Let’s talk about how this terrible Oilers team is all Craig MacTavish’s fault

Craig MacTavish7

Craig MacTavish’s press conference on Friday pleased very few people; he promised off the top that nobody was going to be satisfied by it and he delivered.

One of the prickliest moments came when the general manager was lumped in by a reporter with Kevin Lowe and Scott Howson as part of the management team that has run the Oilers into the ground. MacTavish argued that he’d been on the job less than two years; in the aftermath a number of writers have since doubled down on the claim that he’s been one of those primarily responsible for destroying the team.

Who is right?

What Was Said

Reporter: “You and Kevin [Lowe] and Scott Howson have been off and on and in and out running this organization for most of a decade…”

MacTavish: (cutting in) “I’ve been on the job for 18 months. So you want to lop me in – I coached the team here for a long time but I had nothing to do with management. So don’t lop me into a situation of power and influence in the management level of this organization. I’ve been on the job for 20 months, 18-20 months. I’m going to get to the bottom of it, and this is part of the process of getting to the bottom of it.”

Craig MacTavish Work History

Craig MacTavish

  • 1997-99: Assistant coach, New York Rangers
  • 1999-00: Assistant coach, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2000-09: Head coach, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2011-12: Head coach, Chicago Wolves
  • 2012-13: Senior VP of Hockey Operations, Edmonton Oilers
  • 2013-present: General manager, Edmonton Oilers

I don’t think many people have issues with MacTavish’s record as head coach prior to 2006; the Oilers were a budget team that was always competitive despite a pretty questionable roster and of course there was the lovely run in 2005-06.

Personally, I find it hard to fault his work after 2006, either. In 2008-09 the Oilers finished with 85 points and a minus-14 rating; it was considered a major disappointment and MacTavish left after the season ended. The next year the team finished minus-70 and with 62 points; no subsequent edition of the Oilers has finished within even 10 points of the 2008-09 MacTavish-coached squad.

The Edmonton Oilers didn’t decide to rebuild while MacTavish was coaching because even with a mediocre roster the club was pretty consistently competitive. The rebuild came the year MacTavish left, when Pat Quinn came in to usher in a new era of accountability and the club fell flat on its face.

MacTavish returned in 2012-13 after a year of coaching in the minors (his Chicago Wolves were a plus-20 team and made the playoffs; in the years before and after his stint at the helm the team was a minus club and missed the playoffs). Was he responsible for the failures of the 2012-13 team? Given the bloody purge that followed after a full year in which not even one player was dealt away it’s awfully hard to make an argument that he had much power under Steve Tambellini.

That leaves 2013-14 and this year, which has seen the Oilers take a markedly different tack than they did under Tambellini.

There’s simply no logical argument that places any of the blame for the 2009-13 disaster at MacTavish’s feet. Pre-2009? Sure, but it’s awfully hard to judge given that his departure helped spark Edmonton’s collapse. Post-2013? Sure, he deserves responsibility for what has happened under his watch as general manager. But those who want to blame the botched rebuild on MacTavish are out of sync with the reality of the situation.

(All of the above applies to Scott Howson, incidentally, only more so. Howson left earlier, in the summer of 2007; he returned as a pro scout late in 2012-13 and was elevated to his current position at the same time MacTavish was promoted.)

So You’re Saying He’s Bullet Proof?

No. There are all kinds of logical arguments that can be leveled against MacTavish and Howson. Want to complain about his decision not to sign Mike Ribeiro? Dislike the Nikita Nikitin addition? Worried about the David Clarkson stories? By all means, lay those decisions and the responsibility for them at the feet of the current regime. That’s fair, logical, realistic.

We could go even further. There are those who would suggest that MacTavish’s background doesn’t make him the best candidate for the job because he didn’t have much front office experience. That’s a fair critique. There are others who don’t like the fact that the Oilers have hired yet another man with ties to the organization, and that the team should have gone and recruited an outsider (as it did with Tambellini). That too is a legitimate perspective.

But to write that MacTavish and Howson have been influencing decisions all down the line (as one local writer did) or that MacTavish was passing the buck for things that were really his fault (as was suggested by one prominent national voice) is to fundamentally misrepresent the situation. 

