EDMONTON – Edmonton Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini sacked head coach Craig MacTavish on Wednesday, but also threw his players under the bus for turning a proud franchise famous for its grit into a squidgy-soft dough ball of mediocrity.
“We need a new voice. We need a new start. We need new expectations. We need a new discipline and it’s time to look forward,” Tambellini told reporters in a news conference at the team’s Rexall Place home rink just hours before the NHL playoffs were to start.
The Oilers missed the post-season for the third consecutive year and for the fifth time in the last seven campaigns.
“It’s the right thing for Craig and it’s the right thing for the Oilers at this point,” said Tambellini, adding, “This does not absolve the players from their performance or lack thereof.”
MacTavish, the eighth coach in Oilers history, leaves after eight seasons with 300 wins under his belt. He was not at the news conference and was not immediately available for comment.
Defenceman Steve Staios, who met with reporters later Wednesday, said the writing was on the wall.
“I’m not really that surprised because of where we’ve been the last few years,” he said. “This is probably just the start.”
Tambellini, brought in at the start of the season as general manager, said he wants someone who shares his outlook.
“We want an aggressive type of play. We want an emotional team. We want a team that is not standing on their heels. We have people here with skill and I want to see it.”
MacTavish, the eighth Oiler coach in team history, leaves after eight seasons with 300 wins under his belt. He was not at the news conference and was not immediately available for comment.
Tambellini said the galling aspect was that the Oilers – even in the lean years that followed the Stanley Cup dynasty teams of the 1980s – were still famous for not laying down for any opponent.
“When you played against the Oilers it was a commitment to win at any cost,” he said.
“People say maybe we weren’t gritty enough as a team. I agree with that. Do we need to get stronger? Yes we do.
“We have some good young players that I think want to be players. We have some good veterans that hopefully want to be a part of this going forward, but I can tell you things are going to change as far as expectations and preparation.”
Tambellini did not say if he had a deadline for a new hire, but said he’s looking inside and outside the organization and will likely wait until after the playoffs to make a decision.
He said the entire Oilers operation, including player development and scouting, will be reviewed thoroughly in the off-season.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do here.”
MacTavish’s fate had been the front-burner topic in local newspaper columns and call-in radio shows for more than a week, once the Oilers were mathematically eliminated with two games to go in the regular season.
Fans were divided over who should pay for the failure: the coach, the players, management, or all of the above.
The team had expected to challenge for the top of the Northwest Division but instead slid to 11th in the Western Conference with a record of 38-35-9 for a total of 85 points. The team was occasionally booed off the ice at Rexall Place, finishing with an abysmal 18-17-6 home record – sixth worst in the NHL.
The power play was an anemic 23rd in the league. Penalty killing was 27th.
Front-line players Ales Hemsky and Shawn Horcoff recorded fewer points than the previous season while promising juniors Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano and Robert Nilsson failed to capitalize on the promise of 2008-09.
Forward Dustin Penner became the unofficial poster player for coach-killing under-performance. The six-foot-four forward, with a contract worth US$4.25 million a year, slid down the depth chart to the fourth line for uninspired play. He registered 17 goals, the second consecutive year of scoring decline, and was twice publicly called out by MacTavish.
The season went from sublimely bad to ridiculous in the final week, when Daryl Katz, the team’s reclusive owner, sought to quell controversy over the MacTavish firing speculation by text messaging a reporter to say MacTavish “isn’t going anywhere.”
The text message brought into question whether Tambellini still had the last word on hiring. Tambellini said Wednesday the coaching decision is his. He declined to address the text message affair.
“How (Katz) he feels about his players and how he responded (in the text message) is irrelevant to me. He cares about this team and this city and wants only good things to happen.”
MacTavish leaves with 2006 as his high-water mark, when the Oilers lost the Stanley Cup in the seventh game of the deciding series against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“We were so close to accomplishing some great things,” said Staios.
In a year-end wrap-up news conference with reporters Monday, he said he emptied his toolbox trying to figure out how to get players to fight for the puck.
“Virtually all year, we were trying to get non-confrontational players into confrontational areas where we’re going to score goals. It was a losing battle from a lot of perspectives.”
MacTavish, who still has a year to go on his contract, will not stay in the organization.
“I expect him – if he wants to be – coaching in the NHL next year,” Tambellini said.