What a weekend. So many big stories in sports. Some great races in the NHL, the Masters, Kobe Bryant injury, a great comeback by the Edmonton Rush and the Edmonton Oilers final implosion vs. the Calgary Flames, and the subsequent calling for change.
There is no doubt change is needed, but it can’t just be changes to fringe players.
That was my intro to my story early this morning, but then the Oilers went out and actually made some changes. General Manager Steve Tambellini was fired and replaced by Craig MacTavish while Scott Howson returns to the Oilers this time as Vice President of Hockey Operations.
I said last September that the Oilers needed to show significant improvement this season or management needed to be held accountable. And in our pre-season predictions in January I wrote the same. And by change I didn’t mean a playoff berth. A playoff appearance would have been a massive improvement, but an unrealistic one, however, if the Oilers didn’t improve overall then the architect of the team needed to be looked at.
With seven games remaining I haven’t seen a significant improvement. I wrote, prior to losses vs. Phoenix and Calgary, that I hadn’t seen any real improvement and many disagreed. It looks like the Oilers agreed that this team hadn’t made enough improvements, and today they fired Tambellini with one year remaining on his contract.
Saturday’s abyssmal performance against Calgary got everyone in Oilersnation angry, frustrated and disappointed. Many of you have remained patient the past few years, believing the rebuild was working, but a 4-1 loss to a depleted Calgary team was unacceptable.
It is clear the Oilers aren’t built to be a contender.
They have very good young players, led by Taylor Hall, but you can’t win with just young, skilled forwards in today’s NHL. Your team can’t be one-dimensional, and that is what the Oilers are. They can beat you with speed and skilll, but if the opposition slows down the game the Oilers can’t adapt.
WHAT I SEE….
Many have written and said that the Oilers biggest weakness is their bottom-six forwards. If they improve there the Oilers will be a contender. I agree their 3rd and 4th lines need to improve, but so does the mix within their top-six, and on their blueline.
The Oilers have many areas of weakness, not just the 7th-13th forwards.
The young kids have loads of potential, some of it already proven, but the Oilers won’t win with the same top-six next season. They need some size and toughness sprinkled in amongst the skilled forwards.
Please don’t suggest that the Oilers have enough size with Hall and Magnus Paajarvi. To me size isn’t just your height and weight. Being over six feet and 200 pounds doesn’t mean you are big on the ice. It means you are big on the scale.
For me it is how you play the game. The Oilers have no robust forwards who can compliment the skill of Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov or Sam Gagner. I don’t doubt the skill or drive of those five, but they don’t have the strength or size to beat teams in the trenches.
Hockey in March is much tighter and more difficult than it is between October and February. And then April and May hockey is even more grittier, disciplined and more confined than March. The Oilers do not have the right combination within their top-six to compete.
Look at the forwards during the 2006 Cup run.
They had pure skill in Hemsky and Samsanov. They had gritty, productive skill in Torres, Peca, Stoll and Smyth. They had smarts, skill and determination in Horcoff and Pisani. Of course it helped having a Hall of Fame defenceman in Chris Pronger, but the Oilers top-nine forwards had a great mix of skill, smarts, toughness and grit.
Stop suggesting that the height and weight of the Oilers is a solid defence to the argument that they are big enough. The most physical forward amongst their top-nine is Nail Yakupov, and while that is great for him, it is also a clear sign of what they lack amongst the forwards who play the most minutes.
The Oilers need a young Ryan Smyth. A guy who went to all the tough areas and played his guts out every night. He didn’t wow you with tremendous speed, pinpoint shooting, pression passing or much size, but his determination and skill six to ten feet from the net was top-notch.
Torres and Peca weren’t big, but they could change the momentum of the game with a big hit as often as a big goal. They played big. Horcoff in 2006 led them in playoff scoring, while shutting down the opposition’s top line. Was he as skilled as RNH, no chance, but he never backed down from a battle.
I suspect Nugent-Hopkins will become a very good two-way centreman, mainly because he is trying to mirror Pavel Datsyuk’s style of play. The fact RNH takes that much pride in his two-way game, suggests to me that he will become an elite two-way player. He might not be as good as Datsyuk, who is top-three centres in the game, but he likely will be a top-ten centre in the future. I’m not suggesting they alter their 1st line centre, but today RNH’s game is not as complete as Horcoff was in 2006.
The Oilers in 2006 had strength down the middle. None of them were elite scorers, but Horcoff, Peca and Stoll were all very good two-way players and exceptional in the faceoff dot. The Oilers need one of their top-two centres to win at least 50% of their faceoffs.
The reality is that the Oilers need to change the combination on their top-two lines. And it isn’t just about experience, or in the Oilers case, a lack of it. Do you believe that in two or three years Gagner, Eberle, RNH, Hall, Yakupov and Paajarvi will be the right mix? Who is going to alter their game enough to add that much grit?
ON THE HOT SEAT
Tambellini was on the hot seat, but now the focus shifts to Craig MacTavish.
MacTavish sat at the podium today, and as usual he was incredibly well-spoken. He said what many media and fans have been saying for months. The time is now to make some bold moves.
