Tag Archives: Craig MacTavish

Katz offers disgruntled Oilers’ fans a pacifier

We can view Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz’s letter to the fans as a public relations move worthy of a genius. Or not.

But no matter how the long-suffering Oilers fans view the apologetic denial of everything that’s gone wrong with the club, it’s still nothing more (or else, for that matter) than public relations, pure and simple. It is, also, a sign of the times that the letter keeps sliding on the surface of the matter, rather than at least trying to get at the substance.

To concede for all reasons and purposes that this season has been a washout when the club still has 30 games to go may sound outrageous, if it wasn’t realistic. Of course, what this does to the athletes is another matter altogether. Yes, they are professionals, and they should play to professional standards game in and game out, no issue here.

But they are also human.

When Ryan Smyth forced Kevin Lowe’s hand with a few minutes to spare before the trading deadline a few years ago, many a player said he felt the team has written that particular season off. That the season had been long lost by that deadline, they could care less. It was the symbolism that stunned them.

And the team that had been stumbling before, just continued on its uncontrolled slide.

And now, the owner himself throws in the towel while there still can be a mathematical chance that things might change. Not a realistic chance, mind you, but still, a chance.

The fans’ wrath has been directed at former defenceman, later assistant coach, then head coach, general manager afterwards, and now, president of hockey operations, Kevin Lowe.

That the wrath hasn’t been justified is one thing. That Daryl Katz is somewhat ingenious (and this is putting it mildly) in his defence of his employee is – again – another matter.

Hockey people from all over the league would tell you that Daryl Katz is getting too involved with stuff he has no business getting involved with. There have been stories galore, told by reliable hockey people independently of one another, that where the Oilers’ hockey staff were angling for budding defencemen in recent drafts, they were overruled. Guess three times who could it have been to have sufficient power to do that.

If that is Kevin Lowe’s fault, then he’s also guilty of the volcano eruptions in Iceland several years ago.

And it doesn’t seem Daryl Katz plans to change his ways any time soon.

While boasting the club’s recent acquisitions (Andrew Ference, David Perron, Boyd Gordon, Anton Belov, Justin Schultz, Ben Scrivens, Matt Hendricks and, yes Ilya Bryzgalov), as if he deserved the credit for finding them and signing them up to join the Oilers, Katz goes on to say he doesn’t anticipate any quick-fix trades. Considering this statement is just a few lines removed from his assurance that the roster and its changes are GM Craig MacTavish’s call, and nobody else’s, this is a salto mortale (full somersault, a.k.a. deadly jump) that ought to have readers scratching their heads in shock and disbelief.

So, who’s running what?

The logic is perfectly simple: Daryl Katz has hired Kevin Lowe, a capable hockey guy. Lowe, in turn, hired Craig MacTavish, another capable hockey guy, whereupon MacTavish, in yet another turn, hired Dallas Eakins. Lowe knows better than to stick his nose into MacTavish’s business, and MacTavish knows better than to stick his nose into Eakins’ business.

What if their employer took a correspondence course from them?

You are either satisfied with your employees, or not. If you are satisfied, you leave them alone. If you are not, well, there might be others available to fill these jobs.

Whether Katz’s message to Oilers’ fans will end up having the soothing effect to help heal Oilers fans’ long-hurting pride remains to be seen.

While it’s the fans who, all things considered, pay the piper, it doesn’t mean they are always right. Except, any business owner worth her or his salt knows they better handle their customers as their bosses. Simply because they are paying for the fun.

It’s most unfortunate: the word fans comes (basically) from a version of the word fanatics. If they were to entertain sober second thoughts, they would have long ago come to the conclusion that watching adult people perform in children’s sports, earning shamelessly adult money is an insult to their own intelligence.

Of course, it doesn’t sound too cynical to suggest that Daryl Katz’s love letter to his paying customers was supposed to meet one more objective. It seems citizen support for city council spending taxpayer dollars on a new arena has been decreasing relatively significantly during the last few weeks. The gradual decrease turned into a freefall after the recent demand that city employees leave their current offices and move into a new downtown office tower, one proposed and owned by (who else?) Daryl Katz.

Yes, it does sound cynical, does it not?

But so does Daryl Katz’s recent attempt at pacifying his customers.

Coach Eakins explains his philosophy in Oil Change’s newest episode

Chop wood. Carry water.

