February 02 2009 05:30PM
I’ve been a fan of Craig MacTavish for a long time. I defended him last season, and I defended him at the start of this season. He’s a smart guy, and has done a good job getting unheralded players to perform beyond what one would reasonably expect to be their level of ability. People look back at the early days of Lowe/MacTavish and say “mediocrity”, but maybe they don’t remember the budget this team was run on pre-lockout; there was a certain joy to watching players like Smyth, Smith, Marchant, Grier, Niinimaa, etc. put their nose to the grindstone and grit out a playoff spot while team with a higher payroll and greater individual talent swung and missed. Then there was the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals run, and great things seemed to be in the making.
The two seasons following the Cup Run weren’t great. The team was brutally unbalanced entering 2006-07, and Kevin Lowe seemed determined to undo every good decision he made the previous year. The defensive corps was dismantled, and entered the year with a top three of Daniel Tjarnqvist, Jason Smith, and Steve Staios. It was so bad at one point that Danny Syvret, Bryan Young, and Sebastien Bisaillon were all on the active roster. I gave MacTavish a pass that year, as the team had been so obviously mismanaged that expecting a playoff spot was folly.
2007-08 was a great building year; the team rode Mathieu Garon’s stellar play (especially in the shootout) and dressed a truckload of rookies, most of who impressed. They missed the playoffs by a hair, but seemed to be clearly a team on the rise, and MacTavish probably deserved some credit for it.
Enter 2008-09. Kevin Lowe, despite an apparent aversion to having more than one veteran centre on the team, had an excellent summer before being promoted. The Oilers had a young group of forwards, but that was balanced somewhat by an excellent top-four on the back end, and a legitimate tandem in Garon and Roloson. It wasn’t a perfect roster, but it was a vast improvement over what Craig MacTavish had been given in previous seasons.
Unfortunately, Craig MacTavish has been coaching like a man unhinged for much of the season. For example:
1. Ladislav Smid: Left Wing
So, when developing a 22-year old defenceman with 132 NHL games who is finally starting to emerge after looking like he was in over his head for the past two seasons, what’s the best place to use said defenceman? On left wing, of course! Or in the press box -- because those are the two places where promising defencemen blossom.
2. Fernando Pisani: Centre
Looking down the roster, I see five natural centres (Horcoff, Gagner, Cogliano, Pouliot and Brodziak). Only one of them is a veteran, and my preferred choice for third-line centre (a good one choice: Marty Reasoner) was dealt away by the GM. Still, I have a) a speedster with some size issues b) a former first-round pick who’s shown well defensively in parts of two previous seasons and c) a face-off ace and regular penalty-killer to chose from. My solution? Convert Fernando Pisani, a stalwart defensive presence to centre, moving two centres to the wing and dropping Brodziak to the fourth line. Of course, Pisani can’t win a face-off, and struggles against tough opposition, so I respond by leaving the line together, and playing them against lesser players, until Pisani’s injured.
3. Dustin Penner: Fat and Lazy
I have a player who was my second-best power-play point producer (behind only Ales Hemsky) and best power-play goal scorer last season returning again. Logically, it makes sense to bump him to the second unit, because I have another player coming in (Cole) who is a) historically a poor power-play option and b) playing out of his normal position to replace him. Makes good sense, right? And since this guy has only once played tough minutes (last season, with Horcoff and Hemsky), it makes sense to toss him on his off-wing with Pisani as his centre and run him against tough opposition.
In any case, he responds by posting great scoring numbers for his icetime (2.00 PTS/60, behind only to Ales Hemsky) and one of the best +/- numbers on the club. That needs to stop, so I call him out not once but twice in the media as being lazy/inconsistent/etc. Then I healthy scratch him for a couple of games, to be sure he got the message.
4. Staios and Strudwick: It’s like having Stevens and Langway on the same pairing
Since I’ve decided that both the team and Ladislav Smid are best served by him playing LW on the fourth line, or serving as the number seven defenceman, my default third pairing is Staios and Strudwick. I make it easy for them -- lots of minutes against softer opposition and lots of offensive zone draws (despite the fact that I have four offensive defencemen who could make use of those draws to, you know, score), yet they’re still getting out-shot by an awful amount. I decide that the best course of action is to praise the pairing in the media.
5. Kyle Brodziak: who needs linemates to succeed anyway?
After my centre juggling earlier, I needed to find somewhere to use Kyle Brodziak. Brodziak was great last year, catching fire along with Stortini and some guy who wasn’t quite good enough to be brought back in the summer. I decide to use him with a rotation of Moreau, Stortini, MacIntyre and Jason Strudwick. As an added bonus, I think he can probably handle starting in his own end for every single shift (Brodziak has 205 defensive zone faceoffs and only 91 offensive zone faceoffs, for a difference of 114. The next closest Oiler is Horcoff, who has 66 more defensive than offensive zone draws).
Sadly, Brodziak can’t seem to handle even this dream scenario, in a contract year no less. I decide that the solution is to call him out in the media and healthy scratch him as well.
The Final Straw
There are other things that stand out: the love for Liam Reddox, the complete lack of tolerance for any error by Mathieu Garon, using three defencemen on the same power-play unit, running other players out of position, icing a miserable penalty kill and a mediocre power-play, but I only have so much time. Besides, it’s all secondary to the cardinal sin that MacTavish committed today.
Days after a 10-2 loss (with no bag skate) and in the same season as a 9-2 loss (with no bag skate), Craig MacTavish decided today following a listless 2-1 loss to Nashville to bag skate the Edmonton Oilers.
He didn’t decide to bag skate the whole team, though. Instead, he ran practice, and then picked out his favourite whipping boys -- Dustin Penner, Kyle Brodziak, and Marc Pouliot -- and bag skated the three of them by themselves.
I’m a numbers guy, so I have a certain level of skepticism when somebody floats the chemistry/momentum/gut-check card by me. But the idea of picking out three players who have already been harped on all season, and skating them alone when they were far from the only culprits in this lukewarm season, or even in that last loss, is so repugnant to me that I can’t even fathom what made him do it.
You win as a team, you lose as a team, and if need be you bag skate as a team. Craig MacTavish should know better.
It’s time for a new coach.