EDMONTON — Here is the disconnect. The fatal misunderstanding between management and fan that has provided a safety net in places like Edmonton for so many years.
The Edmonton Oilers have, off and on, been guided by men named Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Scott Howson since the turn of the century. They have come here to Edmonton, gone away for other jobs, or moved around inside the Oilers front office in the years since. But all have had some say in most of the decisions, give or take the odd Steve Tambellini who has mis-stepped into this mess along the way.
Now the Big Three are all back here in Edmonton — the Boys Under The Bus, they’re being called — reaping what each other have sewn over the past 14 years, on what is annually the worst, most depleted and asset poor team in the National Hockey League. But ask one of them to answer for that, and here’s what you get:
“I’ve been on the job for 18 months,” said MacTavish. “I coached the team here for (eight seasons, from 2000-09), but I had nothing to do with management. Don’t (lump) me in with a situation of power and influence in the management level in this organization. I’ve been on the job for 20 months.”
It was with a raised voice and perfect clarity that MacTavish distanced himself from the current Oilers management team, new President Bob Nicholson excluded, which leaves him right in step with whatever fans this team has left. They don’t want any part of these guys either. That admission — basically ‘Hey, don’t lump me in with that lot,” — tells you all you need to know about this organization.
MacTavish doesn’t have Lowe’s back, or Howson’s. Nicholson, we suspect, is not fully behind his GM or his coach at this point, though that is speculation on my part. On the ice, as we saw last month, an opposing player can drill Edmonton’s 19-year-old centre from behind as hard as he likes without a single Oiler coming to Leon Draisaitl’s defence.
We are in “Every Man For Himself” territory now in Edmonton. Next stop, Pink Slip City.
MacTavish did admit an amateur scouting staff that, since 2005, has produced but one decent player (Jeff Petry) who is not a first round pick is a big problem.
“It undermines the performance of everything we do, on and off the ice,” MacTavish said. “You’re right: There were two players in our lineup the other night in Winnipeg that we drafted outside the first round. We are acutely aware of our former inadequacies of our drafting.”
“Former inadequacies.” Don’t worry folks, we are aware of how bad it is here in Oil Country, but it’s going to get better. That, once again, was the theme of what has become the annual State of the Union address by a beleaguered MacTavish, who truly had nothing to gain by holding Friday’s 9 a.m. availability, and undoubtedly fell further into arrears with the fan base by doing it anyhow.
After consecutive finishes of 30th, 30th, 29th, 24th and 28th — then to be dead last again this season — there are no words that MacTavish could have spoken to placate this jersey-tossing fan base.
But, alas, he tried.
“Visually, to me, we are a better hockey team,” he began. “When I sit in the press box and watch our hockey team, visually, we’re a better hockey team. Our most ardent detractor would have to admit, we are a better hockey team visually.”
Or this: “The Winnipeg game (a 3-2 OT loss) was a real positive for us. We did a lot of things right. We played a smarter, more mature game than we do normally. We’re in the game, ready to win the game. Nashville (1-0 loss in OT) was the same thing. We managed the puck better. We went to the hard areas of the ice better. We finished our checks…”
Imagine, for a moment, Darryl Sutter at that same podium, his team on an 11-game losing streak, applauding his players for finishing a few checks. What would Darryl have said, in this situation, I found myself wondering.
This is exactly why a front office clean-out is required in Edmonton. Because with new bosses would arrive a new level of expectation.
A decade of constant, systemic failure has resulted in the Oilers bar being set so low, that staying with a good team and coming away with a loser point has become an example of progress. Playing fundamental, physical hockey at an NHL level; not backing away from confrontation; actually standing in the blue paint when a shot is coming, rather than at the side of the crease, waving a stick for a deflection.
These acts have happened so infrequently for this team, that they are noted as incremental success when they occur every fifth or sixth game. Here, players are applauded for doing it once in a while, rather than sat down or reprimanded when they do not do it every night of the season, like the good teams do.
Worse yet, the new GM keeps bringing in players like Anton Belov, Nikita Nikitin, Teddy Purcell, Denis Grebeshkov, Jesse Joensuu, Justin Schultz… None of whom make this team any more difficult to defeat, all of whom perpetuate the same, tissue-soft game that anchors this franchise to the bottom of the standings.
“We’re behind in our time line,” MacTavish admitted on Friday. “We understand the frustration of our fans. But the plan does not change for us.”
Had the carefully orchestrated queue for questions allowed it, we’d have asked one more thing of MacTavish:
“Can you explain Calgary…?”