"The No. 1 thing we're going to be committed to is competition. If you're going to play for the Edmonton Oilers, you're going to compete...That's how you win games in the NHL and that's how you make your organization better."
- Dallas Eakins on June 10 when introduced as the new Oilers head coach.
Winning hockey games is absolutely essential to improve the Oilers culture after seven seasons of losing. Only winning will help them actually believe they are a contender. The problem comes if the team falters and begins to rack up losses, and they may again this year with key players injured for the first 10-20 games of this season.
The question is, as they work toward convincing themselves they are a contending team, what will keep them playing at the top of their game every night? Why do they play well one night and then stink the place out the next?
Dallas Eakins and Craig MacTavish have both repeatedly focused on developing a team that has a high level of compete every game. To me, compete means giving everything you've got every night, maintaining a maxed out psychological and physical intensity, and pushing yourself to the limit. For Eakins, this year, if players don't bring enough "compete" they will sit on the bench or fall right off the team. Certainly, the positive effects of competition include stimulating individual effort and productivity, promoting higher standards, and lessening the gap between capacity and performance. This is certainly what Eakins is hoping for from the Oilers. Will it be enough to win hockey games?
In my opinion, there are a few problems with this philosophy for the Oilers.
1) Pushing excessively for "compete" may be an insufficient motivator, if they do not gain a competitive league position. Focusing on compete only works if the Oilers believe they are able to win on a regular basis and are convinced they are a top contender. If at any point they begin to lose that belief, then compete becomes a less convincing motivator. Isn't the discouragement from losing a primary reason why MacTavish traded Shawn Horcoff and sought to trade Ales Hemsky?
2) "Compete" may be understood by a player to excessively focus on their own effort to the detriment of skilled cooperation and team play. It appeared to me that Linus Omark may have suffered from this at times in training camp. Did you see any others?
3) Until winning is routine, a heavy focus on cooperation and team play is a better motivator. Focusing on cooperation lessens stress and worry about personal performance. It minimizes the risk of strife and superiority conflicts between players. Besides being a joy to watch, skilled team play and cooperation is more likely to improve the play of all players, especially when maintaining a competitive league position may feel like a long-shot.
Until the Oilers are convinced they are a winning team, which motivator, "compete" or "cooperate", will make the Oilers a better team? Will Dallas Eakins and Craig MacTavish be able to bring both motivators appropriately into the Oilers locker room? Will Dallas Eakins do a better job of motivating the players than his coaching predecessors? What motivator will win the Oilers more hockey games early in the season until players like Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner return?