Edmonton Oilers General Manager Craig MacTavish spoke with the local media on Tuesday morning to give his thoughts on the season and provide insight to his plans moving forward. Right off the top, MacTavish stressed his understanding that the Oilers didn’t have the year they wanted or expected.
“There’s lots of work ahead,” MacTavish said. “There’s lots of work to do. That is very clear to everybody in our organization that it’s time to roll our sleeves up and continue to do that and forge forward and lots of work to do with the group. I think my assessment of the year was the season started with great expectation, maybe not great expectation but certainly high expectation. We internally had high expectations from our group at the start and right at the start of the year, things didn’t go well.”
After a 4-15-2 start in their first 21 games, the Oilers were in a hole they themselves didn’t expect.
“We did not live up to the expectations we had internally nor did we live up to the external expectations of our fans in terms of our performance level. Frankly, we didn’t function well as a group early on in the year. Our team didn’t function well with all the change, the coaching change, the personnel change. We struggled mightily early in the year and we’ve been trying to play catch up ever since. It’s exactly the start we didn’t want and we’d been trying to overcome that start virtually all year long.”
After addressing the rough start to the season, MacTavish spoke highly of his coaching staff and was quick to give a vote of confidence to Head Coach Dallas Eakins. The messaging and the work ethic of Eakins have MacTavish convinced that the rookie head coach was and still is the man for the job.
“I think I’m more confident in my decision to hire Dallas Eakins today than the day that I hired him,” MacTavish said. “I’m more convinced that this guy is the right coach to lead us into much more successful times. Time will prove, in my mind, that this coach was a very good hire for our organization. I really feel like he’s the guy to add the cultural elements and police the cultural elements that are necessary to build the type of quality team that we’re trying to build. The thing I like about Dallas is he’s relentless and the messaging in spite of the ups and downs and the difficult times the team has had over the course of the year, the messaging has all been the same. His message is very clear, he’s relentless in his messaging and it’s quite clear to me in watching the development in our group over the last 30 games or so that the players are buying in to the direction and the leadership from our head coach.”
Photo by Oilers TV
Despite an injury riddled lineup and a young and inexperience blue line, the Oilers went 14-12-3 in their final 29 games of the season. There were flashes of competitive hockey and a few players capped off career seasons. Taylor Hall posted the first 80-point season of his career while David Perron bested his previous career-high point total with 57 and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins netted a career high 19 goals. In spite of the team’s very disappointing start to the season, MacTavish saw the improvement he needed to be confident in continuity moving forward.
“The thing that you really look to in the end is the improvement in the play and positional play of this group. To get this group through the year that we have and to end as energetically as we did was a tribute to that leadership. His messaging has been consistent, players know what the expectation is.”
Continuity in the coaching staff does not necessarily mean there will be continuity on the roster. MacTavish not only said ‘there’s a lot of work to do’ but spoke of possible moves that need to be made to make the Oilers competitive again.
“We have the right coaches in place and it’s my responsibility to support those coaches in any way I can but most importantly for me, is to support those coaches in improved personnel decisions and bringing in people that fit the culture that we have and improve on the group that we have.”
Here are some of the other areas MacTavish addressed on Tuesday morning:
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ADDING A ‘HIGH-END DEFENCEMAN’
MacTavish says he will not be searching for a middle-of-the-pack defenceman this off-season. If there is an opportunity to add a top tier blueliner, he’ll be involved in those discussions.
“In my mind, I’d like to add a very high-end defenceman,” he said. “I think I wouldn’t be alone with 29 other general managers with that objective but to me, I won’t be adding anything in the middle. If I think I can get something that I think is really going to move the dial for our team from the backend, I’ll be involved in those discussions and consider that.”
The Oilers may be looking at going into next season with a lot of youth on their blue line which is not seen as a bad thing in the eyes of MacTavish.
“There’s a lot of optimism internally. If we have to go young, we go young.”
MacTavish singled out a few of the young defencemen who showed growth and development this season as reason for optimism.
