When Craig MacTavish returned to the Edmonton Oilers as Senior VP of Hockey Operations in June of 2012 it was only fair to assume he was being groomed for future General Manager duties. Moreover, it served as a good opportunity to wonder out loud about the internal dynamics and duties of the Oilers' management structure and its tendency to re-hire old cow-hands. Moreover, the new position, seemingly created just for MacTavish, didn't come with any kind of formal job description.
Derek Van Diest of the Sun reported this at the time:
MacTavish will be involved in all facets with the organization.
He will have input in who the next head coach will be and who the team should select with the first overall pick in the upcoming NHL Entry Draft.
MacTavish is also expected to work closely with the Oilers scouting staff both at the pro and amateur levels.
This is rather vague and reads more like a consultant of some stripe than a manager. I'm not entirely sure this description differs markedly from what we are left to assume Mark Messier is currently doing for the Oilers with the little information available.
MacTavish's VP of Hockey Ops duties became much more clear following a February 2013 Terry Jones interview.
He’s gone out of his way to keep his distance.
"I’ve purposefully stayed away from our team. There are enough eyes on our team without adding another pair and I know how much I enjoyed having a bunch of management guys around when I was coaching."
That’s not to say he isn’t watching.
"I’ve taken trips to Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic and Slovakia and I’ve been following our farm teams, of course. I’ll be in Austin, Texas, this weekend to watch Oklahoma City play two games. It’s all big-picture stuff."
"My day-to-day stuff has been to keep a handle on the top 60 draft eligible players, tracking the kids we’ve drafted and seeing what their development is and where they fit in, as well as keeping an eye on free agents in the CHL and NCAA. Even during the lockout I had plenty to do.
So, MacTavish's role is heavily focused on scouting (esp. in non-traditional markets, i.e., beyond draft eligible prospects) and tracking the development of Oiler prospects. What is interesting about re-visiting MacTavish's short stint as VP of Hockey Ops is to take note of the strong impression he was clearly left with regarding the importance of these duties. After all, his tenure included "spearheading" the Oilers push to land high-profile college free agent Justin Schultz. MacTavish was said to be "instrumental" in bringing the signing to fruition.
After taking over as GM of the Oiler on April 15, 2013, MacTavish was aggressive in pursuing free agent prospects from non-traditional markets. While he managed to sign NCAA free agent forward Andrew Miller and KHL defensemen Anton Belov, he came up short in attempts to sign NCAA free agents Danny Dekeyser, Corban Knight and European free agents Antti Raanta and Joacim Eriksson. If anything, I imagine this failure to land top college and European free agents hardened MacTavish's sense of the importance of the job. This is especially the case in a cap environment, whereby so-called value contracts are at a premium.
Therefore, it should be unsurprising that a few short months after taking over for ex-GM Steve Tambellini, MacTavish created a position ostensibly to fulfil his prior duties. On August 14th, 2013, Bob Green (former Oil Kings GM) was hired as Director of Amateur Free Agent Scouting. His job, essentially, is to scout free agent CHL, CIS, NCAA and European prospects (most of whom were undrafted).
Since then we haven't heard much from Green or about what he's been up to, which is to be expected (free agent season doesn't kick in until the various leagues wind down and teams are eliminated from playoffs). On the minor prospect front the biggest news over the course of the year has been the purchase of the ECHL team the Bakersfield Condors by the Oilers in January 2014. After the rise of the Mark Arcobello (recently signed to a very cheap one-way NHL deal) and a variety of goalie prospects through the ECHL, the Oilers obviously saw value in having direct control over the minor-minor pro league.
However, in the last week we've seen a spate of interesting prospect signings. Let's review them briefly.
Ian Barteaux (D), CIS (Golden Bears), Standard Player Contract, 2014-15
Colin Joe (D), CIS (Golden Bears), Standard Player Contract, 2014-2-15
C.J. Ludwig (D), NCAA, Standard Player Contract, 14-15
Graeme Craig (D), CHL, Standard Player Contract, 14-15
Mitch Holmberg (F), CHL, Standard Player Contract, 14-15
Kellen and Connor Jones (Fs), NCAA, Standard Player Contracts, 14-15
Joshua Winquist, (F), CHL, Amateur Tryout Contract, rest of the 13-14 season
The big draw here is the Oesterle NHL ELC deal. This deal will apply to the team's 50-man reserve list over the next two years. The Oilers have, therefore, made a modest bet that he may be useful down the line to the NHL club.
What interests me more, however, are the team's use of AHL SPCs (Standard Player Contracts). These contracts do not apply to the NHL cap or roster in anyway. The players signed to these deals do not count toward an NHL team's 50-man roster limit. However, they do give the parent club effective control over the player's development and contract rights.
While these players remain long shots to become NHL players (>200 games), the risk involved in taking them on is nil. Mitch Holmberg, who won the WHL scoring title this year, has been touted as in-line for an NHL contract all year. Indeed, the other undrafted CHL player he has been paired with all year, Dane Fox, did in fact sign an NHL ELC with the Vancouver Canucks this year. This insightful look at Fox's prospects as a pro suggests cautious optimism for undrafted over-age CHL players turning pro. No doubt it would be foolhardy to expect much from either player at the NHL level. And, while we are a long way from knowing which player will prove the better pro hockey player, from a pure management position it is fair to say the Oilers got the better deal. If Holmberg doesn't turn out he won't be clogging up the reserve list for two years.
The same is obviously true of all the other AHL SPC deals MacTavish, Bob Green and Baron's GM Bill Scott have wrangled over the past week. What MacTavish has shown in his brief tenure as GM is that he's learned a few lessons from his previous job. In a cap environment, an intelligent use of minor systems and non-traditional player procurement is vital.
Whether any of these particular players turn out is less important than the process that brings them into the fold in the first place.
This all reads to me like a good sign.