Danny Baum, I’d like to see him
challenge. Bobby Allen, not sure
what’s going to happen there because of his contract but there again is a good
defenseman that I think can play in the NHL.
He got up here and we didn’t have room for him at the time and then he
got injured when we did need a guy so it’s been a set of unfortunate
circumstances for him.

 

HF:
Of
all the prospects in your stable, who do you consider the
highest risk/reward guy?

KL: Probably Jesse
Niinimaki
. Mikhnov
too.
We’re hearing good things
about them, and of course you never write anyone off. Under the current economics of signing first rounders we weren’t going to go there (with Mikhnov) but
Frank Musil has seen him recently and he really likes what he sees. He’s 6’5” and I look at Alexei Ponikarovsky and Nik Antropov playing for the Leafs right now and they certainly
add a dimension to that team. Having said that, we have a lot of players that we’ll have to make
decisions on in the next couple of years.
Like I said how
Winchester has
really come on and then you look down the road at J.F. Jacques and (Zack)

Stortini, (David) Rohlfs and that’s not mentioning Marc-Antoine
Pouliot
and Kyle Brodziak! I
guess from an organization standpoint what we’re really lacking is the high,
high, high-end but MacT kind of jokingly pointed out yesterday that his
fifth line in practice was Mike York, Ales Hemsky and Marty Reasoner! We’ve continually added to our depth and I
think it’s allowed us to have a season where we could have fallen off the map
with the loss of Marchant and Comrie’s holdout, major injuries and a sub par
season in the nets, we’ve been able to pretty much give ourselves a chance and
I think that speaks to the depth of the organization.

 

HF:
Did you get to watch Mikhnov skate with the team?

KL:
I did yeah. He had brand new
skates and equipment but all things considered there’s intrigue there. As one of the coaches said, you can’t teach
size. Frank Musil’s

kept a close eye on him in Europe and he probably would have been benefited
more by coming over here right out of the gate and playing in junior, like
Semenov did, because he kind of got lost in the shuffle over there. The positive is that he’s persevered and now
he’s back on the radar screen and he’s to the point where Frankie’s been really
impressed with his play.

 

HF:
Because there’s likely no NHL season next year,
is it wishful thinking that he would come over and play in the AHL when he
could stay home and make more money in the
Russia Super league?

KL:
That’s debatable that he can. To
me a lot of that is agents trying to drum up markets for players by saying they
can make a lot of money over there. One,
there might not be as much money as everyone says there is and two, their
contracts aren’t really worth the paper they’re written on so having said that,
we probably could do as well if not better than what he can get over
there. The question is if it’s in his
own mind that he’s ready to come over.
It wouldn’t be entirely out of the question that he could play in
Toronto next year.

 

HF:
Have you asked him directly if he wants to play in
North America?

KL:
No and I didn’t want to get into it with him. I talked to his agent yesterday and we played
telephone tag today. Now that he’s been
over here for the first time, to be on the ice and experienced all that, he’ll
go back home with a better idea. He has
told his agent that he’d really like to play in the NHL, and what kid
wouldn’t? I mean there are kids over
there that European hockey is pretty big to them. All things being equal I guess his point was
that (Mikhnov) indicated that he’d want to put the sacrifice in to get to the
NHL.

HF:
Thinking back to training camp for a second, was there anyone that took
you by surprise and showed you more than what you might have thought they were
capable of?

KL: Well, Salmelainen had a great camp, not that we didn’t really
expect it, he’s a guy who we regard very highly and we know he’s going to play
in the NHL. Jarret (Stoll)
had a hell of a camp, there’s a guy who grabbed the opportunity. Raffi Torres had a great camp
too. Those are guys who with a couple
years as pros who said ‘All right I’m going to earn a spot here, play my ass
off so they can’t do anything but keep me’.

 

HF:
Where do you see Stoll fitting in long term on your club? Can he be a scoring, second line
centermen?

KL: Yeah, he’s
certainly elevated his stock. I don’t
like to pigeonhole guys, I know that we do it internally and you guys in the
media do it and that’s the nature of the business. The biggest mistake of sticking lines to guys
or projecting like that is a guy like Marty Reasoner. I’m sure all of the stories and projections
at one time were that if he can’t play on one of the top two lines then he
couldn’t play. Then all of a sudden,
like a chameleon he found a role and played unreal. Todd Marchant was like that too in the early
days. I can see Stoll being a very good
NHL player with great leadership and great upside who could
play anywhere in your line up, let’s
put it that way.

 

HF:
You’ve been planning your post CBA team for a long time now, how close
is the current roster to the one you have visualized for the next season?

