Friday, April 3, 2009

Going Nowhere

Darry Katz insists Craig MacTavish isn't going anywhere. The problem is the Oilers may be going nowhere with him

As another NHL season wraps up, it's becoming evident that the Edmonton Oilers will not qualify for the playoffs. Again.

No Oilers fan needs to be reminded that this is the third consecutive season the Oilers will spend their postseason playing golf rather than playing for the Stanley Cup. Few Oilers fans need to be reminded that this season was supposed to be different, for various reasons.

When the Oilers failed to make the playoffs in the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons many rushed to credit this on two things: lack of quality players and injuries.

The 2006/07 season began amidst optimism despite the Chris Pronger trade that had left a sour taste in the mouths of so many Oilers fans. The long sought-after Joffrey Lupul had arrived and was expected to be an offensive dynamo for the club.

(Lupul had previously been the subject of an aborted trade for the notoriously-disliked Mike Comrie. Lupul, it seemed, was doomed as an Oiler from the very beginning.)

While Lupul, Petr Sykora and Daniel Tjarnstrom were joining the club, Pronger certainly wasn't alone in departing. Sergei Samsonov, Mike Peca and Jaroslav Spacek all joined the exodus of players leaving for other teams.

The injury bug bit the Oilers hard.

Only seven games into the season Ethan Moreau badly dislocated his shoulder and was gone for the season. Tjarnquist, who seemed to be a promising addition to the already-thin Oilers blueline, played only 37 games for the Oilers.

Hampered by poor defensive play, the Oilers seemed to be going nowhere by the time they traded first Marc-Andre Bergeron and then Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders. Coming in return were Denis Grebeshkov, Robbie Nilsson and Ryan O'Marra. One of these players has exceeded his billing, while one has fallen far short and the third seems unlikely to make the NHL anytime soon.

The Oilers limped their way through the remainder of the 2006/07 season, winning only a handful of their remaining games.

But many Oilers fans were willing to swallow the uninspiring finish to the season under the pretenses of better things to come.

The 2007/08 season was expected to be better.

Lupul was shipped, along with captain Jason Smith, to the Philadelphia Flyers in return for Geoff Sanderson and Joni Pitkanen. Sheldon Souray was signed away from the Montreal Canadiens, and Sam Gagner had such a fantastic showing at the Canada/Russia Super Series that his performance demanded a better look in the big league. Andrew Cogliano had been signed to an entry-level contract, and the Oilers' goal crease was burgeoned with the addition of Mathieu Garon. Dick Tarnstrom returned from Europe to join an Oilers roster that seemed to be ready to make some noise. To top it all off, Dustin Penner was picked off the Anaheim Ducks roster by virtue of an offer sheet that would have been unprecedented were it not for the offer Lowe also made to Buffalo Sabres RFA Tomas Vanek.

Even Anson Carter was signed to a professional try-out, but had his season terminated by a concussion suffered in a pre-season game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

It was probably a sign of things to come.

Sheldon Souray was injured early in the season, and would eventually opt for surgery on his shoulder. Shawn Horcoff, despite being on pace for at least 40 goals -- maybe as many as 50 -- had his season ended just after the all-star game when he, too, opted for surgery. Pitkanen would also suffer lengthy injuries that would keep him off the ice for a quarter of the season, and Moreau would also be sidelined for most of the season. Again.

Despite this, the Oilers, bolstered by the late-season addition of Curtis Glencross (who was traded to Columbus in exchange for Tarnstrom) would make a rousing playoff push, and would wind up a mere three points out of the playoffs.

With the promise of new ownership on the horizon, the Oilers traded aggressively in the offseason.

Traded away were the disappointing Jarret Stoll and ever-promising Matt Greene to the Los Angeles Kings for Lubomir Visnovsky. Joni Pitkanen was shifted to Carolina in exchange for Eric Cole. Raffi Torres was shipped to Columbus for Gilbert Brule. Jason Strudwick was signed to a one-year contract.

