Monday, 15 December 2014

Death By A Thousand Cuts

It finally happened. Craig MacTavish unceremoniously relieved Dallas Eakins of his coaching responsibilities in Edmonton this morning, but it's almost anti-climactic. For weeks, it felt as if we were watching a dead man walking whenever Eakins was on television, and the guillotine finally fell today. Personally, Eakins always felt like the wrong guy in Edmonton, but his success in the lower levels of hockey warranted a look by some NHL franchise. It's just that Edmonton should never have been that franchise.

I have no doubt that Dallas Eakins will land somewhere else in the hockey world once he finally rinses the taste of Edmonton out of his mouth. He knows the game, he's a smart man, and he certainly has shown that he can coach a team to success on the ice. However, this debacle in Edmonton may make him untouchable for a season or two until a team is willing to give him another chance. He's partly responsible for this, so he'll have to show that he's grown and changed since his time in Edmonton.

Daryl Katz, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, and Scott Howson are the designers of this mess of an NHL franchise, and they certainly should be indicted for their crimes against hockey. Steve Tambellini has already been sent off to the pasture as well, but he's also a part of this calamity of a hockey team. They draft poorly, they sign free agents who seemingly don't want to be there, and they trade away pieces that they legitimately need while forcing their young talent into roles for which they are not even close to being ready.

Again, part of that comes from the coach setting the roster, but he's trying to patch the holes that his management team has left him on the ice with whatever talent - legitimate or otherwise - he can find. Players like David Perron, who speak their minds about the mediocrity going on in Edmonton, are immediately shopped to other teams because of their "divisiveness". Yet he's one of the few solid players that the Oilers have who play the game with skill, toughness, and tenacity needed for a building franchise.

Players who show talent want out because there is a cancer growing out from the front office. This cancer is the acceptance of mediocrity, as stated above, that allows the Oilers to hover around the the bottom of the NHL standings year after year despite drafting some of the best young hockey talent that the planet has to offer.

Nail Yakupov? His career is nearly over at this point.
Leon Draisaitl? He's struggling mightily in his role.
Justin Schultz? He's regressed badly over the last couple of seasons.

We don't have to look far to see the carnage laid out by the management team.

Rushing draft picks into the NHL to fill glaring holes? Check.
Drafting the best player as opposed to strengthening weaknesses? Check.
Completely abandoning any sort of rebuild from the net out? Check.
Utter stupidity in understanding CBA rules? Check.
Inability to attract quality free agents? Check.

Look, I get that people have a stereotype about Edmonton. It's the same challenge faced by the Winnipeg Jets during free agency. However, the methods in which the two teams are taking to achieve the goal of a Stanley Cup couldn't be decidedly different.

Winnipeg drafts and develops, even risking that young talent will walk away after having been stuck in the minor leagues for too long. They are methodical, they are loyal to players who are loyal to the franchise, and they do their homework on players who are free agents. They always look to fill a roster spot with a young player, but only if that young player is truly ready. If they can't fill the roster spot from within, they sign a serviceable free agent who will do the job while that young player develops. It takes an amazing amount of patience from the team, the fans, and the players, but the steps forward are being seen in Winnipeg this season as their core and the next wave start to make a push up the standings.

Edmonton, for all the amazing young talent they have, has never let any of those young stars develop in the minor leagues where playing the professional game is taught through long bus rides, cramped hotels, and veterans who have played in the NHL. Only a few have been sent down to Oklahoma City, and they stay only for a few games. They are the highly-paid answers to Edmonton's question of "are we a playoff team?", and they continue to fail that test time and again.

On top of that, it appeared that Dallas Eakins lost the room at some point either last season or early into this season. You could see it on the players' faces that they no longer respected the coach or his message, and their increasing frustrations after losing game after game only made the chasm between coach and players even wider. No one on the bench looked like they wanted to be there, and the tantrum thrown by Viktor Fasth after getting pulled was evidence that the coach had lost the team.

The coaching carousel that Edmonton has employed hasn't helped either. Changing coaches year after year provides no continuity, no system-building, and no building on the learning from the previous season. If you look at the teams who have great success, they have had coaches who have been behind the bench of their respective clubs for many seasons: Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston, as examples. Sure, those teams have had ups and downs, but the consistency in coaching keeps them as a threat to win the Stanley Cup every season based on how the team plays the game.

The one constant in Edmonton? The inept front office. It starts with Daryl Katz being loyal to guys who haven't shown a return on this seemingly annual rebuild. It moves to Kevin Lowe who has yet to provide any sort of playoff opportunity since 2006, yet he was promoted to President of Hockey Operations in 2008. When he was hired as General Manager in 2000, the team was already on the decline. Had it not been for the Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2005-06, Kevin Lowe would have little to show for his efforts as both GM and President.

The scapegoat for Katz, Lowe, and the equally-inept Craig MacTavish was Dallas Eakins. Again, I still believe he was the wrong man for the job, and now the announcement of Todd Nelson as the new lamb to the slaughter will only push the Oilers into another high draft pick.

Let me be clear: Todd Nelson is a good coach. I want to see him excel, and his work with the Oklahoma City Barons should be celebrated considering the lack of young talent he was given. However, the problem is that Scotty Bowman couldn't do much with this Edmonton team in the state it's in.

As I listened to Craig MacTavish rationalize dismissing the coach he hired today, a song by Coldplay crept into my head. The chorus from The Scientist kept playing over in my head as MacTavish yapped about accountability, effort, and responsibility. Those lyrics are as follows,
Nobody said it was easy.
It's such a shame for us to part.
Nobody said it was easy.
No one ever said it would be this hard.
Oh, take me back to the start.
I'm quite certain that Dallas Eakins would like to go back to the start in knowing how this whole thing ended. Then again, I'm sure the players and fans of the Edmonton Oilers would like to go back to the start of when Daryl Katz took over this franchise, and have a complete mulligan on the last eight years of history.

Dallas Eakins is a good coach. He was just the wrong coach for this situation. And it's hard to pinpoint which of the thousand cuts was the one that ended his time in Edmonton. The only truth is that everyone is to blame for this catastrophe in Edmonton.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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