By Allan Muir
Four years ago to the day, GM Steve Tambellini fired coach Craig MacTavish after eight seasons behind the bench.
“This is the right thing for Craig, and the right thing for the Edmonton Oilers,” Tambellini said at the time.
Today, Tambellini was relieved of his duties as the team’s GM.
His replacement? Craig MacTavish.
Funny how things work out sometimes.
The change was announced this morning by team president Kevin Lowe, who is already being pilloried online for not conducting a broad candidate search and for “settling” for a familiar face.
It’s a fair criticism, and one that Lowe may have to answer for down the road if MacTavish falls short. But Tambellini was an outside hire, proving that approach is no guarantee of success.
And while he’s far from the sexy choice, MacTavish may well turn out to be exactly the guy to finish what Tambellini started.
No, he’s never held the position before, but neither had Marc Bergevin been a GM before he got the job with the Canadiens. You don’t hear anyone complaining in Montreal these days.
And MacTavish has earned respect around the game for his smarts. Remember, he coached an overachieving Edmonton side to within a game of a Stanley Cup in 2006. After being fired in 2009, he went back to school to get his MBA and then returned to the organization in 2012 in the role of vice-president of hockey operations, from which he guided the Justin Schultz signing last summer. All told, his resume looks as good as anyone who’s ever taken a GM job for the first time.
Because of his experience, MacTavish should have no trouble understanding where Tambellini failed. It’s not just that he was unable to add the complementary pieces needed to help his treasure trove of young talent take the next step. It’s that he appeared to lack the courage to make it happen.
It’s easy to fall in love with players you’ve brought into the organization and to overestimate their value. Tambellini was guilty of that over and over again, a flaw that was readily apparent at the trade deadline when, with his team on the playoff doorstep, his only move was sending a draft pick to Florida for spare part forward Jerred Smithson. It was that gutless performance that sealed his fate.
MacTavish has been around these guys, but they’re aren’t his, which makes it easier for him to make the tough calls. And those calls are coming. “I think we’re at the stage in the cycle with our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things,” he said today.
Some of those bold things aren’t likely to be popular. But for this team to become a contender, he’ll have to move assets — real, meaningful assets, not just Ales Hemsky — to acquire the pieces he needs. Those include a powerful winger with scoring touch who can play in the top six, and some hard-nosed competitors for the bottom six to make Edmonton a more consistently miserable team to play against. They could also use help for a blueline that has a couple of pieces in place with Schultz and Ladislav Smid, but needs reliable bodies now more than it does the potential of promising youngsters like Martin Marincin, David Musil and maybe even Oscar Klefbom.
And yes, this year’s first rounder is probably up for grabs.
That won’t be the only way MacTavish makes changes. He also has the future of 10 free agents to ponder, including UFA goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and RFAs Sam Gagner and Magnus Paajarvi, and two compliance buyouts to play with.
It’s a lot to juggle. The one change that’s not coming is behind the bench. MacTavish played a key role in the coaching hire process last summer, and he recognizes that Ralph Krueger isn’t the problem. “We need to give our coach better tools to compete,” he said. “And I’m an impatient man.”
In other words, his fellow GMs can expect their phones to start ringing. because McTavish won’t stand around and let this seven-year stint on the playoff sidelines stretch into eight.