Play it again, Sam

Dancers dance, singers sing and fiddlers fiddle, unless they’re dancing, singing and fiddling with the Edmonton Oilers, who seem to be morphing into a homogenized pile of mis-cast goo before our eyes.

At least that’s the way I see it, and how it seems coach Craig MacTavish wants it, after listening to him talk today about what it might take to solve the Oilers’ offensive woes as they stagger into the Show Me State to face the St Louis Blues with a 9-10-2 record.

Unless I need an ear trumpet:

“Let’s try a simpler approach,” MacTavish said of trying to jump-start an attack that was feeble in a 2–1 loss to Los Angeles Wednesday and has produced just 54 goals in 21 games.

“As long as I’ve been in the game, that’s how you prime the well offensively. You get in there and get your hands dirty. You go to the areas where you can get a break offensively.”

All the same?

Now, I assumed MacTavish was talking in a rule-of-thumb way about a short-term fix at Millennium Place—drive the net, blah, blah, blah and get your nose dirty, blah, blah, blah—but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered.

In a season in which MacTavish has stubbornly favoured forcing square pegs into round holes—playing Erik Cole on left wing, Fernando Pisani at centre, Dustin Penner on the right side and Laddy Smid at forward, for crying out loud —rather than exploit the strengths of individual players, this talk about a “simpler approach” got me thinking.

Is a physical, crash-the-net-ask-questions-later style going to play to the strengths of Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson, now that the Kid Line is reunited? Is that what MacTavish wants and what he thinks will most benefit this quick, skilled and under-sized trio?

“We’re trying to preach a power-game to Cogs and Bobby Nilsson,” MacTavish said. “It’s not necessarily their game, but that’s where you find your game.”

Pardon?

Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it make more sense to turn Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson loose and have them make use of their quickness, puck-handling skills and ability to create offence off the rush?

I get it that everybody has to work within the framework of systems play for breakouts and forechecking etc, but is there wiggle room to freelance a bit based on the relative strengths of each forward line?

“We’re really in a stage now where we’re trying to explore those six-foot saucer passes across the crease for empty-netters and it’s not effective,” MacTavish said.

“Nobody can convince me it’s an effective way to create offence when you’re in the stage we’re in right now. It’s a tough journey and a tough sell for the coach to try and get offensive players to play a more simplistic game, but that’s what we need.”

How many puck battles are Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson going to win by throwing it at the net and getting after it? That’ll work fine for the line of Ethan Moreau, Kyle Brodziak and Cole, but the Kid Line? And what about Penner, Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky? It seems to me they should have their own approach. No?

Why not?

If I’m the coach, I’m telling Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson: “Fly, boys. Burn them with speed. Make them chase. Play catch-me-if-you-can. Let’s see how (insert-name-of-lumbering-defenceman-here) likes playing tag.”

I’m telling Penner, Horcoff and Hemsky: “Dustin, get your big backside in front of the net and let Hemsky and Horcoff do the rest. Give the stopper a healthy Ryan-Smyth-style whiff of that big butt. Ales, while you’re circling, keep an eye on Penner. Shoot it when you can.”

I’m telling Moreau, Brodziak and Cole: “Cycle, baby. Get the rubber down low and lean on them. Toss everything at the net and get after it like the other guys owe you money. Erik, let it hum if you’ve got a shot.”

I’m telling Reddox, Pouliot and Stortini: “Give me 40 seconds of mayhem. Knock somebody on their ass once a shift. Play every puck in the crease through to the whistle. Raise hell.”

And, going into St Louis and Dallas, I’d try something completely different and leave these forward lines together longer than two periods. I’d keep repeating what I expected from each threesome. And it wouldn’t be the same thing for Sam as for Zack, for Ethan as for Ales.

Then again, I’d have never thought to use Laddy on left wing, so what the heck do I know?

—Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6pm on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.

  • Ender the Dragon

    Zamboni Driver Says:
    . . . rolling Smid out again at forward. . . displays to the players that the Emperor has no clothes when a D-man gets hurt and it doesn’t occur to the coach to actually take advantage of dumbass luck by having another D-man to fill in.

    I admit i was surprised by this too. When Grebs went down, it seemed logical to me that Smid would take over on defence and we would shorten the bench at forward a little. Kind of lucky to have the extra defenceman along, I thought. But when the move never came, I started to wonder what I was missing . . .

