The other day, David Staples had a post up on his weblog based on the NHL advertising theme "Is This the Year?". One of the things that he wrote I took as a bit of a personal challenge:
"Is this the year one of the prominent Oilers bloggers says even one word of criticism about MacT?"
That question is found amidst a group of impossibilities (Mc79hockey praising Lowe to high heaven, Lowetide abandoning baseball references), so I'm thinking that Mr. Staples figured it was pretty unlikely.
He has good reason for that thought. Craig MacTavish is a very good coach. Not bad, not run-of-the-mill, not average, but very good. He has a beautiful grasp of development, for high- and low-skill players alike, both up front and on the back-end. He can use one-dimensional players in roles that maximize their effectiveness (Comrie, Bergeron, etc.). It isn't a coincidence that many players experience good years in Edmonton, and drop off after their departure. MacTavish is one of the best at utilizing the tools at his disposal.
I've decided to target an area of MacTavish's that I've always seen as lacking; how he handles his goaltenders. Here is who he's had, since his installment as head coach in 2000-01:
2000-01: Salo, Gage, Roussel
2001-02: Salo, Markkanen, Conklin
2002-03: Salo, Markkanen
2003-04: Salo, Conklin, Markkanen, Valiquette
2005-06: Markkanen, Morrison, Roloson, Conklin
2006-07: Roloson, Markkanen
2007-08: Garon, Roloson
Now, I'll give him a mercy pass on 2000-01, because despite the fact that there are three names up there, only one was a real goalie (although if you ask me this in context with Todd Bertuzzi, I'll blame Bert for destroying Roussel's career).
For the two seasons after that, MacTavish ran Salo out 65+ games per year. This was a reasonable workload to expect Salo to handle, but in both cases, Salo might well have performed better with someone challenging him. In 2001-02, Salo had a 2.22 GAA and a .913 SV% - numbers which look very good, until you realize that the Oilers allowed the second fewest goals in the league due to an incredibly stingy defensive system (known in places outside of Edmonton as "the trap"). Salo posted inferior numbers to his backup, Jussi Markkanen, who had a 1.84 GAA and .929 SV% in an admittedly small sample size (14 games). It's not a damning indictment, but I think it's reasonable to say that Markkanen could have been used more effectively.
In 2002-03, Salo posted a 2.71 GAA and .899SV%; numbers inferior, yet again, to Markkanen's (2.59 GAA, .904SV%). These statistics put Salo near the very bottom of goaltneders in the NHL; only 1A goalies Boucher, Potvin, and Osgood would post worse save percentages and none of them got over 50 games. While Markkanen's numbers were only slightly better, he only saw 22 games, and one wonders if the team wouldn't have been better served by risking Salo's seemingly-fragile psyche and playing Markkanen in 10 games more.
In 2003-04, Salo's collapse continued. His 2.56 GAA and .897SV% again put him at the bottom of the league (among starters, only Mike Dunham's .896% was worse). Salo's backup, Ty Conklin had a similar 2.42GAA but a vastly superior .912SV%; despite this, Salo got 41 starts to Conklin's 25. Lowe finally made a move, sending Salo to Colorado for Tom Gilbert, and acquiring Jussi Markkanen (along with Petr Nedved, for some suspects and 2nd and 3rd round draft picks) in a deadline steal. Conklin was the starter the rest of the way, and the Oilers were eliminated in the final game of the season. While much of the blame must go to Lowe, MacTavish stuck with Salo for three seasons while his backups outperformed him, and deserves criticism for it.
2005-06 was a brutal year for goalies. Conkkanen was christened starter before training camp opened, with the obvious plan of providing adequate goaltending through the tandem of Conklin and Markkanen. By January of 2006, the injured Conklin had just 6 starts, Markkanen had 24 and Michael Morrison had 8. After January, Morrison had 7 starts and Conklin and Markkanen each had 8. Roloson was acquired in March and started 19 games, with only 1 start going to anyone else (Conklin). It is very, very hard to put any blame on MacTavish here. He alternated freely, looking for the hot hand. Conklin was injured, Markkanen's confidence grew increasingly shaky with each start, and Morrison had a future date with the ECHL. When Roloson arrived (and had a very shaky start) MacTavish abandoned both halves of Conkkanen, throwing Roloson out night after night, and got lucky when Roloson responded just in time for a playoff run.
In 2006-07, MacTavish gave Roli 68 games and Markkanen 22; Roloson was the clearly superior goalie and MacTavish came close to running him into the ground with that workload on an awful, awful team. Roloson put up a .909SV%; heroic, given the circumstances.
Last season, MacTavish started Roloson 23 times before January; he started Garon 17 times. After January, Garon starter all but 6 games until he was injured; Roloson polished off the year. Garon's numbers were clearly superior, and I think a casecan be made that MacTavish stuck with Roli a reasonable amount of time, gave Garon and increased workload as the disparity in play between the two became more evident, and all-in-all acted in a fair and intelligent manner with both of them.
Apparently, I can't argue with Staples; I'm not criticizing MacTavish. His handling of Salo was not ideal, even downright poor, but he has learned since then. He juggled with inferior goalies in 2005-06, he gave Roloson as much as he could handle when he was clearly superior, and he switched from starting Roloson to Garon in good time in 2007-08. Towards the end, he rode Garon hard, but if Garon was to enter 2008-09 as the starter, it was imperative to see what kind of constant workload he could handle (not a heavy one as it turns out).
I expect to see around 55-60 starts for Garon, with 20-odd going to Roloson/Deslauriers, depending on how soon the 3-man rotation is resolved. Regardless, based on what I've just reviewed, I expect MacTavish will continue to make intelligent choices with his goaltenders.