Fire Craig MacTavish

Craig MacTavish: you're fired

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Hippy

    To follow up on what Robin said, I never got the impression that those three guys were "bag skated" today. I seem to recall that MacT said he and the coaching staff would do whatever it took to help guys who needed help. Seems like MacT was living up to his words as those players (Penner especially) seem to acknowledge that they're not at the top of their games right now. That sounds an awful lot like a coach doing his job.

    The rest? Well I'm only a fan so I can't say why MacT does what he does. Sometimes he hints at things though. He's said before that when he plays guys out of position he's trying to get them untracked. Or if we look at this year as a teaching season as much as a "get into the playoffs" season (with so many young guys I could believe that), I can easily see how getting a young D to play offense once in a while might expand his skillset. Again, I'm only guessing here.

  • Hippy

    Jon: The arguments you make in points 1 through 5 are glaring examples of questionable decisions MacTavish has made this season. Your conclusion, however, is a bit naive.

    First, I know you weren't at Millennium Place, so you've obviously been caught up in having what MacTavish put Brodziak, Penner and Pouliot through characterized as a "bag skate."
    I didn't see it as such. You're right about these three players having plenty of company in terms of players who didn't perform well against Nashville, but in the last 20 years I've seen a handful of players — not just the Black Aces — put through extra work after main practice is over plenty of times. It's not common, but it's not a once-in-season situation, either.

    Second, Brodziak isn't a MacTavish whipping boy. In fact, based largely on glowing reviews by Kelly Buchberger, Kyle is one of the players MacTavish really wants to see succeed. That's just a fact, even if skating him extra might seem like an odd way to show it.

    Third, the win as a team lose as a team sentiment is a time-tested cliche that applies in many circumstances, but that doesn't translate to all players being treated the same in the real world.
    For instance, "optional skates" aren't really optional for all players — as Robert Nilsson found out. There's a rule of thumb that rookies, younger players and role players attend.
    At the same time, certain veterans, especially if they've played heavy minutes, have been given the latitude by MacTavish to opt out of practices that aren't optional. It doesn't happen often, but it happens. Again, that's a case where all players aren't treated the same in the real world. Happens with other teams, too.

    Lastly, it doesn't matter if you or I or anybody outside the dressing room finds what MacTavish did today "repugnant." What matters is what the players think. If the way MacTavish handled the situation today and the way he's handled some other issues this season have the players tuning out and turning off, then he's in trouble. I've been trying to find out if that's the case and I haven't heard it — not even off the record — yet.

    There's arguments to be made against the way MacTavish has used certain players this season, and you made them, but citing the singling out of players in the context of what happened today as the last straw is, like I said, a bit naive.

  • Hippy

    @jeanshorts – I think you've hit something important here. MacT's made a lot of questionable decisions (as Jonathan did a great job pointing out). But how much of this is him trying to compensate for the holes in the lineup and for a team that despite his ability, he does not know how to work with?

    How else to explain some of the decisions to go with young guys like Reddox and old dogs like Moreau and Staios?

    I lay a lot of this at the feet of Lowe who overlooked some major flaws in constructing it.

    That said, I don't think any other coach has them higher than 5th right now because they are not in the same class as Detroit, San Jose, Chicago or Calgary right now. And I'm sorry, they don't get out of the first round regardless.

    So more change is coming and where/when will it happen? I actually think they won't can MacT because they still think they can slip into the playoffs with him, as opposed to seeing a change and them possibly falling off a cliff.

    But this is why you're paid the big bucks to make the tough decisions and the fan base is growing impatient for change.

  • Hippy

    Thank you Jonathan Willis. Best post by far, and for that I grant you the keys to the Fire MacT Bandwagon for the month of February. It's awesome to see a MacT supporter converted to the dark side. We welcome you with open arms, and need I say it's about damn time. Welcome Willis.

  • Hippy

    @ Ender the Dragon:

    You bring up some valid points. Firing MacT isn't the quick fix solution this team needs. There are still some glaring holes that need to be filled with on ice personnel. But really how long can you continue, year after year to get the exact same results, no matter which players we have on the ice? How long before you finally realize it's time to take a chance on trying something new?
    How many times has it been now that players have been run out of town for underachieving, and then go on to have solid years with another team, while the Oilers continue to barely make the playoffs?

