EDMONTON — Craig MacTavish left of his own accord, a sign that the times are indeed changing in Edmonton.
The news that the longtime Oilers player, coach, GM and general front office inhabitant had signed a two-year contract to coach Lokomotiv Yaroslavl of the Kontinental Hockey League landed hard on Thursday morning in Edmonton, where MacTavish has been a fixture for most of nearly 35 years, since arriving as a player back in 1985.
And as it turns out, the same man that basically resigned as head coach of the Oilers after the 2008-09 season walked away from the team this week of his own accord once again. MacTavish, 60, sat down with new GM Ken Holland between Games 3 and 4 of the Bakersfield Condors playoff series, on the off day in San Diego.
“MacT told me he had something in the hopper,” Holland said Thursday. “He felt like he was going to be moving on. He didn’t really tell me what the hopper was.”
Holland continued with the meeting, an intelligence gathering session with a front office exec who have been around the Oilers organization, and left it at that. Then, earlier this week, MacTavish informed Holland about the job in Yaroslavl, the team that suffered that tragic 2011 plane crash that killed Brad McCrimmon and 43 others.
After a successful career as a faceoff-winning, defensive centre — The English Guy Carbonneau, we always thought — MacTavish found much success as a coach. He took an eighth place Oilers team to Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final, and never showed the prowess as a hockey executive that he had as a head coach.
Along the way, like Kevin Lowe before him, MacTavish had become the face of what Oilers fans came to perceive as an “Old Boys Club” that held their team back. In reality, MacTavish was a hard-working scout whose responsibilities included a Bakersfield team that was better this season than ever before.
Perception and reality can become the same thing, however, and MacTavish — who was flying to Europe on Thursday — likely saw what he did back in 2008: That his relationship with the Oilers had come to an end, and the best thing to do was to move on before being asked.
Holland, meanwhile, has barely taken a breath since being announced as general manager last Tuesday. He travelled to see his AHL team play two games, and returned for pro scouting meetings Monday through Wednesday, then amateur scouting meetings that began at 8 a.m. Thursday morning.
All the while, he is strategizing on who to hire as the Oilers next head coach. He has a list of “12 to 14” names, and it is believed he has spoken with both Dave Tippett and Todd Nelson already — but the already-delayed scouting meetings have put that coaching quest on the backburner for a few days.
“The pro meetings are really important for me,” Holland said. “They are going to define the 19-20 team. Those are the moves we’re going to be making over the next six or seven weeks.”
In those meetings, Holland was taking stock on which of the inherited scouts he will keep, and which ones he will not. “I anticipate some change. I can’t say how much,” he said.
Holland played with the Oilers’s Eastern-based pro scout Paul Messier years ago, spending the 1981-82 season together with the AHL Binghamton Whalers. He lived down the street from Oilers head pro scout Duane Sutter, when Sutter was coaching the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers and Holland was stationed there as a Red Wings scout. Both will be on the hot seat, due to the performance of Edmonton’s pro scouting department under former GM Peter Chiarelli.
Holland has seen them both in press boxes across the hockey world. Now, he needs to get to know them all over again.
“When I talk to someone from another organization, for the most part, we’re chatting, we’re visiting. Now, I’m, here in Edmonton and I’m working with these people. It’s a different relationship.”
He is very much a consensus builder, the Oilers new GM. For the moment however, his job is to decide which people remain in that trusted group.
After that, the head coaching search will begin in earnest.