Craig MacTavish claims he’s got an alibi … but what about his club?

This is called alibism at its best: surrounded by media hawks, most of them out for blood like a bunch of sharks, Edmonton Oilers’ general manager Craig MacTavish told them his club plans to stay the course because what he’s doing makes sense. If there were anybody to blame, it would be his predecessors in office. Craig MacTavish’s got an alibi: he’s been in office – your choice: 18 months? 20 months? – to sum up, not long enough to be blamed for the state his club is in.

Who’s to blame? Of course, Craig MacTavish’s immediate predecessor, Steve Tambellini, comes to mind first. Next in line: the guy who hired Craig MacTavish in the first place, one Kevin Lowe. If we were to read anything of importance into MacTavish’s “media availability” Friday (what’s wrong with “news conference,” anyway?), the other person to blame would be the Oilers’ owner, Daryl Katz.

From what is known, owner Katz’s new right-hand man, former Hockey Canada poohbah Bob Nicholson, has been closeted with Lowe and MacTavish the last few days, trying to figure out how to right the ship.

Like: what else is new?

If what MacTavish told the media gathering was all the Oilers’ top honchos had come up with, it was much ado about nothing. The club is starring in a frightful comedy of errors (to stay with William Shakespeare’s plays a bit longer), and all its general manager has got to say he’s got an alibi, and besides, it takes more time. In all fairness: case studies show that, indeed, to completely rebuild a professional sports club (or any corporation that size, for that matter) takes not only a dollop of patience, but also a bit of time. Say, anywhere between five and six years. Not much longer, not much less, either. These case studies, of course, deal with rebuilding operations that go from top to bottom.

Did you notice the qualification: from top to bottom?

And that’s what the Edmonton Oilers have been trying to avoid all along.

Bob Nicholson’s eyes are the only set that has come from the outside, and even that begs a question or two: Kevin Lowe has worked with him, on and off, on Hockey Canada’s projects for years. Meanwhile, another boy from the bus, one Mark Messier, has been involved in what ought to be a rescue operation (and isn’t), too.

Nothing against the boys from the bus in the past. They have achieved what they have achieved, and they deserve to bask in all kinds of glory for their past victories.

Except: all of these victories have happened in the past. Not only that: in distant past.

Where to start?

There are several issues at play here.

Number one: there is no quick fix in sight whatsoever.

Number two: with the owner they have, Oilers are content they are making money hand over fist, some of it from masochistic fans who continue to support the team despite hearing from the club (in not so many words) that the Oilers aren’t worth a cent of their hard-earned bucks. Some of the money comes from city government that, for reasons of its own, is robbing its employers (read: the taxpayers) so the Oilers get a new arena. Both sources are welcome, so far as Daryl Katz is concerned.

Coming up with a better product? You’re kidding, right? RIGHT?

Number three: the Edmonton Oilers lack what in the lingo of professional sports has been known as either a franchise player (John Tavares, anyone?), or a generational player (Sidney Crosby, anyone?) In fact, we can safely say they lack both. To their defence, let it be noted there were no such players available in the last several drafts. Still, with many other teams picking gems in later stages of the draft, the question remains: have the Oilers scouts not learnt how to do their homework?

Now, of course, selecting young players is a gamble comparable to deciding the sex of one-day-old chicks. But: picking Steve Kelly, for example, rather than Shane Doan? Please … This goes to show that even the Winnipeg Jets knew better than the Edmonton Oilers in 1995. Kelly went to the Oilers as Nr, 6 overall, Doan to Winnipeg as Nr. 7. Where’s Kelly now? Retired, just like another Oilers’ draft flop, Jason Bonsignore (1994). We all know that Doan captains the Arizona Coyotes now and is doing quite well, thank you very much.

So, the spotty draft record the Oilers own is really nothing new.

What is new is that not many have noticed the Edmonton Oilers haven’t got one single leader on their team. Sure, they have a captain in Andrew Ference, a guy who can be vocal when it comes to that, but also a guy who wasn’t better than Nr. 5 or 6 defenceman in his earlier incarnation with the Boston Bruins. While it’s a given that a captain does not have to be the best player on a team, still, his word should carry the weight of on-ice example.

It is also somewhat surprising that the Oilers haven’t got a bona fide Nr. 1 centre. Yes, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been trying his darndest, and he’s quite good – at being a Nr. 2 centre, not Nr. 1. Similarly, Leon Draisaitl, the Czech-turned-German centre who has been working on the second line with mixed success, would have been much better off back in the WHL. And so would have been the Oilers, if only they could afford it.

Oilers in real danger

For whatever reason, Craig MacTavish didn’t mention the unmentionable, but it exists, and it’s beginning to spread. It’s the fact that more and more fans have been turning their backs on the Edmonton Oilers, choosing to spend their entertainment money elsewhere. It’s called dropping or abandoning the brand, and it’s the worst thing that can happen to a business.

And, remember, professional sports, NHL hockey included, is a business.

Fans (read: customers) abandoning the brand was what cost his job Mike Gillis last summer in Vancouver. It took only a botched goalie trade and whatever followed.

Vancouver fans were more nit-picky (read: more intelligent) than their Edmonton counterparts.

The Edmonton Oilers, once a proud NHL franchise, have become the league’s laughingstock. Their general manager, trying to push the recipe of more of the same down his club’s customers’ throats, saying he was innocent of the bedlam, didn’t help matters one bit.

His club’s only hope: Edmonton Oilers’ fans would be stupid enough to continue buying what this group is selling.

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