EDMONTON — Of all the reasons, some real but far more perceived, that Dave Tippett was fired on Thursday, the one that stands out the most is this:
Remember when Tippett was hired, and some people worried that bringing in a defensive-minded coach like Tippett would stifle the prized offensive savants that stocked the Oilers' top lines?
“We draft No. 1 overall for this many years, and now we’re going to bring in a defence-first guy?” they said.
“Look at his teams in Arizona,” they said. “He’ll ruin Connor McDavid!”
Well, as it all came to that predictable Edmonton ending for Tippett on Thursday, here is the irony: Dave “Lock ‘Em Down” Tippett was fired because the Oilers never figured out how to play defence.
In a 3-2 league, Connor McDavid’s team prefers to play 5-4 hockey. But lately, the other team gets to four just fine, while Edmonton doesn’t get to five very often at all.
“You’ve got to keep the puck out of your net. We HAVE to figure out a way,” said general manager Ken Holland, who watched his team get outscored 8-1 in two games coming out of the All-Star break, then fired a coach mid-season for the first time in his 25 years as a manager. “You can’t win 5-4. We won lots of games in the first (quarter), we were scoring five goals to win. So… hopefully a different voice. We’re all saying the same message…”
They’ve all been “saying the same message” for years in Edmonton, a town/franchise that somehow believes that it must always be those ‘80s Oilers. (And forget Edmonton’s sorry goaltending situation for a moment. Behind a team this flagrantly derelict in its own zone, there is no goaltending solution that would hold up, long-term.)
So what does it mean when a coach who has a proven track record of building a stout defensive spine into previous teams comes to Edmonton, and in three years has a team that gives up Grade A chances like Oprah gives out cars? Or for that matter, when Todd McLellan leaves Edmonton in failure and moves on to coach the L.A. Kings to unexpected success?
Does it mean Tippett, and fired assistant Jim Playfair, forgot everything they knew about how to coach a team to play a proper defensive NHL game? Or perhaps after most of three seasons, did a roster that could not -- or would not -- accept anything other than star-driven, stats-hungry hockey finally, stubbornly stop listening?
“The game’s played the same way today,” opined Holland. “There’s different terminology but at the end of the day, you’ve got to defend hard, you’ve got to keep the puck out of your net, you’ve got to be good defensively, you’ve got to go to the blue paint, you’ve got to score ugly goals, you’ve got to have good special teams. There will be somebody sitting here 20 years from now telling you (the same thing) with different verbiage, different terms. But the game’s played on the same 80 by 200 and it’s hockey.”
It is, we will repeat, a 3-2 league. And if you can’t hold ‘em to two, or one at times in the playoffs, you simply will not succeed. Period.
Let’s find something we can all agree on: Somehow under Tippett, Edmonton never found a way out of being an easy team to play against.
Now, let’s talk about why.
Darnell Nurse, their most stout, physical and best-skating defenceman, has lost the plot. He’s busy trying to score points, rather than leading his team by making Edmonton’s slot a punishing place to stand. He’s joining the rush, leaving the Evan Bouchards and Tyson Barries back to defend.
It’s time to grow up, become the leader he can be, and set the template here. Nurse starts an eight-year deal next season. Fashion your game after Shea Weber, not Cale Makar.
Connor McDavid uses his surreal speed to fly the zone and scorer highlight-reel goals, but not often enough to prevent chances in his own zone. He’s great with the puck, but without it McDavid -- who has spoken of his need to defend better, and has made strides -- still couldn’t carry Sid Crosby’s equipment bag.
He could, if he wanted to. If McDavid ever wants to win, he’d better learn to want to.
Leon Draisaitl could be the best all-around player on this team. Quite possibly the facto captain. But when a team has wild swings like the Oilers have had -- win six, lose seven, lose six, win four -- it appears rudderless.
We’re not in the room, so we don’t know for sure. But when a team is this streaky, we believe the top players (like Draisaitl) should be able to stabilize the effort. To achieve buy-in. To bring players like Jesse Puljujarvi -- who has been entirely lost for two months -- back into the fold.
The passengers: Kailer Yamamoto, Puljujarvi, Barrie, Zack Kassian. Deadweight here for new coach Jay Woodcroft to figure out. Useful players who have absolutely forgotten how to help this team, and its former coach, win.
“There are 38 games to go, we still control our own fate. There are big games ahead like tomorrow night (against the Islanders),” Holland reasoned. “If I waited 10 more games and we kept going, it might be too late. So I’m hoping and believing by what I did today, it’s going to have a positive impact to get us to turn the corner.”
It's fair to fire Tippett. This season was going south, and that’s what happens in professional sports.
But out here in the National Hockey League’s coaching graveyard -- where Woodcroft becomes the ninth head coach for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 11 seasons as an Oiler -- we have learned a few things.
Does a new coach bring in new ideas?
Sure. They all did.
Will it end the same way for the next guy?
If the best players don’t lead the change -- buying in on trying to win a Stanley Cup, not a bunch of Harts and Art Ross’s -- it’s only a matter of time until we’re writing this same column again.