MacT talks analytics, free agency and the draft

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The Oilers are in the midst of another very important three-week stretch where Craig MacTavish will try to shape his roster so the Oilers can compete for a playoff spot instead of the first overall pick next season.

The free agent interview period starts Wednesday, the NHL entry draft is on Friday and free agency officially begins in ten days.

I spoke to MacTavish on TSN 1260 this week and he shared his thoughts on the draft, analytics, free agency and his plans for the next few weeks.

I enjoy interviewing MacTavish because he gives good answers, and he isn’t afraid to share his vision with the fans. We won’t all agree with what he has to say all the time, but I’d much rather interview someone who is willing to share their views and open himself up to people disagreeing with them, rather than saying nothing.

My thoughts are in italics.

Gregor:
When you fly the draft eligible players into Edmonton
and have a chance to sit down and talk, how intense is it? How much more do you
learn about them compared to the interview at the combine?

MacTavish: I find it very beneficial. I
think it’s an extremely valuable exercise for us to do as an organization and
you get way more from the player than you would in the 20 minute [NHL entry
draft combine] interview period. It’s pretty rehearsed I think in a lot of
ways, and pretty contrived in a very stark condition.

So we generally bring the kids in and then
we’ll take them for dinner, generally at one of our houses whether we go to
Daryl’s house or Sam Bennett we had over to my house last night. He was a very
impressive kid. Aaron Ekblad, we had dinner with him the night before on Monday.

I mean, it just, it really gives me a lot
of comfort knowing the personality better. I’d say it’s very helpful for us. We
have a couple more coming in, Sam Reinhart and Leon Draisaitl and we’re looking
forward to that. It’s very exciting, not to go on and on, but it’s a real
exciting time for all of the teams around the draft, because everybody is going
to improve their hockey club and there is a bevy of activity so it’s good fun.

***Draisaitl  was scheduled to fly in from Florida yesterday, but his flight got cancelled at the last moment. The Oilers will meet with him next week at the draft instead.***

Gregor: The Blue Jackets have a draft value chart. Do the Oilers have one?

MacTavish: Yes we do. It is very beneficial on draft day and it gives us a
value of what a draft pick’s value is based on past drafts.

Gregor:
When you’re looking at the history of the pick, I’m guessing there also cases
where Stu MacGregor is talking to you and maybe saying, ‘Craig I really like
this guy and I think that we should move up eights spots, or 10 spots for instance.
How much do you still have to go on the scouting rather than just the analytics
of that specific draft spot?

MacT: Well, I think the value is in the
amalgamation of both departments: your analytics department and your amateur
scouting department. That’s really the sweet spot in terms of evaluation of
players, there’s no question about that.

Stu MacGregor is a very progressive guy, a very
open-minded guy as is Dan. Analytics is used as it should be by Stu MacGregor
as part of the overall evaluation process and as a tool.

Gregor:
 When you look at the Pacific division with Anaheim, San Jose and LA who are all big and skilled. Do you have to draft to counter that or do
you draft with a plan that works for you in the hopes that they will have to
counter you in three of four years?

MacT: I think both are very true. You’re
only as good as the competition and our competition, [and] our division is
extremely strong. It’s much like when the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary
Flames were the strength to the league back in the ‘80s. We really feel like we
motivated each other and we were really very good for one another. And I think
that the same is true here, that obviously the strongest teams in the league
are really in our conference and specifically in our division.

We’ve got to build a team that’s capable of
competing and beating those types of teams. But, you know, there’s still plenty
of room for smaller guys. And our mandate, our drafting mandate has always been
to draft the player that’s going to have the most significant impact on his NHL
team over time.

And there are lots of guys that are less
than 6’4”, Sidney Crosby being one of them, who have pretty significant
impacts. Jordan Eberle being another, Taylor Hall is not 6’4” and has an
incredible impact on our game and in our future as does Nugent-Hopkins. That’s
really our mandate from an organization standpoint and to draft the players
that over time are going to have the greatest impact.