“We’ve talked about results and not words. I’ve talked about Oscar Klefbom the last few years and our developing defencemen. Now we’re seeing that. I think everybody had a pretty good idea of Oscar Klefbom’s ability at the end of this year. He was outstanding, as was Justin Schultz, as was Martin Marincin, Jeff Petry — for some of the criticism he took at times, had a career year in a lot of statistical categories. He’s a developing player as well so there’s lots of development…”
Could the team’s top pick factor into those discussions?
“I’ll entertain all offers,” MacTavish said. “I’ve said that all along, You’d be a fool not to… We’re charged with defining value and trying to get fair value for our draft choice, for moving the draft choice, for moving up, for moving back and we’ll be having those conversations and those conversations will start fairly quickly.”
Adding a top defenceman to that budding group of young talent would be a big success for the Oilers heading into next season.
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KEEPING THE CORE TOGETHER
While MacTavish does say that he will look to add a high-end defenceman, he doesn’t believe it will come at the expense of one of the team’s prized core players. It is up to him to test the market.
“That’s the question I’ll be asking. I think we can. There are lots of assets that we have, not withstanding the (first round) draft choice, we have a considerable amount of assets and developing defencemen so I think we can.”
In keeping the core together, MacTavish says it is imperative that those players also take an onus on themselves to put the team on their back and take a pride in being that important core.
“We’re building our team around this group. You have to have pieces in the locker room that you view as guys who are going to develop into winners, into superstars. I feel strongly we have a number of those pieces in there and those are the guys that we’re going to build that team around. I want them to feel the ownership. I want them to feel the loyalty from myself and the coaching staff that we have the confidence in them to drive this team forward. When you talk to those players, Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins, certainly Taylor Hall, Justin Schultz, those guys have to feel that they’re the Edmonton Oilers and they have the responsibility to drive this core for many years.”
SEARCHING FOR CHARACTER
In MacTavish’s opening statement, he talked about his vision for the team being a Stanley Cup contender. In order to do that, the general manager is looking to acquire players with character, who want to play in Edmonton and sacrifice for the organization.
“My vision has stayed the same since I took the job a year ago,” he said. “We’re building a team that’s going to be capable of winning a Stanley Cup. That’s what we’re doing and I know that falls on some deaf ears but that is our vision and that’s why we’re in it as Edmonton Oilers. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea on the pulse of our fans and what our fans want. It’s been a painful process for them as well as us but every decision I make as a manager starts with that first question, ‘Does this help us build a team that can win a Stanley Cup?’ That’s the vision for our group.”
“We want character,” MacTavish continued. “When I took the job over, my mandate was to bring in character, bring in some leadership and we’re very much committed to character. We want hard working people, we want competitive people and the strategy is really a simple one. But the sophistication is in the execution of that strategy and we’re going to be very committed, to a man, in our organization to bring in people through the draft, trades, (signing), people who have character. I want players on our bench, when that puck goes in our net to feel as bad as the coach. That to me is great character and I think we’ve made quite a few in-roads in terms of adding those types of elements to our developing core group of players that are ultimately going to lead us out of this.”
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Justin Schultz showed improvement in his defensive game this season. As a talented 23 year-old and restricted free agent, MacTavish’s attention now turns to re-signing a player he believes has ‘limitless’ upside.
Whether that signing is to a bridge contract or a long-term deal, MacTavish said he is open to both.
“It will be really dependent on what Justin wants to do. But I think I’ve been clear all along on the upside that I see from Justin Schultz. He’s a developing player, he just completed his first NHL season, his upside is limitless and I have a lot of confidence and would have the confidence to extend Justin on a longterm deal.”
ADDING TOP-NINE HELP
Outside of the Oilers’ top line (including David Perron in the top four), scoring on the depth chart was hard to come by this season. MacTavish made no secret that finding more scoring throughout the team’s top nine forwards will be a focus moving forward.
“We’ve got to look elsewhere for some of the help in those positions. That’s an area that we’ve identified that we would like to improve in. You draft, you develop players, you sign players and trade for players so we’ll be trying to do all of those things to try and get us a more productive second line. If Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins are going to continue to play together, we’re going to need a more productive second line than what we had this year. We’d like to get more secondary scoring out of a third line than we had this year so, as I said, there’s lots of work to be done but those are all areas that we’ve discussed and areas we’re going to look to improve in.”