Not long after the Edmonton Oilers closed out an eighth straight season out of the playoffs, GM Craig MacTavish told us head coach Dallas Eakins has hiring and firing say regarding his assistant and associate coaches.
Seeing MacTavish and Eakins sitting together watching the Edmonton Oil Kings at the Memorial Cup in London Tuesday, I couldn’t help but wonder if MacT and his rookie bench boss had broached the subject of the coaching staff as it pertains to the future, or lack of same, of associate Keith Acton and assistants Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger. Who should stay? Who should go? Who should be brought in?
MacTavish empowered Eakins by saying decisions about the coaching staff were his, although he qualified that — not at all surprisingly, critics would suggest — by adding: “But my sense is we have the right people. We have the right coaches in place.”
I wrote about the coaching situation earlier this off-season, as have others on this website. David Staples wrote about it again today in a timely piece at The Cult of Hockey in the Edmonton Journal. You can read it here.
Eakins has the hammer. Does he have the good sense and the brass to swing it to address one of many organizational areas that need improvement? The way I see it, a better question is: how can he justify not doing so?
TIME IS NOW
Eakins was quick to overhaul the dressing room, gutting it of photos and plaques and memorabilia paying homage to Edmonton’s glory days, not long after the ink on his coaching contract was dry. As we close in on June, will he do likewise with his coaching staff, each and every one a former Oiler?
From where I sit, he must. Whether it’s addition by subtraction, as in handing Acton, Smith or Buchberger their walking papers, or, failing that, adding an experienced coach to the staff, he absolutely must. Status quo, given what we’ve seen and what Eakins himself has said? No way. Right?
Nobody on the existing staff should be shown the door just because they’re former Oilers. They should be assessed and bid farewell based on the glaring weaknesses we’ve seen from a team that’s failed to show significant improvement since the playoff drought began – lack of knowledge and execution of fundamentals Eakins talked about as this last season wore on.
As Staples mentioned in his item, the St. Louis Blues answered their playoff exit by retaining Ken Hitchcock, but sacked assistants Gary Agnew and Corey Hirsch, who goes back with Hitchcock 25 years, when they played goal for him with the Kamloops Blazers. Friends? Sure. Pink slips? Yes. Results matter in the Show Me State. Here?
In terms of possible additions, I mentioned Craig Ramsay this off-season. I’ve respected Perry Pearn since I met him 30 years ago when he was running the program at NAIT and wondered if he’d fit. I think former U of A coach Rob Daum, given the bum’s rush his first time through, has the technical and teaching acumen needed in spades. Staples mentioned all three today. What about Todd Nelson, who did a bang-up job in OKC?
ONE STEP AT A TIME
It goes without saying the Oilers have to get better from top to bottom. That means assessing management, coaching, scouting and player development and personnel. Firing an assistant coach or two and bringing in one or two new faces behind the bench isn’t going to remedy the futility and ineptitude we’ve seen this past several years.
Scotty Bowman and Mike Babcock, pick a name, couldn’t turn this group of players into a Stanley Cup contender. The roster mix is wrong. The Oilers need more size, more grit, more experience. It’s all been written and talked about countless times before. The many issues we know.
That said, upgrading the coaching staff by adding more experience, technical know-how and ability to teach is one piece of the puzzle, just like finding a big centre or a legit top-pairing defenseman or adding more size and grit is.
Eakins, we’re led to believe, has been granted the ability to do that. He’s got the hammer. Swing it.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.