DEVELOPING THE DEFENCE

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Gregor: The other day you mentioned that you do not
what to rush your defencemen; [Darnell] Nurse, [Oscar] Kelfbom, [Martin]
Marincin.  Today you have Andrew Ference
signed and Jeff Petry and I guess Justin Schultz as veterans even though
Schultz doesn’t have a ton of experience. Do you need to find three of four
defencemen with experience, regardless of whether they are first, second or
third pairing guys, so you don’t have to rush the kids?

MacT: Well we’ve got Jeff Petry too that we
fully anticipate getting on a contract. But, yeah, it’s a primary focus of ours
that we want the competition at training camp.

We want Darnell Nurse to come in and he’s
not going to have a position by default, but he’s going to have to compete
strongly for position, as will Oscar and Marty Marinicin. All three of those
guys we’re hopeful will be in a real competitive environment come training
camp. We need to add a defenceman or two to create the competitiveness that we
want.

Gregor:
Do you feel you can get that better in free agency or is trade the best route?

MacT: Ah, I think right now, I think
they’re both… I mean I have my own thoughts on what I think is going to happen but,
I don’t really want to say too much other than that.

I will say that we’re actively involved in
the trade market and hopeful that we can do something going into the draft.

***I spoke to MacTavish on Wednesday and he foreshadowed the Nikitin trade with his last comment. I suspect the Oilers will be looking to add at least one, if not two, more defencemen with NHL experience in over the next ten days. I’m perplexed to why people think adding Nikitin is a bad move. All of his stats suggest he is a more than capable D-man, and he’s 28 years old and he’s only played 206 NHL games. He has room to improve. The harsh reality is the Oilers will need to develop their top-pairing defenders. Expecting them to trade for one is wishful thinking.***

Gregor:
Would that include the number three overall pick? Or are you very hesitant to
trade that high of a pick?

MacT: I’m very hesitant to trade it, but
it’s all about having a good assessment of value in terms of our situation. So
we are open-minded to listen to offers for our draft choice.

Last year, we had the seventh pick but we
were in the same frame of mind going into the draft and really didn’t get
anything that was even remotely close to what I thought was fair value for that
pick. And this year, I’m receiving better offers, but obviously we haven’t got
an offer that’s been strong enough for us to move that pick as of yet.

But yeah, we’re prepared to move that if we
get something that’s maybe a little bit more immediate help and a long-term
solution as well. So we’re looking for players, mid 20s possibly at the oldest,
in terms of players that we acquire for that pick.

***This is good news. If the Oilers are going to improve, they can’t look for quick fixes and trade away youngsters for players close to 30. This team is still a few years away from being a legitimate playoff contender.***

Gregor:
Do team’s offers get better in the final few days leading up to the draft or if
you haven’t received a good offer by now, you’re likely not going to get one in
the final 24 hours.

MacT: Offers go up. The value of draft
choices is never greater than draft day. The value of draft choices is never
less than it is on trade deadline day. We’re expecting offers to increase, they
generally do.

Gregor:
You mentioned that mid-range 24 year old. If you’re making a trade, it has to
be one that’s going to help you through the next six or seven years, not just
the next two or three?

MacT: Yeah, that’s very true, very true. We
start every discussion with the same question, is this going to help us
ultimately win a championship? How’s this going to affect us? And one thing
that we’re not going to do is jeopardize that for a shorter term relief from
our current position. We feel like we’re acquiring and developing the assets
that are going to develop into guys that are capable of winning. We’re
obviously a long way away from that [where we] currently sit, but we’re getting
closer.

Gregor:
Do you need to be patient now? Do you find that you have to avoid that ‘ok
let’s make a move right away’ mentality, and is your situation a good test of
your patience?

MacT: Ah… that’s interesting; I’m not sure
how to answer that. I think my personal perspective is [that] I’ve got to
reconcile the value of these deals. And generally, the ones that come tantalizingly close to making, we have some pretty good discussions about, and
discuss the merits and the pluses and the minuses that would factor into
making this deal.

So it’s, I’m not patient. I want to win
quickly so patience would not be a word that I would use, trying to get better
as quickly as we possibly can, but every deal that we make has got to satisfy
those questions that I mentioned earlier about how it impacts on our ability to
win a championship.

