EDMONTON — Craig MacTavish took over the Edmonton Oilers amid promises of tough decisions, and immediate improvement.
So you would think that trading his captain Shawn Horcoff, and long-time offensive leader Ales Hemsky would be No. 1 and 1-A on the list of difficult choices to make.
“I’m not so sure about that. I think it’s a pretty obvious decision,” MacTavish admitted on my TEAM 1260 radio show Thursday. “Would we welcome those players back if the right (trade) doesn’t present itself? Absolutely. But, in talking to both those guys, I think the best situation would be to be able to move on.”
Reading between the lines, you can be sure that MacTavish has talked to both Hemsky and Horcoff, and they’re ready to move on. He wouldn’t be trading them away on the radio if that weren’t the case.
“Horc, I have a lot of allegiance and loyalty to, as well as Ales. I saw them develop (from young players). I have a lot of respect for both those players,” the GM said. “From both of their perspectives, an ideal scenario would be to move them on, and wish them the best in the next destination.
“Both players are really at a similar crossroads. Sometimes change is good for both the organization and the player. At the same time they’re valuable players, and we’re not in a position where we’re going to be able to move them without getting something substantial in return.
“When you have been in an environment like Edmonton has had over the last little while you start, as a veteran — and maybe it’s just subconsciously — you start to lose your belief in your ability to win.
“Given the history with these players…”
In a wide-ranging interview, MacTavish said the team will not pursue goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin as a backup, and the coming season will be Devan Dubnyk’s final chance to prove himself as a legit No. 1 NHL goalie before they begin looking elsewhere.
You can expect Taylor Hall to start the season with the captain’s ‘C’ on his chest — our opinion, not MacTavish’s — unless he can pull off a deal like in 2005, when a newly installed NHL salary cap landed Chris Pronger and Mike Peca in Edmonton.
With the cap falling this season, and Edmonton well placed with plenty of spending room, a similar dynamic exists. Most GMs are expecting heightened movement of players for draft picks, starting at the upcoming National Hockey League draft.
“There is going to be some of that this year, but it’s yet to have revealed itself completely,” MacTavish said, “We have to surround some of the former draft choices we’ve had with more depth.”
As a third-line, character centre through more than 1,000 NHL games, MacTavish is big on veteran depth. The Oilers are light on that, and dealing away Horcoff will make them even lighter.
The Oilers blue line is weak, and MacTavish just added 6-foot-3 Russian defenceman Anton Belov after a trip to the recent World Championships.
The youth movement is coming along fine in Edmonton — it’s the veteran support that lacks. And that is a fact of which both the GM, and all of the fans in Oil Country, are keenly aware.
“The era of the young players and the old players is over,” he promised. “They’re all Edmonton Oilers now. The younger players have had enough time, where they can start to move the dial on this team right now.
“Giving them that opportunity to (put) this team into their hands, will have a residual effect … in the emotional level that, at times, we didn’t see enough of. We’ve got to see a higher level of competitiveness from our group. These decisions will go a long way to trying to make that happen.”
This Edmonton rebuild started with the selection of Taylor Hall, first overall in 2010. He’s a fourth-year pro now.
“We’ve been selling a lot of optimism for a lot of years,” MacTavish admitted. “Now we’ve got to deliver some results.”