That’s the motto Edmonton Oilers’ head coach Dallas Eakins has been trying to instill in his charges since he joined the club last summer.

With mixed success, as the third episode of this season’s Oil Change documents.

It aired on Sportsnet Sunday evening, and there will be, no doubt, quite a few re-runs before next month’s episode arrives in January of next year.

This episode’s opening is quite optimistic. It tells the story of Taylor Fedun, the young blue line prospect who broke his femur in a dangerous collision in an exhibition game in Minnesota two seasons ago. Young Fedun put in an incredible effort into his return, and Oil Change shows it in detail in some fine archival footage: all the way to Fedun joining the team in Sunrise, Florida, for his first regular season game. In his first shift, the linesmen whistle down a hybrid icing, something that didn’t exist when Fedun suffered his injury, something that could have prevented it.

That young Fedun scores his first-ever NHL goal in his first-ever NHL game is just icing on the cake.

Except, the team’s play (and results) is nothing if not erratic. They can come from behind, and win. They can establish themselves as an unbeatable monster and blank their opposition. And they can make minor mistakes of monumental proportion that cost them games left, right, and centre. One of the main issues so far as this season is concerned: they loose way too many games because of their own boneheaded plays rather than because of their opponents’ prowess.

Head coach Dallas Eakins knows it. Hats off to him for allowing the Aquila Productions crew to attach a microphone to him during a full practice on ice. We get to see and hear him, exhorting his players to think now and make their newly acquired skills habits that they can perform without even thinking, just instinctively. He’s perfectly correct when he says that this takes time, and he shows a great deal of patience.

It’s the fans who are impatient.

The general manager who announced on his introduction to the office last summer he was impatient, too, might have aged a few years during this season’s ordeal, but he’s emerging a wiser man.

Craig MacTavish’s news conference at the one-fourth-of-the-season point shows that. As always, he’s frank and painfully open.

Oil Change’s creators have come with an interesting combination of showing us MacTavish delivering his state of the union address and cutting into the Oilers’ home game against the San Jose Sharks all the while. They illustrate perfectly MacTavish’s blunt words with the action that’s going on on the ice.

As is usual, Oil Change features a few behind-the-scenes looks.

This episode includes a visit by the players to the Stollery Children’s Hospital, David Perron reading to the kids at the French-immersion Ecole Frere Antoine (in Mill Woods), Oilers’ players during a visit to the Inner City High School, a club tradition that deserves much more recognition than it’s been getting, and, of course, Oilers’ players in a toy store, buying toys for the Stollery Hospital patients who will have to stay in their medical attendants’ care over the holidays.

So far as sheer viewing pleasure is concerned, a boy in an Ecole Frere Antoine hallway, perfectly surprised that the guy who just passed him and patted him on his back was David Perron, imagine, THAT David Perron, is tops. With Perron reading books to the school’s students and explaining to them how it is with his English, coming in third. Why third? Because watching Oilers’ players filling shopping carts with toys and becoming children themselves again (not that they’re THAT far removed) comes in second.

None of these things can be staged. And none of them takes just sheer luck to capture. You’ve got to be a really good documentary maker to be able to carry these scenes off without any saccharine, showing but the real joy of living.

And that’s exactly what Oil Change has become in its three-and-a-half seasons. Never satisfied with what they’ve achieved the last time out, always pushing forward and looking for new ways to make the introduction of Oilers’ fans to their players as friendly as possible.

As always: fast-paced, crisp pictures, crisp editing, great music and sound selections, just enough words to explain what’s going on, but not too many to crowd out what’s going on.

Compelling’s the word.

Edmonton Oilers’ improvement must come from within

It’s not in the coaching. It’s not in the management, either.

It’s inside the room.

That’s the simple, straightforward explanation of Edmonton Oilers’ seemingly unending woes.

The team consists of a mix of players, some of them better than others but still, all of them capable enough to play in the NHL. Does it need an overhaul?

It’s two questions in one.

Yes, a good goaltender, one capable of stealing games here and there at times when the rest of the team is playing as if under anesthetic, might help. Devan Dubnyk never really got the chance to prove or disprove the notion he’s a legitimate Numero Uno. Last season’s 48 games were not enough, this season’s opening weeks didn’t show him in the best of lights, either.