There’s plenty to criticize about MacTavish and the Oilers without drifting into the realm of make believe.

(Edit: Originally, this article’s second-last paragraph said “At best it’s misguided, at worst it’s dishonest.” Re-reading it, that was a dumb thing to say, because it went from arguing fact to imputing motivation. Facts are fair game, but motives aren’t. That’s my mistake, one I apologize for and will endeavor not to repeat. – JW)

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Chris.

    MacT says he believes in this core and he needs more time. He is the guy who surrounded this core… every single piece outside of the core was supplied by him… and this is the result…

  • Rickymac

    It sure would be interesting to hear Lowe’s and Howson’s opinions as to MacTavish’s flat out blaming them for the hideous decisions made in the running of this team before MacTavish came in on his white stallion to save the day?

    • Serious Gord

      Unlike you these are men with broad shoulders, they don’t worry about blame or credit just getting the job done. Trust me Lowe was straight up with Mr. Katz and told him there would be days like today and they just have to stay the course.
      But than when the Oiler where the best team in the NHL in the 80s Oiler fan still bitch and complained. I remember the Stanley Cup final against the Bruins I was able to walk up to the gate at game time and buy a ticket from the box office. Yeah Oiler fan is great.
      Guys like Lowe remember things like that.

    • papler

      Craig must be having with the what horse am I riding problem? Roy Roger’s Trigger, Gene Autry’s Champion or the Lone Ranger’s Silver. At the Media
      Availability Conference, a solitary reporter heard Craig utter the words, “Hi Ho Silver” plus “up up and away” as he left the room. Maybe Silver has a good idea of where the Oilers are going. The solitary reporter is on top of this!!

      • Joy S. Lee

        Great article! I’ve been saying this for the last 2 years. MacT is the right guy for the job. He had a significant playing career, a respectable coaching career, and has a MBA. If the Oilers didn’t hire him as GM, someone else would have. Either way, he inherited a world of problems from Tambellini and Lowe. I think it would be good to bring in more guys from outside the organization, but Mactavish is an exception.

  • Chris.

    I have been to Oiler games in the 90s where the building was mostly empty. (I walked up and bought an $8 seat once to celebrate the Jason Arnott signing) It would be naïve of the Katz Group to believe this could not happen again. The Canadian dollar is weaker, oil prices are down, and fans are finally really deeply upset. Many smaller companies, and individuals like myself simply cannot afford to renew seasons tickets if the market for them crashes. (Seriously $6 on stub hub?)

    Mr Katz: Please stop running this franchise like a childhood tree fort. Reunions, and parties, and dinner with Wayne is fun for you and your family: but you are losing an entire generation of fans. Please assemble a professional Hockey Ops department before it is too late. There was a time when the Eskimo’s were the hottest ticket in town…

  • Oildrip04

    There is one major peice being missed here. Kevin Prendergast. He was with this organization for 20 years. He consistantly drafted HORRIBLE players. He is responsible for everything that has been wrong with the oilers the past 15 years. I understand it should fall at the feet of the GM but you have to think that each GM would listen to what Kevin has said based on how long he was with in the organization.

          • Oildrip04

            Well then you might agree that he could very well be the underlying cause of the horrible hockey we have seen in Edmonton basically since 2000. The organization was well aware that they could not bring in big names even back in the early 1990’s. The plan has always been to build internally. Or at least it should have been. And to have him in the position he was in for so long, with such under-achieving results is, in my opinion the reason why we will need to suffer for a few more years in order to right what he did wrong for so many years.

          • Oildrip04

            Now that is a good take! To be good Oilers team they need to develope players. But what happened? The farm team was shut down. Mr. Katz has added 2 minor league team with the advice of Lowe. But building players through the farm system takes time and not every player you draft will pan out. I credit Mr.Katz sticking the course.

  • Andy7190

    Hey the last time I checked Mac T was not god………..and as such he too is learning on the job.

    I think the only concer for me if there ever was one, is that he is stubborn and very hard to move off his original decisions. Part of the learning process is sometimes your assumptions are just plain wrong and need to be changed.

