June 21 2014 01:44PM
The Oilers are in the midst of another very important three-week stretch where Craig MacTavish will try to shape his roster so the Oilers can compete for a playoff spot instead of the first overall pick next season.
The free agent interview period starts Wednesday, the NHL entry draft is on Friday and free agency officially begins in ten days.
I spoke to MacTavish on TSN 1260 this week and he shared his thoughts on the draft, analytics, free agency and his plans for the next few weeks.
I enjoy interviewing MacTavish because he gives good answers, and he isn't afraid to share his vision with the fans. We won't all agree with what he has to say all the time, but I'd much rather interview someone who is willing to share their views and open himself up to people disagreeing with them, rather than saying nothing.
My thoughts are in italics.
Gregor: When you fly the draft eligible players into Edmonton and have a chance to sit down and talk, how intense is it? How much more do you learn about them compared to the interview at the combine?
MacTavish: I find it very beneficial. I think it’s an extremely valuable exercise for us to do as an organization and you get way more from the player than you would in the 20 minute [NHL entry draft combine] interview period. It’s pretty rehearsed I think in a lot of ways, and pretty contrived in a very stark condition.
So we generally bring the kids in and then we’ll take them for dinner, generally at one of our houses whether we go to Daryl’s house or Sam Bennett we had over to my house last night. He was a very impressive kid. Aaron Ekblad, we had dinner with him the night before on Monday.
I mean, it just, it really gives me a lot of comfort knowing the personality better. I’d say it’s very helpful for us. We have a couple more coming in, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl and we’re looking forward to that. It’s very exciting, not to go on and on, but it’s a real exciting time for all of the teams around the draft, because everybody is going to improve their hockey club and there is a bevy of activity so it’s good fun.
***Draisaitl was scheduled to fly in from Florida yesterday, but his flight got cancelled at the last moment. The Oilers will meet with him next week at the draft instead.***
Gregor: The Blue Jackets have a draft value chart. Do the Oilers have one?
MacTavish: Yes we do. It is very beneficial on draft day and it gives us a value of what a draft pick’s value is based on past drafts.
Gregor: When you’re looking at the history of the pick, I’m guessing there also cases where Stu MacGregor is talking to you and maybe saying, ‘Craig I really like this guy and I think that we should move up eights spots, or 10 spots for instance. How much do you still have to go on the scouting rather than just the analytics of that specific draft spot?
MacT: Well, I think the value is in the amalgamation of both departments: your analytics department and your amateur scouting department. That’s really the sweet spot in terms of evaluation of players, there’s no question about that.
Stu MacGregor is a very progressive guy, a very open-minded guy as is Dan. Analytics is used as it should be by Stu MacGregor as part of the overall evaluation process and as a tool.
Gregor: When you look at the Pacific division with Anaheim, San Jose and LA who are all big and skilled. Do you have to draft to counter that or do you draft with a plan that works for you in the hopes that they will have to counter you in three of four years?
MacT: I think both are very true. You’re only as good as the competition and our competition, [and] our division is extremely strong. It’s much like when the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames were the strength to the league back in the ‘80s. We really feel like we motivated each other and we were really very good for one another. And I think that the same is true here, that obviously the strongest teams in the league are really in our conference and specifically in our division.
We’ve got to build a team that’s capable of competing and beating those types of teams. But, you know, there’s still plenty of room for smaller guys. And our mandate, our drafting mandate has always been to draft the player that’s going to have the most significant impact on his NHL team over time.
And there are lots of guys that are less than 6’4”, Sidney Crosby being one of them, who have pretty significant impacts. Jordan Eberle being another, Taylor Hall is not 6’4” and has an incredible impact on our game and in our future as does Nugent-Hopkins. That’s really our mandate from an organization standpoint and to draft the players that over time are going to have the greatest impact.
DEVELOPING THE DEFENCE
Gregor: The other day you mentioned that you do not what to rush your defencemen; [Darnell] Nurse, [Oscar] Kelfbom, [Martin] Marincin. Today you have Andrew Ference signed and Jeff Petry and I guess Justin Schultz as veterans even though Schultz doesn’t have a ton of experience. Do you need to find three of four defencemen with experience, regardless of whether they are first, second or third pairing guys, so you don’t have to rush the kids?
MacT: Well we’ve got Jeff Petry too that we fully anticipate getting on a contract. But, yeah, it’s a primary focus of ours that we want the competition at training camp.
