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Five Q's: Oilers' MacTavish eager to see progress

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

NHL.com's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish:

The scrutiny and the losing haven't crushed the spirits of Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish. He has overcome challenges throughout his career, on and off the ice. He's optimistic he can do it again, but he's honest about his latest challenge too.

"We have to have progress," MacTavish said in a recent phone interview. "That's difficult to achieve, a substantial amount of progress, and that's what we have to see."

If he can turn the Oilers into a Stanley Cup contender again, MacTavish will have done it in an environment he believes is the most challenging he has been a part of in his 35 years in the NHL.

The environment has swallowed the Oilers since MacTavish led them to the Stanley Cup Final as their coach in 2006.

Edmonton has not made the playoffs since its run to the Cup Final. It hasn't finished higher than 24th in the League standings since 2010. The Oilers selected first in the NHL draft in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

"The game of hockey has never been more competitive, I don't care what level," MacTavish said. "There are more demands on all the coaches today. You have to have way more of a variety of skills than what coaches in the past have had. As a player the game is much more difficult now. It's way more competitive. There are more expectations on you as a player. The same is true as a manager. It's way more competitive than what it was in the past. I love the job, but at the same time it's a very demanding job.

"The game of hockey is tough from all standpoints. There is more scrutiny. There are more expectations. As much as we all love it, it's a much different environment now than it was 10 or 15 years ago."

MacTavish spoke with NHL.com about how he's trying to attack the challenge of rebuilding the Oilers as well as his thoughts on the team he has assembled for this season.

Here are Five Questions with … Craig MacTavish:

It was the summer of analytics, and the Oilers embraced it by hiring an analytics guru and signing players who score well in the possession game. From your perspective with analytics and how they relate to evaluation, are you seeing things through a different prism now that you have gotten into them?

"I think it does give you a different insight into the game. To me it gets you talking about things and puts numbers on things that you'd normally not be able to measure. It gives you other areas of your game to focus on and it just gets you asking other questions about your game. Whether it's a tactical observation, whether it's a personnel observation, to me whenever we talk with our analytics guys about a myriad of things it just gets you to ask questions that you might not otherwise ask and it gets you talking about things that you might not have addressed. I think that's all healthy and that's good.

"I don't know if it's a sexy topic now, but it's still just a part of how you analyze the game. We've had an analytics department before. We've done a few things along those lines. We've hired another guy to look at another area of the game. There's validity to it for sure. I mean, possession numbers are highly correlated with points, so you have to accept that they're relevant. How you use them is really up to each and every organization. We don't always agree on what the analytics say about our own personnel. We're always cautious. It's just part of the overall evaluation. I think that's been well-documented. It's a very small percentage of our hockey operations budget; I can assure you of that."

You mentioned that you have worked with an analytics department before your recent hires this offseason. How have analytics, advanced stats, changed and evolved over the past couple of years as information has become more modernized?

"You're getting way more information from the guys who are analyzing all the information that the League takes. The next step will be having your own guys analyze games and collect data outside of what the League is doing. Where it's changed is the analytics people have really done a good job explaining the relevance the analytics have to points. If you take the time to listen to them, which everybody does, you can't help but come away from those conversations realizing that, hey, there is something to these possession numbers that correlates to success and points. We identify good possession players and then we try to obviously cross-reference all that stuff with scouting and all the other more traditional measures. At least in the past it could lead you to identifying some value, some unrecognized value in certain players, but now I think everybody has got somebody looking in those areas."

The start of the season is always an optimistic time because everyone is still in it. That includes the Oilers. Taylor Hall said this is the best team that's been assembled since he's been in Edmonton. Do you allow for higher expectations now? Is it time and is it right to have higher expectations for this group?

"We were a little optimistic last year going into the season too, so you have to be careful to temper your optimism at this time of year. Most moves look good on paper in July and August, but until you drop the puck for real it's just a guess on what's going to happen. It's an educated guess on what's going to happen. So we're optimistic, we're hopeful, but at the same time we're realistic in terms of what our expectations are. We want progress."

Speaking of progress, Oilers coach Dallas Eakins had a tough first year in Edmonton. The whole thing didn't come apart, but it was tough. As someone who went through the experience of being a rookie coach in the NHL, what did he learn last season that he'll be better for?

"I think experience is a wonderful teacher, especially when he really didn't have a head coaching reference point at the NHL level. What I learned about Dallas is that he's a tremendously tough individual, he's a resilient individual and he's a rational individual. I feel every bit as strongly about his ability to lead us out of this this year maybe more so than I did last year based on how he handled a very difficult first year. I think the experience is going to be valuable to him, as it is to everybody in their first year coaching. It's an extremely tough task to coach in the NHL, especially to have the type of year we had in his first year."

Obviously center is such an important position, especially when you look at the top-end centers in the Western Conference. Will the success or the progress of the Oilers this season hinge on the young centers? Will their development dictate the substantial progress you hope to see this season?

"I think it's going to play a factor for sure. When people look at our depth chart, center is the one position that stands out that we are inexperienced in and we are exposed to in terms of the amount of depth we have at that position. We've hopefully added a guy that over time will develop into that much coveted second-line center that has some size. Leon [Draisaitl] has come in and played very well through training camp. That's just one obstacle, one hurdle you have to get over before you have regular-season success. Would it be a huge bonus for us if he came in and was able to consistently play that role? It would be. Is it an expectation? It's a soft expectation at this point that he'd be able to do that. But there hasn't been anybody who has been able to step up and outplay him at this point. We're trying to evaluate what our best options are going forward as well as what's the best developmental situation for Leon to be in. He's played well. He's got that spot right now."

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