    You can only try and jam a square peg into a round hole for so long before you realize that something in this equation isn't working.

    I think people are being a bit hasty in thinking that our only problem is MacT and that getting rid of him will answer all our prayers and lead us straight to the cup. There is a lot of other areas we need to look at for sure. But I think it's been long coming for the team to look at other options behind the bench. If it doesn't work out, that's fine, at least they tried something new rather then being complacent with mediocrity.

  • Hippy

    @ Ender the Dragon:

    Sometimes I can see a change being as good as a rest. Some teams respond very well once their coach is fired (Chicago?). At this point I think a fire hydrant would be an improvement.

    I think Bucky did a great job with his AHL squad, which is why he is up here (not because he is an old boy, as some people are wont to speculate). Maybe he is "the guy" maybe it's Billy Moores… maybe it's Bob Mancini (after all most of our team is "developing", right?).

  • Hippy

    Ender the Dragon wrote:

    You have to explain how by firing MacT, this frees up space for the next guy who will get the job done. And that guy is…

    Kevin Lowe, or Charlie Huddy, for the rest of the season. After that, go all out for a replacement.

    This sort of favoritism cannot be tolerated. The team cannot see it tolerated.

  • Hippy

    Thank you…I've been a pretty big MacT supporter in the past too, but for the reasons you've stated, enough is enough. Every point you've raised here is valid, and it's getting ridiculous…I like MacT…he could be a color commentator or something (he's got the good looks for TV, and yes, I went there) but I've seen enough of him as coach.

  • Hippy

    Whether MacTavish inherited a team full of Crosby's or a team full of Stortini's is irrelevant – his role is exactly the same; extracting every morsel of talent out of the players that he DOES have. It's common sense to anyone and everyone that this team isn't living up to potential.

  • Hippy

    Jonathan Willis wrote:

    And that guy is…
    Kevin Lowe, or Charlie Huddy, for the rest of the season. After that, go all out for a replacement.

    So my question then becomes this; if you are emplacing one of these two fine gentlemen behind the bench, are we still expecting the team to make the playoffs? (Because I don't see that happening, myself . . .) And if that isn't the expectation, then why bother?

  • Hippy

    "The fans and Media need to readjustment their expectations of Penner." – Craig MacTavish in preseason after telling reportors that Penner would be playing on a checking line with Moreau and Pisani.

    Fast forward a month or two and sure enough MacTavish turned into what he had just prior warned about.

    At the time of his benching Dustin Penner led the team in the plus/minus catagory with a +8 rating.

    At the time of Penner's benching Edmonton had a negative GF/GA differential.

    MacTavish is so brilliant that he took out his best 5X5 player (according to the +/- metric) out of rotation for a team losing at 5X5.

    What exactly was were these new expectations that MacTavish was referring to? Leading the team in +/- while playing in a checking role with Moreau and Pisani is nothing to sneeze about nevermind benching material.

    "Oh but he didn't work hard"

    Who gives a Robin Brownlee how hard he works if he he's delivering results. Reddox the little engline that could has the worst Corsi rating and the worst GFON/GAON differential (-.98) out of anyone on the team not named SMac but MacTavish thinks he's the cat's meow because he works hard and accomplishes nothing.

    Penner was the 13th most proficient PP goal scorer last year and MacTavish took him off the PP this year in favor of Cole. Indefensible – yet the local media likes to shift the blame of MacTavish's self-inflicted wounds anywhere but the source.

  • Hippy

    Everyone is really good at pointing out the problem, but people aren't nearly as good at finding the solution. If getting the Oilers into the playoffs were as simple as replacing Craig McTavish, I hope no one seriously thinks that Kevin Lowe would put his personal feelings, whatever they might be, in the way of team success.

    Lowe can see there are problems with this team. Fixing them isn't as easy as many make it out to be. In the previous post, I saw a suggestion that we should trade Penner for Frolov. I'm laughing as I type this. Yeah, that would probably work, in the same world where KLowe could sign Tony the Tiger to play first-line center. In our world, though, Frolov isn't going anywhere anytime soon, especially for a guy like Penner.

