Craig MacTavish wasn’t able to make all the moves he wanted this summer, but he’s pretty confident he has improved the team enough that they will be competitive.
MacTavish joined me on my radio show yesterday and we discussed re-signing Sam Gagner, his defence, Ryan Nugent-Hopkin’s health and the areas of his team he is still hoping to improve. My thought are in italics.
Gregor: Sam joked that last year they were actually in the arbitration room when you agreed to a deal, but this year you made the deal outside of the room. I guess it’s technically getting easier by the year.
MacTavish: Ya, technically I guess. I’ve never really gone through that process before. Had dinner last night with our lawyers and went down to the Sheraton Hotel downtown Toronto this morning. Talked to Jeff Jackson, Sam’s agent, and agreed that we would meet and discuss any alternatives. We were kind of at an impasse the last few weeks.
But went down to meet and ya, it’s always good to get in front of the people you’re doing the deal with. Sometimes, I’m finding anyway, this is a dehumanizing process and it gets pretty competitive, pretty personal, and pretty fiery at times. But when you’re dealing with a person of the integrity of Sam Gagner and certainly his representative Jeff Jackson, who was all business to deal with, it’s good.
The thing that really was evident was we both had common objectives in this deal. Sam really, he’s an Edmonton Oiler, he wants to be a part of this. He wasn’t contemplating a one year deal so he could open up and sign somewhere else. My final analysis was he just wanted the security of being able to stay here. He’s got plenty of confidence in his ability and he felt like if he had to, he’d do another year here and then have more leverage, in my mind, to negotiate a deal where he could get a No Trade deal to stay here. We wanted to keep him, so those were pretty common objectives for us.
*** I think both sides should be happy. The Oilers have Gagner for three more years and by then they should know exactly what they have, while Gagner gets a fair deal and he can still be a ufa before he turns 27 in the summer of 2016.***
Gregor: You talked about how this process is dehumanizing. I get the sense that you are a big fan of the ‘human element’ in sports. You’ve talked a lot about Sam Gagner and his ability as a person, his ability to be a leader and not just the X and O’s. Do you feel a strong human connection is required within your organization in order to have a successful franchise?
MacTavish: Well, you want the right people. Leadership is so important, whether it’s sports, or business, or crocheting. It’s a critical component and element to having success. Good players are hard to find. Sam’s a very good player. Good players that are Oilers and are driven to be Oilers and are passionate about being Oilers are- you don’t want to let those guys go.
Yes, there is a limit and I try to get it to a number that I think is fair and extend that to the player. Good players are tough to find and when we have one that wants to be here and wants to make Edmonton his home, those things are important to us as an organization that we have people who live here. That hasn’t really been the case over the last number of years. This year we’ve got Devan Dubnyk in town, Sam has been here for quite some time. It’s important that guys are out in the community and, not withstanding, what he does on the ice and in the locker room when September rolls around.
Gregor: Gagner mentioned that Versteeg, Voracek and Krejci were the comparables that his side used towards in their brief. Who were some of the guys you felt were statistically and financially comparable to Gagner?
MacTavish: I’m not going to get into the comparables from our side. I don’t know how that helps us. It’s quite a process to go through, how you actually narrow down things to include- I mean we’re trying to include people who substantiate our lower number and they’re trying to get people and draw comparables that substantiate a higher number.
Then you get down in front of the arbitrator, if you do get in that room and argue the case. Here’s a little bit about the process, which I didn’t know a lot about going into this. Each side gets ninety minutes and you can use that ninety minutes however you want. Whether it is forty-five minutes to present your case, and forty-five minutes to rebut the other side’s case, you choose however you want to use your ninety minutes. You get in front of the arbitrator and it’s kind of interesting, but it’s a very divisive process and even reading through the briefs can be pretty divisive. You really don’t want to do that to your players if you can reach some common ground and try to negotiate a settlement.
***It is too bad MacTavish didn’t say who they used, although I do know Versteeg was also used by the Oilers. I’d guess TJ Oshie was as well. As MacT stated both sides try to find guys that figure into their argument. Keep in mind that Gagner’s camp would have been asking for $5.5 million from an arbitrator.***
Gregor: At the start of the summer you were very adamant that you wanted to outline your game plan to the fans. You said you were looking to make some bold moves, you wanted to change some things. I’m guessing the majority of the moves have been made. What areas were you disappointed you weren’t able to address?
MacTavish: I think just overall size. We’re still looking for some toughness. Ideally, I thought going in, that we’d be able to market some of our assets and grab bigger, stronger, more physical guys. We had a few guys in mind that we were chasing, but we weren’t able to land. That would be the major thing that I fell short on this summer, but I’m really happy with the way that we’ve improved our defence and happy with the skill level of our forwards.