While MacTavish was eloguent, Kevin Lowe was his usual fiery and emotional self. Lowe is extemely passionate, but at times he let his emotions get the best of him today. Even though it is true from a business sense saying, "There are two types of fans, those that buy tickets and those who watch at home," wasn’t his best choice of words.
Here are some of the quotes that stood out for me. These are all from MacTavish:
I’m an impatient guy. I bring that impatience to this situation. We are at a phase where we have to do some bold things.
We have to add some depth to help these young players. We have to add competitiveness. We lack the undestanding of what it takes to win.
We are the point in the cycle where we can expose ourselves to some risk.
Talk is cheap in this game. I can talk about what I want, but it is in the action and execution.
We will improve our pro scouting, but more we need to improve player acquisitions.
The fact is, it is not about yesterday. I’m not looking at what has happened in the past. I’m looking forward.
My thoughts on those quotes…
MacTavish admitted that he feels the time for being cautious, the biggest criticism of Tambellini, is gone. The Oilers need to make some bold trades and signings, and they have to get more players on the roster who understand what it takes to win. You can’t expect the kids to lead this team, they need some quality support.
The Oilers also need some grit, but according to MacTavish it has to be grit that can score. That isn’t a new thought. I think most of us have stated for months, years, the Oilers need some skilled grit. It is easy to say, but as MacTavish said his actions will speak louder than words.
The off-season just got much more interesting.
The Oilers will try to be bold, which means we can expect some trades, signings and likely some buyouts.
We can agree that Tambellini’s trades and free agent signings involving forwards didn’t work out, but the Oilers and their fans shouldn’t be fooled into believing a simple re-vamping of the 3rd and 4th lines will push this team to the promised land.
They need to do more than just fix those lines. It is time the Oilers got realistic about the expectations of their players. They have lots of skill, but they need more strength and size throughout their lineup. MacTavish is well aware that this team can’t just expect to be one-year older and automatically better next season. He will adjust his top-six forwards.
If they don’t surround their skilled, young players with some strong, skilled veterans the Oilers will be hard-pressed to be a serious contender for at least another three or four years. The time has come to re-shape this team, and it will be very interesting to watch how MacTavish molds the team.
Ralph Krueger isn’t perfect, but I don’t blame him for the Oilers 23rd place ranking and neither does MacTavish. "We need to give our coach better tools to compete. For me to say it is Krueger’s fault would be short-sighted," said MacT when asked about Krueger’s future.
I suspect MacTavish is well aware how difficult it is to coach when you don’t have enough quality NHL players. He ultimately wasn’t MacTavish’s hire, but he’ll get another season to prove he is a good coach.
- I’m not a fan of Tiger Woods. No doubt he is one of the greatest golfers we’ve ever seen, but I’m not a fan. That being said, I didn’t expect him to disqualify himself from the Masters after his illegal drop on the 15th hole on Friday. That would have been a very tough decision. He was assessed a two-stroke penalty and played the final two days. Had he won the tournament some suggested it would be tainted, because he should have disqualified himself because he knew he broke the rules. Other have done it. Bobby Jones called a penalty on himself at the US Open in 1925, and many golf fans remember when Jack Nicklaus conceded a putt to Tony Jacklin which allowed Great Britain to halve the 1969 Ryder Cup. Those were great acts of golf etiquette. I get that, but I also understand why Tiger played. I don’t know if his decision was right or wrong, but it sure has the golf world talking.
- Kevin Lowe got fired up when John MacKinnon asked him why fans should believe that this regime, which made the mess the prior to Tambellini’s appearance in Edmonton, will be able to make better decisions this time. Lowe answered diplomatically the first time, but when MacKinnon asked a follow up question you could see Lowe’s blood starting to boil. "There is only one other person currently working in hockey who has more Cups than me. I think I know something about winning,"said Lowe. Many are going to rip Lowe for this statement because sports is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, and while he has six Cups, none of them have come since 1994.
- While the Oilers play out the string, the Edmonton Rush have their biggest home game in franchise history this Saturday night. With one game remaining, the Rush sit in first place in the NLL west division at 9-6, but they haven’t secured home floor advantage yet. The Rush play 2nd place Calgary on Saturday. A win would secure them first place in the entire league, but a loss could drop them to 3rd in the west, if Washington wins. It is a crazy scenario, but it makes for one hell of an entertaining final weekend in the NLL.
- It is a completely different sport, but Edmonton Eskimos GM Ed Hervey has some interesting answers when I asked him about how his first four months on the job have been. Read here.
- What do you think will be the first bold move MacTavish makes? I’m not talking about moves involving Belanger, Eager, Petrell or other low minute guys. I’m thinking along the lines of Hemsky, Smyth, and one or two young players?
- I would like to thank Shane Jones and Global TV for letting me be a part of their Sunday show the past 18 months. It was a lot of fun, but I’ve decided to take a break from that show. I want to have at least one day off and I’ve got some other opportunities I’m looking at. Thanks again Jonesy, and I look forward to doing guest appearances on your show in the future.
RECENTLY BY JASON GREGOR
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- OILERS: GHOST RIDING THE WHIP
- GDB 36.0: FEASTER OF FAMINE
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- NO JOKE…IT IS APRIL AND THE OILERS ARE IN THE MIX
- SMID SIGNS FOUR-YEAR DEAL