On the other hand, why should a team need goaltenders who act as thieves, instead of having a defence capable enough to help the beleaguered netminders out? Does such defence consist only of the three pairs behind the blue line? Should it not include all five players on the ice at any given time?

Fine. And now: how does a general manager go about getting such help?

The NHL (just as any other professional sports league) is about cutthroat competition. Fans can clamour for all kinds of help, coming up with scenarios galore. Hockey commentators can be throwing rumour-based innuendo around pretending they have inside information till they are blue in the face. So?

One thing we know for sure: professional sports leagues are not about one club helping another out of whatever mess it finds itself. If the Oilers went, for example, for Shea Weber (or any other player, use your own imagination), the Nashville Predators (or any other team, use your own imagination) would be demanding (compile your own list of first-overall draft selections in Oilers’ silks).

Craig MacTavish is a smart guy. He must know by now that saying on the day of his appointment to the job that he was impatient equalled premature ejaculation.

Besides, and that’s another angle, dismantling the team right now, so early into the season, would not only be counterproductive. It would be an admission that everything he (and his predecessor, Steve Tambellini, too) has done thus far was abject failure.

First of all, it wasn’t. It’s NOT a bad team that the Oilers have put together so far as quality of individual players is concerned.

And secondly, even a person as brutally honest to himself (and about himself) as Craig MacTavish couldn’t do THAT. Not now. Not yet, in any case.

So, the composition of the club is more or less a given, with waivers, demotions and promotions now and then not changing the picture as much as some would want.

Coach Dallas Eakins is running a squad that is what it is. He’s shown enough flexibility, to be sure, and enough self-confidence, to be willing to drop a defensive plan that had no hope of working (it’s called, for whatever reason, swarm).

There can be no doubt that he and his associates and assistants keep telling the players: first and foremost, do not permit any two-on-ones or three-on-two against. Bravo, yet, during the recent home game against the Toronto Maple Leafs the Oilers outshoot the visitors by an almost two-to-one margin, and yet they end up being blanked. And not only blanked. Losing 4-0 is known in some circles as shellacking.

Eakins would later say he could understand one of the goals: the Oilers were attacking, their shot rang of the post and next thing they knew, the Leafs were counter-attacking. The other three goals … well, even that one goal Eakins said he understood should not have happened. How come the Leafs were that much faster on the puck? Were the Oilers not supposed to be the fastest team in the league?

And, most importantly, how come the Leafs enjoyed so many two-on-ones and three-on-twos against the Oilers? Have they got players who are that much better than the players Oilers have? Absolutely not. Yes, their goalies seem to be performing better than whoever the Oilers throw to the wolves in their net on any given night. Still, again, it’s about team defence, not about one position only. And the Leafs performed much better than the Oilers as a team.

And therein seems to be the main challenge.

The Oilers have been going out of their way for years, decades, indeed, to make individual players feel they are a part of the team. You can use all those trendy words such as team bonding and whatever other psychobabble there is, the Oilers have tried them all. In fact, one is tempted to believe that the Oilers are the best friends, one and all with one and all. Except, that’s exactly the one thing that doesn’t matter one iota. As the famous Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff said on a number of occasions, he can hardly care less if or when his linemates have birthdays or family anniversaries or whatever, he doesn’t give a hoot about being bosom friends with them, all that matters is that they understand one another on the pitch. There’s something to be said about this approach: professional sports are not about good, clean, healthy fun, professional sports are about winning, and nothing but.

So, anyway, the coaches have obviously told their players what to do and what to avoid. And yet, the players didn’t do it.

After the Leafs game, Dallas Eakins came into the news conference room apologizing for the club’s tardiness in opening the dressing room doors to the media: the players, he said, had a little fireside chat, and that caused the delay.

Perhaps they should have invited some master psychologist to join them in a session of group therapy to help them figure out why they know what to do and don’t do it.

Even though, come to think of it, not even Sigmund Freud would have been of much help. Not even my namesake, Alfred Adler, would.

The only people who can turn things around are the players. They already cost several good, knowledgeable people their jobs.

They should stop working on the new batch of people who would suffer because you can’t fire the entire team, you can only fire the coach or the general manager.

Nobody seems to know what exactly is wrong with this team. Managers don’t. Coaches don’t.

Do the players?

Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.