The Oilers would strike again in the pre-season, picking the 6'5" Steve MacIntyre off waivers from the Florida Panthers.

But Curtis Glencross was allowed to skip across province to join the Calgary Flames, and one of the key components of the Oilers' late-season push -- the dynamic fourth line of Glencross, Kyle Brodziak and Zach Stortini -- had been disassembled.

Edmonton was considered by many to have improved their club so drastically that not only were they expected to make the playoffs, many considered them a contender to win the Northwest Division.

With three defensemen -- Visnovsky, Souray and Tom Gilbert -- who could play up to 30 minutes a game, and the Hemsky/Horcoff/Cole line backed up by the kid line of Gagner, Cogliano and Nilsson, the Oilers were expected to be able to hold their own at each end of the rink.

Instead what unfolded was a badly streaky season marred by poor defensive play, atrocious penalty killing and uninspiring offensive play. Eric Cole floundered on the first line while Dustin Penner, demoted to the third, struggled as well.

Both players had been moved to their off-wing.

Visnovsky shone on defense as four Oilers blue-liners -- Visnovsky, Souray, Gilbert and Grebeshkov -- ran up more than 30 points. The lack of offensive support from the blueline that had hamstrung the Oilers in the 2006/07 season seemed to have been rectified.

But by the time Lubomir Visnovsky went down with a torn labrum, the Oilers were expected to be contending to lead the Northwest division. Instead, the team was languishing on the bottom end of the playoff cut, struggling to even maintain their prospects of drawing a first-round match-up against the Detroit Red Wings or Chicago Black Hawks, two teams that had dominated them all season.

Mathieu Garon, who had struggled for the Oilers despite leading them to a shimmering shootout record in 2007/08, had already been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Danny Sabourin and Ryan Stone -- neither players who would crack the roster this season -- by the time it became evident that Dwayne Roloson would play almost the rest of the season unrelieved.

To make matters their utmost worst, the Oilers had absorbed a series of humilating defeats -- 10-2 at home to Buffalo, 9-2 at home to Chicago, and 8-3 to the Red Wings in Detroit -- that clearly demonsrated that this team was not yet ready to join the elite echelons of the NHL.

This season had been expected to be so much different. With player personell and injuries (for the most part) removed as a factor in this season, it's only natural that the eyes of Oilers fans would start to scrutinize the organization more closely to try and determine what's wrong.

Many Oilers fans have looked no further than the head coach, Craig MacTavish.

When given the personell necessary to succeed and given a season mostly devoid of roster-obliterating injuries, this is a year fans should have expected the Oilers to live up to its billing.

When a team comes out and embraces mediocrity as the Oilers have, coahing is a natural place to start the scrutiny.

Which is why it's so difficult to understand Darryl Katz's reaction to some of the speculation about MacTavish's future with the team. Prior to last night's game against the San Jose Sharks, Katz sent a text message to Bob Stauffer informing him that "Craig MacTavish isn't going anywhere."

"He said he was extremely disappointed and somewhat frustrated with the fact we're in the middle of a playoff race and all the discussion and focus was on the future of our head coach," Kevin Lowe would later add. "He found that somewhat odd. He just wanted to suppress that once and for all. It's as simple as that."

As the billionare owner of a successful pharmacy chain, one would expect the realities underlying the situation would be evident to him. If a coach, given all the tools to be successful, can't seem to find success, it's clearly time for a change.

Fans have been soured on MacTavish all season long. Very few individuals face the ire of Oilers fans and remain in place with the organization. Joffrey Lupul, Mike Comrie and Marc-Andre Bergeron stand as examples of how quickly individuals can be shuffled out of Edmonton once the fans turn on them.

Firing MacTavish because so many Oilers fans seem keen to run him out of time would be the wrong reason to fire MacTavish.

The right reason to relieve Craig MacTavish of his coaching responsibilities is that, for three seasons, the team has been going nowhere under him.

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