    Assumptions Mac T made:

    HIs goaltenders were legit……..too bad they were AHL legit.
    Nikita Nikitin is a good defenceman……….is you are playing pond hockey.
    The holes at centre will be filled……..yea but not this year.
    The Coaching is solid…….as solid as ice in the Sahara desert.

    If he can move off these decisions then I will cut him some slack………I still believe he is 1000 time better than Mr. Dithers. Considering who might be available at the draft, doing nothing has some merits, but after the season closes he betterhave his big boy pants on.

  • Zarny

    I think Mr. Willis is correct. MacT shouldn’t be liable by association. That’s the problem with cronyism though. Perception is often reality.

    The problem is MacT’s assessment of where the franchise is at is the closing argument for why Katz needs to clean out everyone but Bob. Which is probably a bit unfair to MacT and some recent hires. C’est la vie.

  • Serious Gord

    Oiler fan is a loser.
    Don’t believe me ask anyone who has had a sports talk back show in Edmonton.
    They hate it when the Oilers are winners.
    When they win poor guy has to talk and talk cause nobody calls in.
    Same guy does a happy dance when Oilers lose, than everyone wants to call in.

    You Oiler Fans are only happy when the team loses.
    Cause your losers, get a life.

      • Zarny

        Truth hurt?
        I played hockey in this town and have coached in E town.
        Heck I remember going to the gardens ti see the Edmonton Monarchs. Bet nobody knows who they are.
        I know Oiler fan..
        More than that I have great respect for the group running the Oiler, cause who he’ll would want to put up with you lot.
        Don’t you all wonder why every great player and coach went some where else after being here?

        • Oildrip04

          Haha what are you talking about? First you call us losers for only enjoying our hockey team when they are losing. Then you yap about how you know the city and the history of the city’s sports. Players leaving has nothing to do with oiler fans being “losers”. If you had any knowledge of the city and teams you would know it is largely based on where the city is geographically. Again, go back to drinking your whiskey and coffee and possibly practice your grammar.

          #trollsdaydrinking

        • Serious Gord

          So you played and coached hockey,(at what level???), in Edmonton. So what!!! We are to believe that makes you an expert on the Oiler’s Organization and the fans. Who the hell are you? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize the Oils are in big trouble from the top right down to the players. Suck UPS like you only enable the Oilers to continue down the same path that they are on, but you know how the saying goes….” Birds of a feather flock together”

    • Chris.

      There are always a vocal minority of complainers. These people exist in every fan base and in every walk of life.

      As recently as last season I attended a focus group for Oiler Season Ticket Holders. The group was still generally upbeat and committed to the rebuild even though we all agreed playoffs were at least 3 full seasons away.

      I left the meeting surprised. With all this negativity (in which I indulge myself out of sheer frustration) it can be easy to forget that there is a huge number of fans who don’t call talk shows, comment on blogs, or throw jerseys on the ice. Thousands and thousands of people in Oil Country buy their tickets, wear their colors, and just live their lives as usual even though their favorite team is underperforming. I believe that this group is getting smaller, but it may very well still be the vast majority of Oiler Fan… And that is pretty incredible.

      Don’t paint everyone with the same brush.

      • Andy7190

        Your are right and I owe some of you am apology. From day 1 the Oilers where built around the old Canadians model, being a strong farm system feeding the main team. You all call it the Detroit model now, same thing. That system was destroyed and nobody said a word. Now Mr. Katz come along and invests HIS money to fix it with Lowe’s help. But they have only had a real farm team since 2010 it takes longer than that to build a strong farm system, they only added a second lower team last year to add more player above the 50 the NHL allows in a farm system.
        Lowe in in charge of hockey operations that includes 4 teams and he has done well, except the only one that counts to the people here. It is frustrating that so many don’t have a clue what is being built here. Mr. Katz and the rest are not trying to build a competive team they want a team that competes for championships year in year out and that is a very hard thing to do. But most don’t see past there nose. Like I keep saying, it takes a lot of guts to stay the course. Thank you Mr. Katz!

