EDMONTON — Ken Holland was telling a story about meeting an Edmonton Oilers employee the other day.
The employee said, “You’re my fifth (general) manager since I started here!”
“Wow, when did you start?” asked Holland, thinking he was speaking with an organizational oldtimer.
Employee: “In 2011.”
As the Oilers unveil Dave Tippett as the 16th coach in team history — or the seventh head coach in Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ nine-year NHL career next season — it is clear that simply hiring another smart coach is only part of the issue. Todd McLellan was/is a smart coach, and he is now down the road with the rest of ‘em.
“Stability,” promised Holland. “A stable environment.”
“I’ve coached two teams,” echoed Tippett. “One for seven years. The other for eight years.”
As you looked at the podium for the latest coaching hire in Edmonton on Tuesday, you saw a 22-year general manager in Holland flanked by a 15-year head coach in Tippett. We’ll say this now: If these two can’t get under the hood of this organization and find out where the knock is, then nobody can.
In Tippett, the Oilers hire a guy who was inventing his own analytics back in 1995, when he got his first coaching job as an assistant coach in IHL Houston. “I’ve been doing (analytics) for a lot longer than you guys have been talking about it,” laughed the 57-year-old, who played 721 NHL games and has coached another 1,114 in Dallas and Arizona.
He grew up in Saskatchewan, mostly Prince Albert, and like the province his teams have a penchant for punching above their weight — especially in Arizona. Over time, Tippett built up an extraordinary 50-16-7 record versus Edmonton. Even when those Coyotes rosters appeared overmatched, they stole points from an Oilers team that could be outworked, or whose lack of structure was ripe for exploitation.
“Maximize every player. That’s a coach’s responsibility,” he said. “You can battle, you can be hungrier, you can have work ethic. There is never an excuse not to win.”
An interesting exchange occurred after the formal press conference when a few reporters dug in on Tippett’s reputation as a defensive coach. It’s a reference that irks him, you can tell, and he was happy to challenge anyone who wondered aloud if his coaching style would impinge on the productivity of 100-point players Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl.
“Would those two be allowed to step outside his structure to create offence?” he was asked.
“Define structure,” Tippett replied. “Tell me what structure is?”
“OK,” said another scribe, re-wording the question. “Would a 100-point player end up with less points, after satisfying your system?”
“The word ‘system’ is so overused,” Tippett began. “Which system are you talking about? Are you talking offensive zone forecheck? Neutral zone forecheck? D-zone coverage? System without the puck? System with the puck? Power play? Penalty kill?
“It’s (how you) play with the puck, and how you play without the puck, five-on-five. When you have the puck, you have to create offence. How are you going to do that? When you don’t have the puck, you have to get it back. So, put yourself in a position to get it back, and defend your net.
“I go the other way: If you defend less, you’re going to be a better team. Breaking out of your own end, winning battles in your own end, recovering rebounds or loose pucks that allow you to get out of your own end quicker… Not turning it over in the neutral zone so it comes back to your end.
“It all comes down to the time that you defend. If you defend more than you are in the offensive zone, guess what? Your points are going to go down.”
It’s simple, common sense. Something there has been a paucity of around an organization that made some real head-scratching deals over the past four seasons.
They always found a salve here in firing the head coach, but like the Cleveland Browns, that exercise turned into the definition of insanity.
On Tuesday it became Dave Tippett’s team, three weeks after it had become Ken Holland’s organization. That’s 37 years of GM/head coaching experience — double that in terms of time spent in the National Hockey League.
If these guys can’t do it in Edmonton? Then it can’t be done.