The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement expires this summer and the work stoppage that might happen is expected to be a long one. The Edmonton Oilers are one of the teams in the league who have been eagerly waiting for the day when the league and the NHLPA would ratify a new CBA, hopefully one that works.
Regardless of the impending crisis, the job of the GM is to constantly improve his team whether it is through the drafting of prospects, the trading or signing of players or assembling a coaching staff to shape and teach the roster. It’s an ongoing process and a never-ending job that can also be an unthankful one when times are bad.
Hockey’s Future had the extreme privilege and pleasure of talking to Kevin Lowe about many of the areas he has had to steer his team through and what the Oilers might like to see happen in the new CBA negotiations.
HF: At what point during your playing career did you begin thinking that you would make a good coach?
KL: Probably after I had been in the league 8 or 10 years and you start to think about what you’re going to do after. I always said I would stay in the game in some capacity if it wasn’t coaching or managing it would be in, God forbid the media end of things! (laughs) I’m glad it’s worked out this way!
HF: Can you see players on your club who would make good coaches?
KL: Yeah, the guys who really live and die the game and are coachable. I don’t want to point out any one guy but there are certainly guys you can look at just because of the way they’ve been able to accept the coaching.
HF: When you first found out that Slats was leaving, was being GM an opportunity that you jumped at right away?
KL: Not right away, no. I spoke with Cal Nichols and a couple of the other people on the negotiating committee for Glen’s replacement and they came to me and I was honored. It was all really new, just the concept to me, and I said I needed some time to think about it and the more I did the more it became evident that if I was going to be around, I wanted to by and large run things from the hockey side.
HF: At this point do you think a work stoppage affecting next season can realistically be avoided?
KL: It’s really hard to say one way or the other. I know that Gary Bettman, his objectives and goals are what ours are, so that’s a good thing. I’m always an optimistic person but having said that we’re being prepared for what could be a work stoppage.
HF: From an Oiler standpoint, what changes really need to be made to the CBA?
KL: We’ve operated adequately here. The ownership has basically been ‘dollar in, dollar out’, and I don’t know who goes into business to do that but that’s collectively our ownership group’s gift to the city. We had our 33rd sellout of the season and there’s a lot of interest in hockey here right now. I’m just over the moon about the team taking a real run at this thing because fans love hockey here. But having said that, I think if the optics don’t change of competitive balance, especially where at the recent trade deadline where teams are adding eight, nine and even ten million dollar players, at some point fans are going to say enough. I’m kind of speaking two languages here to you as I’ve said and I believe that you don’t need the most expensive payroll to win but on an ongoing basis if you can never have an opportunity to bring in a Brian Leetch or someone like that, at some point the fans are going to say this is like Groundhog Day you know? I think competitive balance is most important for long-term viability here in Edmonton.
HF: You threw out the thought of expanded rosters as an idea before. Thinking of the waiver draft now, is maybe expanding the number of players that you can protect another issue you might like to consider?
KL: Whatever is best for the league. I think that the problem with the young guys is that you draft them so young, they finally turn pro and you have them for a couple of years and then you have to make a decision on them. You might cut them loose after you’ve paid them all that money and maybe in the new system you won’t have to pay them as much money so you won’t be as concerned about having made that decision. The entry-level system obviously has to be looked at in terms of what we pay these guys. I remember my first couple of years in the league I didn’t know (stuff) from shinola but the way the system is now you’ve got to decide whether to keep a proven veteran or a guy who’s just played his third year pro and I think we need to have more flexibility there.
HF: Can teams take players to arbitration?
KL: Reverse arbitration? No, but it might have worked. Personally I’m not big on arbitration period, I’ve seen the process and I think it stinks! The reason why there is arbitration is to sort of have some comfort from both sides and that’s how you get there but it certainly hasn’t worked very well. Reverse arbitration might have worked. I think the best of both worlds would have been the reverse arbitration and also having more arbitrators involved so it’s not solely on the shoulders of one person. Also, having an immediate decision and an either or scenario instead of just picking any sort of random number.
HF: Is there a way around having to automatically give players the 10 percent raise by way of a qualifying offer?
KL: Only if they are over the league average then they just get what they made the year before as their qualifying offer. If they are under the league average then they get the 10% bump so that’s the misconception about all players. On our team we presently have about eight or nine guys above the league average and everyone else is under it.
HF: In a case where a player is injured for large stretches of the season you’re still handcuffed in the sense that you have to issue that qualifying offer anyway, often giving players a raise when really one isn’t justifiable.
KL: A lot of teams are going to be faced with making a lot of business decisions this summer. I think there’s going to be a lot of guys asked to take a reduction in salary, some might and some might want to spin the wheel and hope that something else pops out. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s still lots of money to be made, and each guy has to analyze what the best hockey opportunity is for them and negotiate their contract according to that and not just think about maximizing the dollars.
HF: If cost certainty were present over the past two seasons, what deals/signings/etc would you have done differently?
KL: That’s tough to say. The tough ones were really with guys like Billy Guerin and Doug Weight; guys who were coming off of good seasons and were really coming into their own as players. They’re good guys too and really liked in our community. I think Anson filled in admirably and (Weight), as much as we’ve missed him, Jarret Stoll is a here now, Jeff Deslauriers will be here eventually and Marty Reasoner has been a good player for us and those are the fruits of that trade. Those are the ones that stand out.
