The most common comment heard in the wake of Craig MacTavish's appointment as the new General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers has undoubtedly been "This is just more of the same". For those who have grown weary of the "Boys on the Bus" group heading up the Oilers' management team, I certainly understand the skepticism.
Heck, the group of writers here at Copper & Blue have been derided a few times in our own comments section for being overly harsh on the Oilers, so if anyone has a problem with it, it would likely be us wouldn't it? The funny thing is I don't. I can't speak for everyone on the staff here but I have always thought pretty highly of Craig MacTavish.
Am I concerned that this could just be more of the same? I think you're foolish not to at least consider that possibility, and I certainly hope that is not the case, but I have at least some measure of confidence that MacT is at least capable of succeeding at putting together a winner, which is more than I ever believed of the Steve Tambellini era.
MacTavish is a smart guy. As most know by now, in the days since he last coached the Oilers, he went to Queens University to get his MBA, spent some time with the Vancouver Canucks organization (through their Chicago Wolves AHL affiliate) and the learned the front-office game with the Oilers over the last year in preparation for this opportunity. He is an extremely well-spoken man, particularly when compared to Steve Tambellini whose mis-use of terms like "poise" "compete" and "hard-to-play-against" have provided endless fodder for the online community in recent years. I'm quite certain that I won't always like what Craig MacTavish does as GM of the Oilers, but for the first time in 5 years, I'll never doubt whether or not the decision was made with the requisite level of thought. MacTavish even attended the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year, which gave rise to the famed "GVT guy", which gives at least a little hope that he'll be open to learning more about the insights that can be garnered through advanced analytics in making personnel decisions.
Looking back on his time as head coach, as MacT himself alluded to in his press conference, his teams were defined by a lack of top end talent, but there was almost always, sometimes out of pure necessity, a measure of defensive responsibility. Given the Oilers' lot in life at the time that approach was fairly logical and prudent. An argument can be made that there was never a single season during his entire head coaching tenure that Craig MacTavish had all of the pieces to ice a winning team and when he finally did get a team that could be considered competitive, at the trade deadline of the '05/'06 season, he took that team to within a single win of the Stanley Cup.
-Steve Tambellini's record in Edmonton
Of course, things have changed and now the Oilers' have a wealth of young talent that can be considered to have elite-level potential. The problem over the last few seasons has been surrounding that talent with competent support pieces and addressing need. Steve Tambellini often seemed frozen by the weight of some of the decisions he was faced with, opting for minor tinkering with depth players (and the wrong ones at that) instead of using the assets at his disposal to close the holes on his roster. An easy example of this is the team's lack of depth in top 4 Dmen and the excess of riches on the right wing. I have absolutely no problem with the team retaining the likes of Hemsky, Yakupov and Eberle, but dressing those three on the right side while major holes exist on the team's blueline has proven unwise.
Craig MacTavish does not come across as someone who will be paralyzed by the significance of the challenges he faces. He spoke about this fact during his address to the media on Monday morning:
"Now, I'm an impatient guy, and I bring that impatience to this situation. And I think that we're at the stage in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now, that we have to do some bold things. We have to expose ourselves to some semblance of risk to try and move the team forward in a rapid fashion."
Former Boy on the Bus or not, Oiler fans everywhere should LOVE that statement. MacTavish admitted himself that while he may say the right things today, it's his actions that will dictate how he is perceived:
"When I've seen press conferences like this and been part of press conferences like this in the past, its' really, to me...when people say...it makes no difference what I say today. What really, truly matters is what we do tomorrow as an organization to get better. If I can come in here and sell you guys on my capability and credibility to do the job today, it means nothing tomorrow. Tomorrow is about getting our bootstraps on and putting together the pieces we need to be great."
In this statement, he's 100% right. He made a number of winning comments today to make a good first impression, but if he doesn't deliver, then people will be on his case quickly, and I'll likely be one of them...but at least he knows that and isn't trying to pretend his appointment in and of itself indicates progress or telling fans that "people want to be a part of what we're doing here" like Tambellini touted endlessly over the last two years.
Until he proves otherwise, I don't see any reason to believe that MacT will be gun shy about making a move that he believes will improve his team. Using his coaching days as an indicator, decisiveness does not seem to be something MacT lacks. You may not always agree with his decisions, but I would wager you won't be criticizing his unwillingness to make them.
Another reason MacTavish is a welcome change of pace, again, using his coaching days as evidence, is that he hasn't always been one to value toughness at the expense of skill. I think it is fair to say that the Oilers are now less likely to carry players next season that are only capable of playing less than five minutes a night than they were yesterday. This is where everyone is should be happy.
Almost as if he wanted to give me a quote just for this article, MacT addressed that exact fact in his comments today as well:
"Grit is always a huge part of it. But Grit without skill is not something that is going to move the dial of our team forward."
There is another quote from MacT on this matter that is well worth the time to point out:
"The game has changed, I mean, the game's changed over the last number of years. You have to be able to make a play with the puck. You have to be able to make plays. When I played, and you crossed the defensive blueline with the puck you were maybe looking at two or three defenders, so it wasn't as paramount that you had the stick skill that the game today demands. Now when you cross the defensive blueline with the puck, you're still faced with five defenders, so a lot of the guys who have fallen into that group (EDITOR'S NOTE: MacT is referring to the Face Punchers, ie: the Eager, Hordichuk, Brown crowd here) have trouble navigating the new traffic in the game today. And even if you do cross the defensive blueline and there's only four guys in front of you, the fastest guy on the ice is the fifth guy coming from behind you."
Don't look now Oil fans, but that is the single most insightful comment that an Oiler GM has made in the last six years, and it took MacT less than 30 minutes to do it. The guy may not be a saviour, and he may crash and burn in the job, that will be seen with time, but I certainly don't consider this a "business as usual" move or "change for the sake of change" MacT is a different man than Tambellini. Time will tell us if his results will be better, but things will be different...and that's exhilarating in and of itself.
I've been among the leading proponents of an overhaul of the front office, and it certainly would have been my preference given the choice...heck, I think "Fenton2013" and "Fire Them All To Be Safe" have been my mantra for the last year now...but I still see this as substantive change. I would suspect that by the time that the free agent frenzy plays out in the summer, there won't be many people left who believe that Craig MacTavish is just a replacement puppet for Kevin Lowe. I think he'll make a mark on this team in the short term. He even alluded to the possibility of "begrudgingly" moving one or two of his core pieces in order to change the mix of the team's strength to address their weaknesses. To me, that means Oil fans should prepare themselves for at least one of RNH, Hall, Eberle, Yakupov, Schultz and Gagner to be moved before next season. It's something many of us have stated was likely necessary for a while, and MacT's comments about exposing the team to risk and making bold decisions are a harbinger that MacT may feel the same way.
I encourage you all to remain skeptical and weary of a management team who has pummelled you for your loyalty and failed you at every turn for nearly a decade, but I would also suggest that you remain open to the possibility that Craig MacTavish may actually be able to make a difference. Let's all hope that it's true.
If nothing else, people should celebrate that it is the dawn of a new day for the Oilers. It's a day that is long, LONG overdue. Find some joy in it.
I leave you with some a propos words from the Rolling Stones..."You can't always get what you want...but if you try sometimes, you'll find, you get what you need."
More on the Craig MacTavish hiring:
Parkatti: The Storming of the #YEG
Hull: Steve Tambellini Fired