  • Andy7190

    Craig MacTavish blamed everyone but himself for the current situation,and even went as far as saying it wasn’t a mistake to start the season with two NHL centres…? Huh?unless the plan all along was to tank for one of the top two picks,you better believe it was a mistake Mr.Craig Mac.also on one hand he was getting mad about being grouped in to the failures of the past,saying he had nothing to do with management before.then turns around and says when “WE” were negotiating Horcoffs new contract,that he wouldn’t take less than the Sedin’s were getting… Sounds like you were involved before to me Craig…. He contradicted himself numerous times,and clearly is unwilling to take any responsibility for the teams current state.i hope Nicholson shows him and Eakins the door at the end of the year,and adds a GM that will work well with Mike Babcock,who WILL be Edmontons head coach next year.

  • Lumley

    At this point who gives a FKUC. what’s done is done. People hate the management group, hate certain players hate the owner. Nothing will be done. They will try and draft first overall again and nothing will change. We will be here 2 years from now having the same talks about the same crap.
    People that post will still be trying to look smarter then the last guy, still be trying to say they should do this and that, creating trade scenarios. It’s getting very tired and very old.

    People. Grab a set of nuts and stop going to games. I’d venture a guess that the same people who complain here daily still go to the games and then rush home to start smashing away on their keyboards.

    I AM OUT!!

  • camdog

    I want to defend MacT on one point about the goaltenders,many media guys,yourself included Willis,proclaimed Dubnyk a legitimate starting goaltender, and most fans on this site also.When he crapped the bed,MacT brought in Scrivens,and he played great.I think most fans figured the goaltending problem was solved.So when I read fans complaining about MacT not addressing the goaltending,well that is simply not true.

  • camdog

    This post on Sportsnet.ca succintly shows how many roster players are still left from the Tambi era

    http://www.sportsnet.ca/hockey/nhl/oilers-roster-turnover-under-mactavish/

    Basically 6 in total – 4 1st round forwards and 2 D-men. Good to see that MacT has had zero influence in shaping the current roster.

    My biggest issue with MacT is the how badly he overpays for RFAs (Gagner) and UFAs (practically everyone he has signed). He has done okay with trades, but his UFA signings have been especially bad outside of maybe Gordon.

    It is funny – even though MacT has had the lattitude to spend to the Cap, he has actually made the team worse from the time he took over as GM. I did not think that was humanly possible based on the Tambi era, but the team’s performance has backtracked during the MacT mistake………

    • camdog

      Edmonton Oiler wins against western conference teams:

      2009-10: 1 win in 3.2 games, 2010-11: 1 win 3.7 games, 2011-12: 1 win in 2.6 games

      2012-13: 1 win in 2.5 games

      2013-14: 1 win in 3.3 games

      2014-15: 0 wins in 16 games

      During the first years of the rebuild the unbalanced schedule had the Oilers playing 64 games against western conference competition. Thankfully for the Oilers the NHL balanced the schedule following the lockout which now allows the Oilers to play easier competition. Moral of the story is the Oilers win totals against the west are decreasing once again.

  • Serious Gord

    ” I have only been here 18-20 months” from
    MacT’s mouth.

    It would take me one hour to tell you that
    Nikitan, Purcell, Auley, Acton, Grebeskov etc
    are duds.

    In the second hour I would tell you Leon has to go back to P.A , or Europe!

    Next I would tell you if we do nothing else before camp, we have to have a center man, even if it was a third liner,[ heck every one else he picked up were 3- 4 th liners.

    So what did you do with the other 19 months on the job.?

  • Serious Gord

    Gazdic said they are going to step it up. I’m sick of this sh$&t. All I hear is blah blah blah….lose. Blah blah blah….lose. How can I watch games now and enjoy them? Really look at the loses as moral victories?

  • papler

    John F Kennedy said it best … “Success has a thousand fathers and Failure is but an orphan”
    So when this team starts to win and Eakins is fired shortly thereafter we will see if MacT will take all the credit or pass it on to others on the job.

  • tileguy

    I think you’re understating MacT’s responsibility for the team’s poor performance in the 2006-2009 years. During that time, both MacT and K-low said that he was consulted and had input on player personnel decisions, including trades and draft picks.