FREE AGENT INTERVIEWS…

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Gregor:
This year you have the interview period five days leading up to free agency. For
the last few years Edmonton
has always been involved in free agency; you’ve signed a few UFAs every year.
How much different or easier will those five days of free agent interviews make
the process?

MacT: Well one thing that I know for sure
is that we’re going to get access to these players. They know our cap position,
the agents know our cap position and they know our situation of need. We’re
going to get access to these players because at the very least they’re going to
want us to try to run up the market. That’s my opinion and I think we’ll talk
to these players.

If you’re going to pick two or three teams,
we’re going to be one of them, I think. So we’ll get access and then it’s going
to come down to whether our situation suits the situational needs of the player
that we are trying to recruit and our ability to sell our situation.

And our ability to sell our situation is
very positive right now. Just to mention a few significant factors: The Alberta
advantage in terms of no provincial sales tax, it’s about a 10% advantage over
BC and over Ontario and New York, and many situations in the states. So that’s
a very significant factor because we’ve always got to remember that everybody,
especially the players, we’re all doing this professionally, so that’s a
significant factor.

The other factor is that we are an evolving
team. We’ve got an opportunity to get in at the bottom floor of something that
we feel and expect to be great. We’re going into a new building, and there’s an
energy amongst the Oilers. The fans are the best and most loyal fans certainly
in the league to continually fill our building through this rebuilding stage
that we’re in. The atmosphere that was here in 2006 when we went to the finals,
I mean it’s just an unbelievable place to play hockey.

So we’re going to have a good chance to
sell that, and I believe very strongly that our case is very compelling to most
players. I mean, it’s not going to get the guys that are doing it for a lifestyle
change, the guys that want 70 degrees and sunny in the middle of February,
we’re probably not going to get those guys, but we’ll have a chance to make an
enticing offer to players that are in it for upside in the game of hockey.

***MacTavish seems to have good understanding of how free agency will work, especially when your a team with a lot of cap space who is trying to improve. Many agents and players will just use you to up the price. The key is knowing which players are just using you and which ones would seriously consider you. You don’t want to get stuck escalating the price, only to have the player sign with you, unless you really want him. I’ve always felt free agency was very one-sided. It seems only the owners get accused of collusion, while we know the players/agents do it all the time.

When the Oilers sign a free agent, he will be overpaid. They all get overpaid in the few first weeks of free agency, either in term or dollars. The challenge is to limit how much you overpay the player.***

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Gregor:
I know that last year you were very close on the David Clarkson negotiations, but
he ended up choosing Toronto. He’s an Ontario guy and playing close to home is
something that will always come into play in free agency. Looking back on that
courtship, is there anything that you gained from that experience that maybe
you would do different in how you approach free agents?

MacT: No. I think our staff did an
outstanding job presenting our case to David and Brittney at the time. We were
up against a situation where David ultimately chose to go home where his dad
was a long time Leafs’ fan. It was difficult for us to lose that player at the
time, but that was one of the circumstances we couldn’t control.

And the other player that we really went
after hard was Danny Dekeyser out of Western Michigan. He turned out to be a
real good player in Detroit. Kevin Lowe and I drove from Chicago up to where he
played, I can’t remember the town, but where he played College Hockey at
Western Michigan. We had unbelievable dinner with Danny, told him all of the
pluses about the Edmonton Oilers, and gave him much the same pitch that we gave
Justin Schultz a year earlier. It was good, but then as Danny was showing us
out to the highway we were following him and on his license plate he had a Detroit
Red Wings license plate and we figured that that was not necessarily a good
sign. [Laughs]

***Ken Holland confirmed to me last year that the Oilers were very close to landing DeKeyser, and I think it is one of the few advantages the Oilers have in landing free agent defencemen. If you come to Edmonton you will have a great opportunity to play and get icetime. Players want to play, and they all believe they have the ability to perform well. So, if I’m Nikitin, I don’t see a better opportunity than in Edmonton to play top-four minutes and establish myself as a solid defender. He could sign a three-year deal, play well and then test the UFA market at 31 and still get a big contract.***

Gregor:
It is hard to combat playing for your favourite team I guess…(laughs)…

Anton
Stralman is soon-to-be an unrestricted free agent. He has unbelievable advanced
stats.  When he’s on the ice five-on-five
the Rangers score 55% of their goals, yet he only has like 13 points.