We’ve added depth to our third and forth lines; certainly much more depth on the back end. I don’t know, I’m always cautious. I’m an optimist, but I’m a cautious optimist. When I look at some of the combinations that we have going into this season, I’m pretty excited. It’s going to take a spark, somebody’s got to light a spark but whoever that is, whether it’s the coaching staff, or whether it‘s Sam, Taylor, Nugent-Hopkins, or Justin Schultz, or Devan Dubnyk, if somebody lights a spark this thing could take off in a hurry.
***Size is an issue, and MacTavish won’t stop trying to address that need. He likely will spend the next 18 months trying to mix in some size with his skilled players. I agree with his stance that if one or two of their players can grab the team’s attention with a hot start, they could start winning. If Eakins can get all hands on deck and have them playing with desire, passion and determination the Oilers skill might keep them in the playoff hunt.***
Gregor: Can you update us on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? Do you expect him to participate in pre-season games or will you be cautious and wait until the regular season?
MacTavish: Well, we’re hearing that everything is optimistic, but you don’t want to count on him being ready to start the season. The optimistic forecast would be that he could be potentially ready to start the season, but the pessimistic forecast would be that he would be ready November 1st, the end of October. We’ll leave it at that and let the medical staff decide. We’re certainly not going to rush him and hurry him into the lineup, that’s for sure.
*** I like that MacT won’t rush Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers have to look big picture. The Oilers’ goal is to be competitive for many years, not just the first month or two of this season. I’d be overly cautious with Nugent-Hopkins.***
OPTIONS AT CENTRE…
Gregor: Let’s take the pessimistic point of view. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins isn’t ready to start the season. You’ve got Gagner, you’ve got Gordon, and I guess you’ve got Anton-Lander. Regardless of when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ready, you would like to add another centreman before the start of the season?
MacTavish: No, I think we’re good there. We’ve got some depth with Arcobello, we’ve got Will Acton. Andrew Miller is a guy who I’m expecting will have a very good training camp as well, until Nuge is ready to play. I mean, injuries are a part of it. You look at any other team’s depth chart; there are always gaps in their depth chart. Sometimes these gaps allow players and opportunity to step in and really establish themselves as NHL players. You need a chance if you’re a young guy on the outside looking in. This could potentially be that chance if Nuge isn’t ready to go October 1st, but I don’t anticipate doing much more.
***I’ll admit I was a bit shocked when MacTavish said he was happy with what he has. He knows Miller and Arcobello better than I do, so we’ll see if he is right. There is still 10 weeks until the season starts, so it is too early to know exactly when RNH will return, so part of MacTavish’s response could have been about hiding his cards. He might not always be so forth coming in who or what he wants. He also knows that there will be some veteran UFAs still floating around in September, and if it is clear RNH won’t be ready until November, or later, and the three kids stuggle in preseason, he could sign a veteran then. The preseason will be much more interesting watching how Arcobello, Lander and Miller play.***
Gregor: Tell us more about Andrew Miller. What are his strengths as a player?
MacTavish: Andrew Miller is a lot like Mark Arcobello. He’s actually out of the same program; they’re both from Yale University. Miller is a strong guy on the puck. He’s a smaller guy, but he’s highly skilled with a real keen intellect to play the game. He scores big goals, he knows where to go, he knows when the opportunity is presenting itself, he goes to the right position. He’s going to look really good at camp, I can tell you that. It’s whether he can overcome the exhibition game hurdle. Then the later exhibition games present another hurdle as well as teams pair their roster down and the competition gets a little bet steeper. Then, of course, the ultimate hurdle of playing in a regular season game. We’ll see if he’s ready for that, but he’ll sure look good early.
Gregor: You bring back Denis Grebeshkov, add Belov, and Ference, clearly puck possession was your main thing. You mentioned lack of size up front. Did you want to add somebody with size on the back end?
MacTavish: Well, I think that when you have Ladislav Smid and Andrew Ference, both guys that can play a physical game we’re okay. Size is one aspect of it, but it’s the willingness to play a physical game. Laddy certainly fills that need for us. Andrew is a guy that plays with a lot of bite and has some physical play.
Our team, we’re too far down the road of playing a skill game. We want to play a real fast game. We want defence that will pivot and skate hard back for pucks and get the puck moving quickly, transition the puck up quickly to our forwards. We’ve got a highly skilled group, I think, and if we can get back quicker for pucks –one area I thought we were real weak in last year was our ability to retrieve pucks quickly and institute the breakout, get the puck moving D to D, get it up ice quickly and get it in the hands of our forwards we should be fine.
