EDMONTON – After the Edmonton Oilers missed the NHL playoffs for the third straight year, head coach Craig MacTavish became the first man out the door Wednesday.
He won’t be the last. Nor should he be. Oilers GM Steve Tambellini made it perfectly clear there was plenty of blame to go around and that more changes would follow after Edmonton posted a 38-35-9 record to finish a disappointing 11th in the Western Conference.
Sadly, though, this had become a habit of sorts for the Oilers under MacTavish. Edmonton had missed the playoffs in five of the last seven seasons of MacTavish’s eight-year tenure behind the bench, making Wednesday’s move a surprise to no one.
Much of that blame, Tambellini said, falls to the players.
“One thing I want to make clear,” said Tambellini, “is that because we are changing our head coach and moving in a different direction, this does not absolve the players from their performance or lack thereof.
“The second part of this is, do we need to address some of our personnel? Obviously, we do.”
MacTavish leaves just three seasons removed from taking the Oilers to a seventh and deciding game in the 2006 Stanley Cup final. But he never managed to find a way to extract the committed consistency he sought from his lineup.
With the Oilers struggling to score goals, MacTavish changed up his lines looking for production. When top-six forwards like Dustin Penner and Robert Nilsson didn’t produce, MacTavish benched them, made them healthy scratches and even called them out publicly. He coached. He coaxed. He poked. He prodded.
Aside from brief flashes, the team, more skilled but far less gritty than the ’06 squad, never did respond long enough to build any momentum. The longest winning streak of the season came when the Oilers won their first four games of the year.
“When you think of the lack of success we’ve had the last few years, you know there’s going to be changes,” said veteran Steve Staios. “It’s usually the coach who goes first.
“I know this is probably just the start of it. It’s unacceptable for us not to be in the playoffs. You know when that happens there’s going to be changes.”
Too many nights, the Oilers didn’t look remotely interested in competing. A dismal 18-17-6 home record included a 9-2 loss to Chicago on Dec. 16, a 3-2 defeat to an Ottawa Senators team that had lost 12 straight road games, on Dec. 30 and a 10-2 decision to Buffalo on Jan. 27. Too often there was a lack of passion and purpose, two elements coaches can’t draw that up on a chalkboard.
Amid speculation MacTavish had lost the room and questions about the team’s veteran leadership core – Staios, captain Ethan Moreau, Shawn Horcoff and Sheldon Souray – the Oilers staggered down the stretch, winning just three of their final 11 games and dropping out of seventh place.
That’s a far cry from what MacTavish envisioned in pre-season, when he picked the Oilers to contend for the Northwest Division title. When the Oilers were eliminated in a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles April 7, MacTavish looked as thoroughly defeated and drained as a coach could.
“The thing that was maybe most disappointing for me was our culture took a hit here in terms of our work ethic and our selflessness,” MacTavish said last Monday as he faced reporters for the last time as coach. “Just the universal commitment we had here for so many years took a bit of a hit.
“This year, there were a lot of nights as a coach I had to ask for more and, sometimes, the tank was pretty empty.”
Tambellini emphasized Wednesday he’ll look at the organization from top to bottom – with a focus on player personnel – in coming weeks and make the moves needed to restore that culture. That’s a process that will demand going well beyond drawing up a short-list of coaching candidates.
“That culture, that environment, is the product of a lot of things,” Tambellini said. “It starts, primarily, with leadership.
“Leadership and clarity what the expectations are from a management perspective, a coaching perspective and from the guys who actually make it happen – the leadership group in that dressing room.”
As it should be.