Two years into his tenure as general manager, Craig MacTavish has an uninspiring record. He’s had some good moves, some bad moves, and overall failed to significantly improve the team he inherited from fired predecessor Steve Tambellini.
On Saturday he was handed a lifeline in the form of Connor McDavid, the finest amateur prospect the NHL has seen since at least Sidney Crosby a decade ago. The stagnant team and the errors along the way aren’t going to matter, as long as he can get it right from here on out.
Timing and Opportunity
It’s fair to say that things have changed in the week since MacTavish uttered the following projection for 2015-16:
Next year I would forecast is another developmental year. There’s going to be modest growth, largely depending on what we’re going to be able to do going forward. I don’t expect our draft choices to come in and move the dial for us. A lot of that growth will be internal growth and maybe a few pieces that we can add. Who knows who or what can ignite it. To forecast a point total would be useless for me at this point.
Quite reasonably, the general manager didn’t expect that the Oilers’ draft pick was going to come in and move the dial; he didn’t know that one of those picks was going to be (barely short of a certainty) McDavid. McDavid changes things; he’ll come in and push immediately, filling the No. 2 (or potentially even the No. 1) centre position as a rookie. In the years that follow he’ll be a tent-pole player but even in early days he’s likely to move the dial.
But that also puts some pressure on the general manager to show improvement. He’s had a franchise player fall into his lap, but that’s not all of it. He’s also had a player arrive who gives reason to believe the Oilers can turn things around. When he talks to potential coaches, he can ask how they’d like to coach McDavid. When he talks to free agents, he can ask how they’d like to sign on with the team that has the NHL’s next superstar. The lottery has lent optimism and credibility to a team that was running short on both.
MacTavish, of course, knows this.
“Somebody’s going to get a whole lot smarter after the first period of that game on Saturday,” he said when asked about the draft lottery during that same press conference. “Some organization will get a whole lot smarter.”
MacTavish just got a whole lot smarter, and Edmonton just got a whole lot more attractive as a destination.
The Oilers still have a lot of positional needs, but McDavid goes a long way to solving them.
Trading the pick could solve them all, of course. The Quebec Nordiques were forced to move Eric Lindros and they made out all right; the modern equivalent of that package would basically end the Oilers rebuild here and now. Edmonton could legitimately land its starting goalie, two defencemen and No. 2 pivot in trade for that pick, along with setting itself up for ages on the futures front.
The craziest thing is that it would probably be a mistake.
Keeping McDavid solves basically all of the Oilers’ forward problems. If they sign Derek Roy, they have all the forwards they need to start the year (though the idea of allowing Roy to walk and signing someone like Shawn Matthias for the third line has to be awfully tempting). Suddenly a middling prospect pool looks a lot better; Leon Draisaitl might even be forced to move to left wing.
But with the forward group pretty much fixed, there’s more pressure to fix everything else as soon as possible. That means finding a No. 1 goalie, either through free agency or trade. It means finding a top-pairing and a second-pairing defenceman. It’s not going to be enough to calmly hope that Nikita Nikitin can find his form or, failing that, calmly wait for his contract to expire. It’s not going to be enough to shrug and then stick Oscar Klefbom and Justin Schultz in top-pairing minutes.
The Oilers have salary cap flexibility and, thanks in large part to McDavid’s arrival, the ability to make trades today that they couldn’t make last week. They’ll need to use the former for sure and possibly the latter as well.
MacTavish has been handed a wonderful opportunity, but he needs to show himself equal to it almost immediately. If he can’t, it’s a smart bet that there is no shortage of smart hockey men who would love the opportunity to show that they can build a contender out of the raw parts that Edmonton now has.