We want Darnell Nurse to come in and he’s not going to have a position by default, but he’s going to have to compete strongly for position, as will Oscar and Marty Marinicin. All three of those guys we’re hopeful will be in a real competitive environment come training camp. We need to add a defenceman or two to create the competitiveness that we want.
Gregor: Do you feel you can get that better in free agency or is trade the best route?
MacT: Ah, I think right now, I think they’re both… I mean I have my own thoughts on what I think is going to happen but, I don’t really want to say too much other than that.
I will say that we’re actively involved in the trade market and hopeful that we can do something going into the draft.
***I spoke to MacTavish on Wednesday and he foreshadowed the Nikitin trade with his last comment. I suspect the Oilers will be looking to add at least one, if not two, more defencemen with NHL experience in over the next ten days. I'm perplexed to why people think adding Nikitin is a bad move. All of his stats suggest he is a more than capable D-man, and he's 28 years old and he's only played 206 NHL games. He has room to improve. The harsh reality is the Oilers will need to develop their top-pairing defenders. Expecting them to trade for one is wishful thinking.***
Gregor: Would that include the number three overall pick? Or are you very hesitant to trade that high of a pick?
MacT: I’m very hesitant to trade it, but it’s all about having a good assessment of value in terms of our situation. So we are open-minded to listen to offers for our draft choice.
Last year, we had the seventh pick but we were in the same frame of mind going into the draft and really didn’t get anything that was even remotely close to what I thought was fair value for that pick. And this year, I’m receiving better offers, but obviously we haven’t got an offer that’s been strong enough for us to move that pick as of yet.
But yeah, we’re prepared to move that if we get something that’s maybe a little bit more immediate help and a long-term solution as well. So we’re looking for players, mid 20s possibly at the oldest, in terms of players that we acquire for that pick.
***This is good news. If the Oilers are going to improve, they can't look for quick fixes and trade away youngsters for players close to 30. This team is still a few years away from being a legitimate playoff contender.***
Gregor: Do team’s offers get better in the final few days leading up to the draft or if you haven’t received a good offer by now, you’re likely not going to get one in the final 24 hours.
MacT: Offers go up. The value of draft choices is never greater than draft day. The value of draft choices is never less than it is on trade deadline day. We’re expecting offers to increase, they generally do.
Gregor: You mentioned that mid-range 24 year old. If you’re making a trade, it has to be one that’s going to help you through the next six or seven years, not just the next two or three?
MacT: Yeah, that’s very true, very true. We start every discussion with the same question, is this going to help us ultimately win a championship? How’s this going to affect us? And one thing that we’re not going to do is jeopardize that for a shorter term relief from our current position. We feel like we’re acquiring and developing the assets that are going to develop into guys that are capable of winning. We’re obviously a long way away from that [where we] currently sit, but we’re getting closer.
Gregor: Do you need to be patient now? Do you find that you have to avoid that ‘ok let’s make a move right away’ mentality, and is your situation a good test of your patience?
MacT: Ah… that’s interesting; I’m not sure how to answer that. I think my personal perspective is [that] I’ve got to reconcile the value of these deals. And generally, the ones that come tantalizingly close to making, we have some pretty good discussions about, and discuss the merits and the pluses and the minuses that would factor into making this deal.
So it’s, I’m not patient. I want to win quickly so patience would not be a word that I would use, trying to get better as quickly as we possibly can, but every deal that we make has got to satisfy those questions that I mentioned earlier about how it impacts on our ability to win a championship.
FREE AGENT INTERVIEWS...
Gregor: This year you have the interview period five days leading up to free agency. For the last few years Edmonton has always been involved in free agency; you’ve signed a few UFAs every year. How much different or easier will those five days of free agent interviews make the process?
MacT: Well one thing that I know for sure is that we’re going to get access to these players. They know our cap position, the agents know our cap position and they know our situation of need. We’re going to get access to these players because at the very least they’re going to want us to try to run up the market. That’s my opinion and I think we’ll talk to these players.
If you’re going to pick two or three teams, we’re going to be one of them, I think. So we’ll get access and then it’s going to come down to whether our situation suits the situational needs of the player that we are trying to recruit and our ability to sell our situation.