I really thought our team was a very easy team to apply pressure to. I know that we’ve made improvements in that area. That’s the way I like to play. I don’t like a chip and chase game. I like a team that can make three, or four, or five passes and open the ice up, attack and build some speed in our attack and that’s what we’re going to be.
***I respect that MacTavish has a system in mind and wants to find players that fit into that system. It is obvious he wants good skaters who can move the puck. I like that strategy, but I’d be concerned about how they will defend. If teams start to carry the puck into the zone, rather than dump it in, how will the Oilers counter that. They will need good sticks, and body position, but sometimes having a player who is big and strong and can skate and pass is a big benefit. Similar to his forward group, I’m sure MacTavish would like to eventually mix in some size on his blueline.***
Gregor: Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle were invited to Canada’s Olympic camp next month. You played with a lot of guys who got that experience, to get together and learn from the best players in the world. What do you hope those two guys take from that experience?
MacTavish: I think just the professionalism. Taylor and Jordan are very professional guys. They’re very passionate guys. I think that’s what the more experienced players will get from those two guys, maybe more importantly. That those guys are going to come in there and add a certain infusion of passion and intensity and just the joy of playing the game. One thing about both of those guys is that they love to play the game. Sometimes that can wear off a little bit on more experienced guys. I think the group will get that from Taylor and Jordan.
As for what Taylor and Jordan will get from the group, it’ll be just the details of the game. I really believe that the older players realize just how important all the little details are to the game. Play without the puck. I mean, how important that is tactically to have coordinated defence and everybody doing a job defensively. I think you can’t win anywhere really, unless you have that; certainly at the highest level. The best players in the game recognize that, how coachable they are and how much they appreciate how important structure is to overall team success. I think our guys will get that message from that group that they play with. It should be just a terrific experience for both those players.
***Hall and Eberle are both extremely competitive, and both of them will use this camp as extra motivation. If Hall plays like he did last year, it will hard for Canada not to add him. Eberle needs a good start, and if Eakins uses him on the PK and he shows his versatility he will be in the conversation. Both will need to be very good for the first three months of the season to have a realistic shot of making the team.***
WINNING WITH SKILL…
Gregor: When you look at Perron, what made that deal the right trade for you to make?
MacTavish: Just the skill level. I just love his skill. This guy can make plays in the offensive zone. He makes direct plays in the defensive zone on breakouts. He plays both sides. Our hope is that our style of play and my instinct says that our style of play will better suit David Perron.
He comes from a very good system in St. Louis, a very structured system. Watching videos of David, he looks to be a very responsible, hard working player so that’s going to help. I really feel that the way we play the game could potentially complement his game and make him a more productive player. I’ve talked to him a few times. I fully appreciate how excited he is to be coming into this group.
You know, sometimes when you’re right on top of a situation you can’t see the forest through the trees. So when you bring in guys that see the skill level and the potential, maybe more importantly, of our team and how excited they are to be a part of that, it really makes me take a step back and realize how significantly this situation has improved over the last number of years.
Gregor: This might be too far ahead, but have you talked with Dallas Eakins about if you on going with thirteen forwards and eight D-men, or fourteen forwards and seven defencemen?
MacTavish: That’s a training camp decision and certainly a coaching decision for us. It looks like our greatest depth is at defence. It might come down to, at the end of the day, who we don’t want to lose through waivers. Those will be decisions that will be made through training camp.
I’ve said before, I want a level of competition at this training camp that we haven’t seen in a number of years. I think we haven’t had the depth in the last number of years that we have now, to bring that level of competition. I know players are bright, they’re reading their situation. I certainly did as a player, and you know that you’re going to have to be on top of your game from the outset. I want to send a message that we mean business from the first day of training camp. We’re going to get that level of competition here. The players, I’m sure, are going to be ready to compete because the competition will be fierce for those jobs.
Gregor: Would Oscar Klefbom have to blow your socks off, for him not to start the season in the American Hockey League?
MacTavish: That’s going to be up to Oscar and the coaches. I’m anticipating Oscar is a very, very good player for us at training camp and where it goes from there, will be dependant on Oscar. We’ve said before that there’s nothing wrong, it’s actually a benefit, to have players get some seasoning in the American Hockey League. Oscar’s played against men, so maybe that’s less important with him. He sure looked good at that development camp, as you would anticipate, playing against some lesser experienced guys. What I saw last year, when I saw him play over in Sweden, was a pretty developed player.
***If Klefbom makes the team that means he earned it, and this organization needs more of that. They need internal competition throughout the lineup. The 2nd PP unit needs to push the 1st PP unit. Veterans and young players need to earn their icetime every game, and I suspect Eakins will deliver this message on the first day of training camp.***