In a
case for someone like Stralman, would you break down on video very one of the
Ranger goals and find out why all of the analytics are great, but wonder how come
he’s not getting any points? How much video review is used when you are looking
at free agents?

MacT: Well the software is unbelievable
right now. I’ve got an adjoining room in my office that I can go in their very
quickly, pull up all of New York Rangers most recent games, or their whole
history last year and show all of the goals that Anton Stralman was on the ice
for in a matter of seconds.

So there’s lots of that analysis, but it’s
really simple, the software is quite incredible. Any player in the league that
I want to see play all of the shifts, I can pull up very quickly. So there’s a
lot of that as you talk about players and targets that you want to try to sign,
we’ll watch a lot of video.

Gregor: When free agency is over, I’d love to find out what Stralman is doing to be that impactful on the analytics side, but for some reason rarely gets points…

MacT: You know what, that’s what analytics
is all about, that’s it right there, that’s the value because it leads you to
ask the right questions like yours. And then you do the research and you dig in for possible outliers where
you can identify value before the rest of the group, (other teams) and that’s
not easy.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • The Last Big Bear

    Can/should we be competitive this year ? Well 2 years ago we were 24th and moving up and expected to be competitive last year . It fell apart as coaching and players additions actually weakened us overall . Decent replacements for veterans we got rid of never really panned out . This mess is directly attributed to MacT. and coaches – as it should be . Can Mact. now clean up his mess and reverse the trend of last season is the question ? We were expected by almost everyone to be competitive last year with what MacT. done – but such was not the case as we went in reverse again . That was not Tams fault !
    Last year with two rookies on defence alone later in the season our fortunes started to turn for the better and I expect they will continue to develop in a positive way . The team is not that far away from being competitive this year , and if MacT. can make some good deals to shore up core this might be a year of optimism . Only takes one year of better acquisitions to get this team competitive – not 3 or more . Colorado did it in one and others in the past , now it’s out time to duplicate that . We’ll see what the new lineup will be shortly I suspect .

  • Jason Gregor

    Perspective of our team could change dramatically with 3 additions such as Hanzal , Boyle and Boychuk alone , as well as this years draft pick contributing . Example only .

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Now would be a good time to inquire about Eric Gudbranson, especially if the Panthers end up making that first selection. His game is perceived by many MSM types to be in a bit of a valley right now. He’s probably the type of player the Oilers should be taking a chance on, instead of hoping for other more established players to come in and save the day. MacTavish should take a chance on this kid with fewer than 170 games to his credit.

    Ryan Johanson had a difficult first couple years, and look at how his game blossomed this past season. Keep adding more kids, because the more established older ones certainly aren’t willingly going to come here.

    Thanks for your earlier reply Papa Gregor.

    • Quicksilver ballet

      Quality. Respeck.

      Dmen with a couple of quirks in their game to work out, that have 200+ games under their belt, are just the type of value moves we need to make. Otherwise we’ll be over-paying for ufas or trading away valuable assets for more high priced gambles. Not saying we shouldn’t add players via free agency and big name trades, just saying that we need to make moves like the one you just mentioned.

      I like the direction this team is going in. I don’t like where we are right now but I expect Mac to make a bold move or two and continue the upward trend that started around xmas last year.

  • Hockey Buddha

    Gregor wrote:

    ***Draisaitl was scheduled to fly in from Florida yesterday, but his flight got cancelled at the last moment. The Oilers will meet with him next week at the draft instead.***

    Can you give more information on this to quell rampant speculation?

  • Zarny

    Nice interview. Good answers are always appreciated when pre-packaged is the norm.

    It sounds like MacT gets it. He understands what the Oilers need, their position in the market and how teams/players/agents will come at him.

    That’s great but ultimately he’ll be judged by what he can accomplish. There will be a lot of options as 90% of everything happens in the next couple of weeks. I agree don’t do anything stupid; but he has to make the team better.