Craig MacTavish and the Assistant Coaches

Craig MacTavish6

One of the most controversial items in Craig MacTavish’s press conference earlier this week was the treatment he gave a question regarding the assistant coaches. It’s understandable that the general manager’s comments rubbed a few people the wrong way, because while he came out strongly in support of Steve Smith and Kelly Buchberger he didn’t give critics of the team a reason to change their own opinions.

On Who Picked the Coaches

Dallas Eakins 11

Last year it was Dallas’ decision [to bring back the incumbent assistant coaches]. I think the head coach should decide on what his staff is, especially a coach that’s getting his first NHL job. It’s important that he has the absolute right mix of coaches for him. Dallas from the start said that he would interview; we explored other coaches, we brought in Keith Acton as an associate coach last year.

There’s been a suspicion at times that Dallas Eakins was pressured into retaining the staff members he inherited from Ralph Krueger. MacTavish denies this, and there isn’t really any reason to doubt his word, but that also comes with a caveat.

Given MacTavish’s positive view of those coaches (which we’ll get to in a moment), it’s hard to believe there wasn’t at the very least indirect pressure. For any head coach, but especially one getting his first job at the NHL level, that recommendation of the G.M. has to carry a lot of weight. Add in that Eakins wouldn’t personally have been familiar with many of the players under his charge, and there were some compelling reasons to keep the current staff as long as they didn’t come across as ridiculously incompetent during the decision-making process (side point: Eakins and Steve Smith must have at least been acquainted beforehand; both were part of the Calgary Flames organization in 2000-01).

Now, after a year of dealing with the assistants, Eakins will certainly have a better idea of whether they’re assets or not. With that familiarity and the knowledge he now has of players in the Oilers’ system, he’s in a different position to make the decision than he was a year ago (regardless of whether that decision changes or not).

On Smith and Buchberger

Steve Smith

Dallas spoke with Steve Smith, who I feel is developing into an exceptional coach; he’s got great rapport. Kelly Buchberger, for all the things that he does and the cultural piece that he adds, that gives us a little bit of a tie to a much more successful era. You listen to Ryan Smyth and some of the things he said about Kelly Buchberger, Kelly Buchberger has a lot of great traits in my mind that he adds to this hockey club.

We can split the commendation by recipient in this way:

  • Steve Smith is a promising coach who has a good relationship with his players
  • Kelly Buchberger is a great character guy and a link to better times

Those arguments don’t give us the complete picture of what those two men bring to the organization, but they were the ones MacTavish used to answer the question as to why those guys have survived while the head coaching position has been a revolving door. The argument in favour of Smith – that he relates well to his players and is showing good things as a coach – is pretty strong, particularly since MacTavish was a pretty good coach himself and should be able to judge these things.

Buchberger, Kelly

Which brings us to Buchberger. It’s nice that he’s a great guy, and having a positive personality is certainly an asset, but it isn’t the raison d’etre for a coach – if it were, Ralph Krueger would have a shelf full of Jack Adams awards. And the fact that he used to be an Oiler makes its way into this conversation is ridiculous. Nobody should be dragging up the events of a quarter-century ago into a discussion of why a certain piece of an organization deserves his job today.

Presumably, the Oilers aren’t paying Buchberger’s salary because he’s a great guy who played for them back when they won hockey games. But MacTavish and the organization shouldn’t be at all surprised if the reaction is negative when that’s the rationale they trot out for the press – particularly since the most damning thing about it is that it’s believable on a club that employs so many great guys who used to play for it.

The Final Analysis

Defensive mess

I don’t know if Smith and Buchberger are good coaches or not. I do know that the Oilers’ performance slid when Tom Renney handed the reins over to Ralph Krueger, and then slid again when Dallas Eakins took over.

I know too that Dallas Eakins repeatedly slammed the state of the team he found. “My bad. I assumed that we knew what traditional d-zone coverage was and it was clear that we didn’t,” and “I believe in [communication] and it’s a habit — it’s another habit — that our team doesn’t have,” are not the comments of someone who thinks the last coaches did a bang-up job.

Those last coaches were Krueger and Smith and Buchberger. Kruger – who Team Canada’s coaches at this year’s Olympics seemingly never tired of praising – came from a different background but spent two years under Renney (a very solid coach) and certainly was no dunce. It’s hard to believe that these deep-rooted problems Eakins found rest entirely on his shoulders.

As I said, I don’t know if Smith and Buchberger are good coaches or not. But the public trail of evidence really doesn’t square with MacTavish’s unabashed support for the former and particularly the latter.