And our ability to sell our situation is very positive right now. Just to mention a few significant factors: The Alberta advantage in terms of no provincial sales tax, it’s about a 10% advantage over BC and over Ontario and New York, and many situations in the states. So that’s a very significant factor because we’ve always got to remember that everybody, especially the players, we’re all doing this professionally, so that’s a significant factor.
The other factor is that we are an evolving team. We’ve got an opportunity to get in at the bottom floor of something that we feel and expect to be great. We’re going into a new building, and there’s an energy amongst the Oilers. The fans are the best and most loyal fans certainly in the league to continually fill our building through this rebuilding stage that we’re in. The atmosphere that was here in 2006 when we went to the finals, I mean it’s just an unbelievable place to play hockey.
So we’re going to have a good chance to sell that, and I believe very strongly that our case is very compelling to most players. I mean, it’s not going to get the guys that are doing it for a lifestyle change, the guys that want 70 degrees and sunny in the middle of February, we’re probably not going to get those guys, but we’ll have a chance to make an enticing offer to players that are in it for upside in the game of hockey.
***MacTavish seems to have good understanding of how free agency will work, especially when your a team with a lot of cap space who is trying to improve. Many agents and players will just use you to up the price. The key is knowing which players are just using you and which ones would seriously consider you. You don't want to get stuck escalating the price, only to have the player sign with you, unless you really want him. I've always felt free agency was very one-sided. It seems only the owners get accused of collusion, while we know the players/agents do it all the time.
When the Oilers sign a free agent, he will be overpaid. They all get overpaid in the few first weeks of free agency, either in term or dollars. The challenge is to limit how much you overpay the player.***
Gregor: I know that last year you were very close on the David Clarkson negotiations, but he ended up choosing Toronto. He’s an Ontario guy and playing close to home is something that will always come into play in free agency. Looking back on that courtship, is there anything that you gained from that experience that maybe you would do different in how you approach free agents?
MacT: No. I think our staff did an outstanding job presenting our case to David and Brittney at the time. We were up against a situation where David ultimately chose to go home where his dad was a long time Leafs’ fan. It was difficult for us to lose that player at the time, but that was one of the circumstances we couldn’t control.
And the other player that we really went after hard was Danny Dekeyser out of Western Michigan. He turned out to be a real good player in Detroit. Kevin Lowe and I drove from Chicago up to where he played, I can’t remember the town, but where he played College Hockey at Western Michigan. We had unbelievable dinner with Danny, told him all of the pluses about the Edmonton Oilers, and gave him much the same pitch that we gave Justin Schultz a year earlier. It was good, but then as Danny was showing us out to the highway we were following him and on his license plate he had a Detroit Red Wings license plate and we figured that that was not necessarily a good sign. [Laughs]
***Ken Holland confirmed to me last year that the Oilers were very close to landing DeKeyser, and I think it is one of the few advantages the Oilers have in landing free agent defencemen. If you come to Edmonton you will have a great opportunity to play and get icetime. Players want to play, and they all believe they have the ability to perform well. So, if I'm Nikitin, I don't see a better opportunity than in Edmonton to play top-four minutes and establish myself as a solid defender. He could sign a three-year deal, play well and then test the UFA market at 31 and still get a big contract.***
Gregor: It is hard to combat playing for your favourite team I guess…(laughs)…
Anton Stralman is soon-to-be an unrestricted free agent. He has unbelievable advanced stats. When he’s on the ice five-on-five the Rangers score 55% of their goals, yet he only has like 13 points.
In a case for someone like Stralman, would you break down on video very one of the Ranger goals and find out why all of the analytics are great, but wonder how come he’s not getting any points? How much video review is used when you are looking at free agents?
MacT: Well the software is unbelievable right now. I’ve got an adjoining room in my office that I can go in their very quickly, pull up all of New York Rangers most recent games, or their whole history last year and show all of the goals that Anton Stralman was on the ice for in a matter of seconds.
So there’s lots of that analysis, but it's
really simple, the software is quite incredible. Any player in the league that
I want to see play all of the shifts, I can pull up very quickly. So there’s a
lot of that as you talk about players and targets that you want to try to sign,
we’ll watch a lot of video.
Gregor: When free agency is over, I'd love to find out what Stralman is doing to be that impactful on the analytics side, but for some reason rarely gets points...
MacT: You know what, that’s what analytics is all about, that’s it right there, that’s the value because it leads you to ask the right questions like yours. And then you do the research and you dig in for possible outliers where you can identify value before the rest of the group, (other teams) and that’s not easy.
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