HF: Is the trade deadline too late in the season?
KL: Under the present CBA? Yes. I don’t know how things will change in the next CBA but I think a lot of the managers feel the same way. The flip side is that recently it’s created a lot of hockey interest TV wise and stuff. I almost feel that teams can get to the point where they’re making a deal just because there is so much hype that if you don’t do anything it’s perceived that you’re not trying. Moving forward I think teams should have enough players in their organization that they should be able to rely on. Back in either 1985 or 1987, the Flyers went to the finals and they used forty guys from within their organization throughout the playoffs and that’s a sign of what it should take to get to the finals. Not loading up with rentals or short-term fixes from other teams.
HF: Where would you like to see the deadline be if you had it your way?
KL: I think probably about a month ahead and I think that would prevent a lot of what we’ve seen.
HF: At the deadline or around the draft seems to be the time of year that you are most active in regards to trading players. Is that because other teams are more apt or willing to give up more at those times?
KL: Yes, I think so. There’s the deadline in March and even at the draft you have the artificial deadline of the draft itself and teams try to move picks to better their team. It makes teams have to make decisions and we do our preparations and have our stuff ahead of time so that we’re ready if something presents itself but if it doesn’t, then we don’t do the deal.
HF: How much do you take into consideration what fan reaction might be before you make a deal?
KL: Oh yeah, we factor that in! That’s why last year was such a surprise to us! We were kind of shocked because internally we had so much belief in the players that we were acquiring. We knew we were giving up good players but that’s why we knew we could get good players in return.
HF: We’re talking about the Janne Niinimaa and Anson Carter trades at the 2003 deadline right?
KL: Yeah! Certainly Carter was our top scorer so we new there was some risk there but not to the extend that, geez (laughs) we thought we had traded Gretzky by the reaction! As it turned out, I don’t want to say that people learned a lesson because that sort of rubs it in their face but hopefully they gained some sort of greater appreciation of us doing our homework.
HF: Were there players who were untouchables this year?
KL: I think a lot of teams over the last couple of years would look at our highest paid players, because that was the route we went last year and the year before, and they assumed that we would want to get rid of a couple guys. I’ve always said that if someone wants to come knocking on my door and offer me some unbelievable deal that I think can better the organization then I’ll listen. Everybody makes a lot of money, and that’s a whole other debate but, in terms of affordability for us, and what I have available to spend, we can keep those guys in our system for a number of years. There was going to be no fire sale. There’s always interest in our older guys because they’re good players and they’re what every team wants. They’re character guys that any team in the league would take.
HF: You acquired many local products through trades and drafts that are now playing for the Oilers or in the system. Is that a conscious decision you have made on your part in order to give the team a more home grown feel for the fans and for the players?
KL: Yeah, absolutely. It’s not the be all end all sort of thing when we look at guys but…
HF: But if there are two equal players available and one happens to be an Albertan then why not?
KL: Absolutely. I remember what it was like as a kid growing up in Quebec and I would have done anything to play for the Canadiens. I know that for these guys growing up in Alberta, we’d like to think they all want to just be Oilers and not Flames, but it means a lot.
HF: Three of your four coaches are former teammates but it would be very wrong to suggest that you hired them simply because they are your friends correct?
KL: I’ve said before that with Craig MacTavish, 20 teams in the league would hire him right now. His reputation as a student of the game and his ability to articulate it goes without saying. The friendship thing is irrelevant to me. You say that ‘I’ve played with them before’ but I think the statement should be that ‘I’ve gone to war with those guys’. I’ve got a lot of friends in the game, I like to think that I’ve got a couple hundred of them that I’ve played with but there’s probably 99 percent of them that I wouldn’t hire! These guys, besides being students and now professors of the game, they’re tireless workers with never ending commitment to being successful, they don’t accept losing and they’re positive people. Those are all the proper credentials and I only hope for their sake that we do get into the playoffs because it will shut a lot of people up.
HF: As the GM you have to allow the coach to be the boss in the room but being as competitive as you are is it hard to hold back or do you let yourself to hold court when you want to?
KL: I don’t have to do it that often and when I have done it, they see the passion. If you do it too often then it becomes the boy who cried wolf; it gets tired. As far as being competitive, I’ve always been able to enter the room and be objective. I think what I have that a lot of guys with passion don’t have is that I understand that no two people are alike and I respect that. You couldn’t put me in the category of being old school. I have old ethics and morals but I’m not old school in terms of my hockey philosophies.
Kevin Lowe’s Oilers are facing an uphill battle to reach the postseason this year but it would be hard to point the finger at the GM if the team should fail in their quest. Lowe has had to face unexpected challenges and has been forced to make unjust decisions because of circumstances outside of his control.
Clearly Lowe has had the guts to take some gambles when he thought it might benefit the team. Although the acquisitions of Jiri Dopita and Adam Oates largely failed, no one can suggest that the GM didn’t try. When it comes to drafting, the franchise’s depth is greater than it has been in many years, if not ever before, and that is something that can be largely attributed to the leadership of Lowe.
Like most of the Oilers from the glory years, Lowe is forever linked to the city and to the franchise. However, perhaps more than any other player past or present, Lowe defines the team. He is the Oilers. There is no one more entwined with the team or more capable of leading the Oilers back to glory and that trip begins next season.
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