    The big problem with cutting MacT is quite simply who to replace him with. Lowe has him behind the bench because he doesn't have any better options. Who is out there right now with any kind of experience? Someone who is going to come into this room at this point in the year and do something that MacT isn't already trying; someone who isn't bringing in their own personal baggage and is going to get the room to buy in to his system on the eve of the playoff drive; does that person even exist? Whoever you bring in is currently not coaching in the NHL because either A) they had an NHL job and they lost it (not good) or B) they have never had an NHL job, (also not good).

    Yeah, Lowe could take a chance on a Junior guy; maybe you get Boudreau, maybe you get Hartsburg; you spins the wheel, you takes your chances. Or maybe you promote an assistant from somewhere; Charlie Huddy as head coach would be a big improvement, right? Or maybe Tambo steps down and looks after the coaching himself; that's a surefire playoff ticket, right?

    Suggesting that MacT be fired is no more a solution than suggesting that we should pick up Frolov. You have to explain how by firing MacT, this frees up space for the next guy who will get the job done. And that guy is . . .

  • Hippy

    Didn't really see this one coming.

    We never really know what goes on within the team. Although I'm interested to see how the team would respond to Mac's firing, we dont really get to see what goes on within the team. Maybe these three were out getting wasted the night before and Mac caught wind of it. All three were benched at some point during the game and all three were out on the ice after the team today.

    Penner made one of the laziest plays I've ever had the privilidge of witnessing against Nashville on Sunday. Just standing around as the puck passed him three times just outside the Oilers blue line. He had just jumped on the ice and was gone just as fast. We didn't see him after that.

    I agree that some of the moves this year have come from Mac not "keeping it simple" but, I'm not sure that we'll see him fired during this season and maybe not next season either. I give him one year after this and he's gone. Sucks cuz the collective momentum may not last through it all.

  • Hippy

    I was a Fan Of MacT: the player. As an aging grider, and Captain of a brutal Oiler Squad; I watched him live, in the Saddeldome score a hat-trick. I, along with Willis, backed MacT until this season. It is terribly depressing to watch this proud, intelligent, Oiler icon descend into madness… Even a casual observer of this team can see how poorly MacT is managing his assets this season.

  • Hippy

    Librarian Mike wrote:

    While I think a change may be necessary, I can’t help but feel that MacT’s replacement is going to be Huddy or Buchberger rather than a real coach.

    I totally agree…with the Oilers rarely looking outside the box(Tambellini), you can only assume the promotion will come from within. If there is a coach out there that wants to coach this team please let Tambellini pick the coach so that at the end there will be some accountability. Right now Tambo is running this team under K-LO's guidance and if he wanted to pull the trigger on Mac-T he would face great resistance.

  • Hippy

    I agree 100%, But it will never happen Mac T and K lowe are best friends and I think the only reason Mr Katz bought this team is so that he can hang out with the oilers from the past and chum with the team.We are turning into the Toronto Maple Leafs organization ( The late Harold ballard era) and we dont even realize it.When will someone, anyone get some balls and do something!!! I know one thing, my days as a Oilers season seat holder are coming to an end, I am tired of the Oilers propaganda machine working full time and feeding us fans with bull s_it!!

  • Hippy

    Wow, I like your Gonads, Finnally you and Brownlee are seeing the light. Do you think you will have less privlages in the locker room? You said everything that fans have said plus more. I think that it should go a lot higher also where management is concerned. Like you said it's time for a change but the people who can change this don't see a problem. The atmosphere also at Rexal has to change, they have to get the fans in the game by not boooooing. It's a start keep up the good work!!!!!!

  • Hippy

    This website has been on fire lately! I like it.

    I still don't see a problem with those three being bag skated, after all they have all been non factors for a long stretch, but I will agree that the whole team probably should have suffered rather than just a select few.

    If there wasn't a divide in the room between the MacT's favorite sons and the rest before, I don't see how there can't be one now.
    And when you stack all his crap moves end to end like that, along with convincing arguments as to why there was really no reasonable method to the madness, I can't see any reasonable defense for this guy to keep his job.

    Bring on the excuses now MacT fan boys.