The idea that Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson were huge parts of getting the Oilers into the mess that Steve Tambellini proved unable to extricate the team from is one that has a certain amount of resonance with Oilers fans. After all, MacTavish was the head coach of the team for many years, and Howson was the assistant general manager, so doesn’t handing the reins over to that duo just guarantee more of the same?
To answer that question, two things need to be known: exactly which Oilers’ teams MacTavish and Howson had a hand in, and their exact role in the decision making process with those teams. The first is easy to find, the second a little more difficult.
The Kevin Lowe Oilers
The blue bars show the Oilers’ games over/under 0.500 in each season since Kevin Lowe was named general manager of the team, with the 2012-13 number projected over an 82-game season (overtime/shootout losses are counted as straight losses here). Win alone is an imperfect metric – for example, the 2005-06 team’s subpar goaltending makes them look far worse than they were – but it’s a quick and easy way to show basic team performance over these years, and ultimately it’s what the people involved were being judged on.
We see two big drop-offs. The first was a result of the exodus of talent and failure to replace it in the summer of 2006; Chris Pronger headlined a departing group that also included names like Jaroslav Spacek, Sergei Samsonov, and Mike Peca. The loss of Pronger for futures and Spacek for nothing was particularly devastating; the Oilers average ice-time leader the next season was the forgettable Daniel Tjarnqvist.
The club would improve dramatically in 2007-08, thanks to some big-name additions and an influx of young talent, but the bottom would fall out again in 2009-10 and while the Oilers are improving they are far from out of the woods yet.
Both Scott Howson and Craig MacTavish were around for that first big dip; both were gone when the team as a whole did its best Jason Bonsignore impression in 2009-10.
With the early-Lowe Oilers a pretty successful team – despite operating on a shoe-string budget – the concern with both Howson and MacTavish is how involved they were in the 2006-07 collapse that took place during their time with the Oilers, and how much responsibility they bear for the debacle of 2009-10.
We’ll start with 2006-07. The primary catalyst for that fall was the famous “Pronger for five assets” trade that stocked the cupboards with futures but devastated the team in the present. Kevin Lowe was the general manager and must have been the primary decision maker on the trade – to what extent do Scott Howson (then the assistant general manager) and Craig MacTavish (then the head coach) deserve the blame there? Also, to what extent was it a bad deal? There’s certainly an argument to be made that the Oilers received fair value and that the mistake was in not conducting an abbreviated rebuild at that time rather than trying to compete immediately.
It’s difficult to get all that worked up about all the evil Scott Howson did during his time with the Oilers – the team was mostly successful, with the exception of 2006-07. In this case, the ‘why are you hiring a guy who helped get the team into this mess?’ narrative is wrong. That’s not to say Howson is a good or bad hire – his work in Columbus is probably the best place to decide if he’s a useful member of the management team – just that hanging the Oilers’ struggles in recent years on him requires a deliberate blindness to fact.
That takes us to Craig MacTavish. In his primary role, that of head coach, MacTavish seems vindicated by what has happened over the past few years. It wasn’t all that long ago that the comments section here and elsewhere rang out with predictions that Pat Quinn would reclaim the room that MacTavish lost and spur the roster to greater heights; suffice to say, that didn’t happen. Coaching was not the problem during the MacTavish era.
What part did MacTavish play in roster decisions? As head coach, it seems probable that his focus was internal: more identifying needs and problems with the roster he had than going out and identifying the pieces needed to fill them. It’s hard to imagine that he was the guy deciding how much to sign people for, or deciding on offer sheets and scouting trade targets. I just don’t see a case for putting the failings of this team under Lowe and then Tambellini at his feet; if anything, I tend to agree with what MacTavish said at his introductory press conference in response to a question very similar to that posed in the opening paragraph:
Maybe you guys have a different opinion, but I don’t know that I’ve failed this organization in any of those regards before in any of the decisions or the jobs I’ve taken with this organization in the past. Again, I get back to what we say today has very little bearing on how I’m going to be evaluated as I go forward. I look forward to the challenge of the job and I’m going to help turn this team around, and that’s all I can tell you.
Both MacTavish and Howson deserve to be judged on their own merits, not on the failings of a team that suffered its worst years after they were already in the rearview mirror.
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