    Mike Modano's Dog Says:
    Start playing Garon; if that means allowing him to get back practicing with the guy he likes, and having to move our goalie coach so be it.

    Sorry, but I disagree with this philosophy. I think the team allowing players to decide which coaches they will listen to and which ones they won't is the first step to anarchy. Players need to learn that the team comes first and your own wants and desires are secondary. Maybe Pete Peters' time has come and gone; I don't pretend to know enough about the man's coaching style to make that judgement. But if a switch is in order, it's up to K-Lowe and Tambo to decide who the best person is to fill that role, not the players, or the next thing you know, forwards will be telling the head coach that they only want to do stickhandling drills with their old AHL coach so-and-so. Chaos.

    Gord Says:
    MacT has explored every rational idea he has to attempt to get things going and almost every irrational idea now as well.

    Greg MC Says:
    Clearly MacT is in desperation mode. . .

    I'll go on record as saying I think MacT is a very good coach. I honestly think he's doing everything he knows how to get this team fired-up and playing well. He's had sucess in the past and I think he'll have sucess in the future.

    [sigh]

    I didn't think I'd ever be the one saying this, but maybe it's just not going to work out for him here this year. For whatever reasons, his own fault or not, his message isn't getting through; he isn't getting the results he needs. However sad it may be to lose a great guy, I'm starting to come around to the idea that in order to win games this year, you're either going to need to change the leadership OR a significant portion of the locker room. And we aren't going to trade 10 guys so MacT can keep his job; that would be a PR nightmare. Sorry, Mac; I'm not convinced that this is your fault, but I think your time grows short in Edmonton. All the best to you with your new team . . . unless it's Calgary.

    HUGE CAUTION:
    While I admit that a new coach may be in order, I DO NOT advocate change for the sake of change. Whoever steps in had better be a well-thought-out and logical choice. He had better be a better-quality coach that MacT (and no stupid remarks here, please; give the man some respect.). I implore management to be patient and find the right guy. The candidates that are available immediately are quite possibly available because they suck. Mr. Right is not necessarily Mr. Right Now. I would rather lose the next 20 games straight under MacT but end up with a great new coach for the next 5 seasons than pull the trigger prematurely and end up with a coach who is going to have us stumbling along at .500 or less over the same span. If you're going to do it, do it right.

  • MrMackey

    JW: That's a great point, and I agree.

    I'm not necessarily saying that he doesn't understand what makes the offensive guys tick because he wasn't. A lot of coaches out there that have more of an offensive flair were nothing special as players.

    IMO, players seem to do better offensively when MacT gives those players the benefit of the doubt and lets them go a bit, either acquired through trust (Horcoff, Hemsky); because they're a respected veteran (Pronger, Nedved in his first tour); or because they've been able to produce something in a short time frame (kid line).

    However when things go on the decline, he always seems to preach the same things and I don't know if I've ever seen evidence that making these players play a "power game" is really the thing that gets them out of their funk. These type of players (like goaltenders) are so dependant on confidence, from what I've seen, this approach just seems to take players further out of their element and complicate things more then needed.

  • Chris

    Since the lockout (I give MacT a free pass on the-pre lockout years) One unfortunate characteristic of a MacT team is the long losing streaks. Through the first 21 games this year we have already had a four gamer. Last year through 21 we had had both a four game and a five game losing streak. In 06/07 we also had a four game losing streak through the first 21 games. Now, just for fun let's take a look at Canuck losing streaks over the same time frame…After all we have had similar success the last three years and are in the same division. Guess how many four or five game losing streaks the Canucks have had during the exact same time period… NONE. Devising a game plan that actually works for a slumping team is key to avoid extended losing streaks. Also to state the obvious: avoiding extended losing streaks is key to making the playoffs. Is it so wrong to expect to make the playoffs? C'mon all you apologists; Answer me that. Half the teams do it! Many teams are making it with smaller payrolls.

    P.S. Don't tell me MacT can only work with the players he's given because he is heavily involved in player procurement.