KL:
It’s fairly close; we just want to see our guys develop now. With guys like Jarret Stoll and Ales Hemsky,
(Marc-Andre) Bergeron on the back end and Eric Brewer is still a
young guy. Our average age has increased
a bit because of Adam Oates and Cory Cross to some extent, as well as Igor Ulanov, but by and large we’re still a pretty young team.

 

HF:
You need the veterans like that though to bring the team together.

KL:
That’s right, you’re always going to need those kinds of guys but the
strength of our organization will be the guys we’re developing. I think our overall depth in the organization
is good. You look at the left side and
while we’re strong up here, up front we also have kids like (J.F.) Jacques and
Winchester,
Salmelainen and Rita so we have a lot of guys coming. I think we’re staged really well too in that
we have proven NHL players, the minor league guys who are going to be NHLers and a little bit of everything in the junior and
college ranks so I think our depth is really good.

 

HF: In the mid-season rankings of Hockey’s
Future, the Oilers came in third in the league so we
agree with you that the depth is there.
However, we felt that it might be more than a year away for most of your
impact players to be ready.

KL:

It’s always great when you have an unexpected guy come in and make a
difference which is too a certain extent, what Hemsky did last year. But you look at Jarret and wonder how much
better is he going to be or Hemmer in another year. I think Stortini is going to be a solid pro
as a Mike Grier type of guy, Pouliot will be one too, then there’s Matt
Greene
and all the other usual suspects.
If you can have some sort of relatively unknown guy like maybe a Rohlfs
or a (Colin) McDonald all of a sudden be

a 30-goal scorer at some point, that’s what we need. We like all of our players, we’ve projected
very well but we feel our high end needs to be higher end. We’re going to be challenging every year but
we need to get (more skill). We’ve been
getting younger but I think we’re solidly better than we have been each
previous year.

HF: Everywhere you go in the rink there are
references back to the glory years with posters, banners, the pre-game video,
etc.

Do you ever worry that it can have a negative impact on the young
players coming in that it’s too intimidating or too much for them to live up
to?

KL:
No, I don’t think so. When I was
a player I always tried to disprove the year before, as much as we all loved ‘Gretz’, it was important for us to win without him and it’s
likewise with these guys. I’d like to
think that they all want to win a Cup so that they can all mark their
time in the city. The city has a good
admiration for the team and the players now for what they have done and they
understand that and it might have even been a little easier in the 80’s because
there were only 21 teams and now there are 30 teams and the economics too. These guys have been able to, as well as any
team could in the shadow of previous successful teams, they have entertained
these fans. They haven’t given them a
Cup but they’ve done a good job of having them forget.

 

HF:
Kevin Prendergast tells me that the prospect camp is probably a no go
this summer. Is that for sure and how
painful a decision is that considering how beneficial it has been for the
development of your prospects?

KL:
It’s not 100 percent certain but we’re leaning that way. With the unknown moving forward, there’s a
cost associated with it and we have to watch what we’re doing.

 

HF:
What types of expenses are there for the team considering all the
college players have to pay their own way?

KL:
I can’t say for sure off the top of my head, it’s not a hundred grand
but it’s not ten grand either.

 

HF:

Unfortunate that you might have to scratch it though from a player
development perspective.

KL:
Well we’ll be in contact with those guys and it’s not to say that we
can’t have the guys in town for a couple of days. What we had last year we’ll keep going in
terms of communication and keeping an eye on them. It’s a great thing and it accomplishes a
bunch of things. It familiarizes the
player with the team and also the team with the player, in a little more relaxed
environment. For the first-time guys
coming to training camp, they’ll have already seen some of the training staff
so there’s a level of comfort already so there’s less of an adjustment period. In terms of training, they get to see how
hard they have to work, they get to compare themselves to other guys to see
where they are and they can go back to their own respective programs and expand
from there.

 

HF:
Do you ever foresee the day when an NHL team could own a European club
and stockpile it with their own prospects?
I’ve heard that
Phoenix had considered it.

KL:
Yeah, and
L.A. has. It’s a pretty big
assumption but if you could do it I think it would be worth the
undertaking. My sense is that the other
leagues have their own rules and regulations now so the only way that would
ever work is if the league couldn’t exist in terms of paying players and it
wasn’t economically viable for them anymore.

Those things would have to happen before the NHL could get to that point
but there’s nothing stopping an owner from going over and buying a European
team but there’s transfer rules and you just can’t have all your own
players. That’s the problem; they’d have
to change the whole format.

 

 

With his team on the cusp of making the
playoffs for the third time in his four-year rule over Oilerville, Lowe has
assembled his team with the focus squarely on the days after the potential work
stoppage set to begin next fall. Once
the league gets back to work, the Edmonton Oilers will be one of the teams
geared up to seriously challenge again for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

 

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