  • shakey

    Owen, you tell me that you're happy with the 'success' that we've had with Mac T over the last 7-1/2 years? You think there is nothing wrong with his methodology? He said that Cogliano and Nilsson don't play a power game but that's what he's been preaching. That's the kids fault he wants them to play 6'4" 225 lbs style of hockey? You could fill a section at Rexall with the players he's had over the last 8 years. You're right…all of them are the problem, couldn't be the coach and his methodology. Enjoy your Kool-aid.

  • Chris

    Oh and another thing. The year we had Pronger(05/06) our start through the first 21:
    W W W L L L L L L L W W W W W L L W L W W

    Who is tired of the MacT ROiler Coaster Ride?

  • Ender the Dragon

    Chris,

    Going 11 and 10 in your first 21 is not probably something you'd need to scrapbook, but it's nothing to be ashamed of, either. Aside from more W's, what configuration of wins and losses would have been more pleasing to you?

  • Cam

    Greg MC,
    I hate to say it but… there is no divorce coming. the only way MacT gets turfed is if the Oilers are in last at the half. Tambellini is still making excuses for him.

    Robin,
    Excellent insight into what has gone wrong here. I agree with you completely.

    Owen,
    As one who has read Robin's posts for a long time, I can honestly say he really does not give a rat's ass what we think of him. He just tells us what he thinks. Once in a while what he writes even makes sense…

    Kevin Lowe,
    I bet if you picked up the phone and offered Pouliot, Stortini and Brodziak for Glencross that they would laugh in your ear.

  • milli

    MacT is clearly desperate for something that'll work. Who isn't? I'm tired of watching a team that just dosn't compete. Is that MacT fault? Ya, he's the coach, his job to make sure that we are getting the most out of players. I don't give Klo a pass either, 3 gaolie distraction, not re signing GlennX (see him last night). But changes need to be made, and made quickly. ALL I WANT FOR XMAS IS A REAL COACH, A COACH WHO HAS ACTUALLY COACHED, NOT BUCKY, NOT SIMMER, NOT MESSIER.

  • Chris

    Ender The Dragon,
    All I'm saying is that MacT teams win and lose in bunches. I call it the ROiler Coaster. Many other teams hovering around .500 seem to have the ability to pull out of skids before they grow to 4, 5 or even 7 games and elite teams always do. Last game vs LA was a perfect chance to end a poor streak. Despite every sheduling advantage this team sank deeper. Does mixing and remixing the linup help pull us out of slumps or prolong them? Winning streaks are great…but elite teams consistantly find a way to win after sufferring a couple of losses.

  • The sky is falling. The Sky is falling.

    Listen, I am as much a diehard as any Oiler fan and have often gone to bed pi$$ed off and with a slow burn. But most here need to relax a bit and let things work themselves out over the first HALF of the season, not 20 games in.

    First off, expectations were way to high in Edmonchuck, based on a bad season, but a great end.

    Second, we all had to beware of the sophmore jinx. We just didn't expect it to hit 5 sophmores.

    Third, there is enough expertise, talent etc on this team (coaches included) to right the ship.

    No one knows more than the players themselves and the turnaround must come from them. If things aren't improving by mid-season, then perhaps it is time to contemplate Brownlee being a coach and a superstar, but 20 games in, c'mon people. Relax.

    B

  • RobinB

    MisterB: No, it will never be time to contemplate Brownlee as a coach because I'm not that smart, and I've already been a superstar, so I'm out.

    What it will be time to do after 40 games is see if this roster is playing anywhere near its capability.

    You sound a touch naive with your "Sky is falling" comments. That suggests panic for no reason, and that's not the case here.

    There is cause for real concern because this group of players is performaning way, way under the level they expected of themselves and, so far, they haven't done a damn thing about it.

    If that doesn't change markedly, the personnel — starting with players and then moving to coaches — will have to change. That's a fact. So, relax? No, that's fiddling while Rome is burning.

  • Zamboni Driver

    No disrespect MisterB, but really, I think the 'sky is falling' mentality right now is that this crap is happening AGAIN.

    Every year MacT has been in charge, they get to February and go, "Geez, you know if it had occurred to us that a win is ALSO 2 points in October too!" (I'm exaggerating, but you know what I mean….)

    I think people really are tired of waiting and waiting and waiting…patience has worn thin, and for some (me too), worn out.

  • Zamboni Driver

    Hey Robin,

    What is your take on Lowe…So we've got Tambellini, who I like as a hockey guy – a non-old-boys guy especially – is Tambo going to be actually calling any shots, or did he get the inflated title because he had to be 'promoted' to come here?

    My patience with Lowe's personnel decisions has run as thin as it has with the coaching.

  • Ender the Dragon

    MisterB Says:
    . . . most here need to relax a bit and let things work themselves out over the first HALF of the season, not 20 games in . . . there is enough expertise, talent etc on this team (coaches included) to right the ship.

    MisterB, before Wednesday's game, I was with you. I think, though, that we might be the ones who had our head in the sand. Clearly there's a problem; MacT is trying some fairly radical stuff in order to find some way (ANY way) to get things moving in the right direction. I applaud his efforts, but the haven't produced.

    If there wasn't a visible problem with this team and MacT said in words and actions 'I'm not worried; it's coming around', then I'd relax. But he's telegraphing big-time here that all is not well in Oilerland.

    Have you ever been at work and suddenly watched something incredibly huge or valuable start to fall over or face immenent disaster? You know, where time just starts to slow down and you only have time to say to youself 'Oh, CRAP . . . ' before it's the end of the world as you know it?

    MacT has that expression on his face these days; he's scrambling, looking like that guy that's wondering if maybe he still has time to throw himself in front of the falling object or whether it's already far too late.

    Wednesday indicates that the object's momentum is pretty significant. If it were in MacT's power to fix things, he'd have done it during the 5-day layoff. Sadly, too many things just still looked far from comfortable.

    No, MisterB, I don't think it's too early to determine that all is not going to be well. Not without a significant force moving in another direction. Now we just have to wait and see what it is.

  • Fiveandagames jerk alter ego who couldn't resist

    This article is an indication of bizarre this season has been.

    I agree with everything you've said Mr. Brownlee. I don't want to grade blogs on whether I agree with them or not. But this is a goody. Great insight. We can only hope that the frustrated talents of our forwards will blossom and this will turn itself around and MacT can go back to worrying about defense.

    Either that or MacT will be let go.

  • Mike Modano's Dog

    to Ender the Dragon: I enjoy reading your stuff…and that was a good point about the goalie coach, too. I don't know the inner workings of that coaching relationship at all either, but do notice that something is off there.

    When our #1 last year who was terrific isn't even getting a chance to play this year it is bizarre. I don't know who is to blame for it, but SOMEBODY is making these decisions and that person SHOULD be put to task for it. I really don't know if that falls on the head coach, the goalie coach, assistants, GM, etc… but SOMEBODY has to take responsibility for our goaltending problems and fix this situation. One way or another Garon has to be given a chance – otherwise what will we have going forward in net besides praying the new, unproven guys are ready!

    Love this website, guys! Keep it up!!

  • ZD, RB, ETD,

    Touche to your points – the team isn't responding to MacT the way they should, and are not playing anything like they could or should. I fully concede that fact, but I wouldn't view my opinion as "naive". I see how MacT is worn and we're all sick of this slow start happening again (if you could have heard me in the 1st period of the St. Louis game), with the increase in talent we have this year. We're on the same page with that.

    However, my thoughts are this – and the reason for my "sky is falling" comment – because it takes "time" to make a unit cohesive:

    -Many, if not all, of the sophomore Oiler players were (and played) overconfident during training camp and for the first 20.
    -Two new Dmen in Vis and Strud learning a new system.
    -One impact player who has never been traded before, learning a new system, etc.
    -Two players, I thought, would ease their way into the season after shoulder surgery. One has, one has been a dream player.

    These players make up half the team.

    Then, there was the sched of the first 20 – road games up the wazoo, high-caliber teams played, back to backs, etc. indicate (to me) that 20 games into the season is not enough TIME to give the team/coaching staff a fair shake

    In my view, and the point of my initial post, is to look at the team at the halfway point of the season – look to see if the team is becoming more cohesive, growing, going to war for each other, paying the price. If the trajectory is not positive over the first 40 games, at that point, the there is more substantial reason for discussions of new coaches, trades, etc., but proper analysis of this is done over a longer period of time, in my view.

    The talent IS there and I believe MacT IS the right guy. The Oil will be ok.. if, after 40-50 games, there is little to no progress, I'll join your sentiment. I simply believe it is too early in the process to open the floodgates on this topic.

    B