Here is the challenge facing Craig MacTavish, the new Edmonton Oilers general manager: He needs to find himself – and not in a metaphysical, new age, journey-of-life sort of way either.
No, MacTavish literally needs to find himself – or more precisely, a younger version of his playing self, the one who joined the Oilers in 1985, and went on to win three Stanley Cup championships with them, and then a fourth with the New York Rangers in 1994.
As a player, MacTavish was exactly the sort of complementary piece the current edition of the Oilers needs – someone to win faceoffs, kill penalties and most importantly, act as a calming influence on a young team still prone to too many soaring highs and dizzying lows. It was no coincidence that after the Philadelphia Flyers made the landmark deal for Eric Lindros, they brought in MacTavish to act as a de facto babysitter/guiding light for their highly prized acquisition – and help him learn the NHL ropes.
So the care-and-feeding of young talent is not exactly unknown to MacTavish – and most everyone outside of the Oilers organization will agree their rebuild will pay dividends shortly, provided they navigate the next stage of the developmental path correctly. The Oilers have the necessary primary pieces to contend – young-and-emerging offensive talent that needs to be surrounded with a quality supporting cast that will help them mature.
The hallmark of any championship team is consistency, the ability to win games on nights when they are not at their best and not fall into the sort of lengthy tailspin that took Edmonton from the brink of playoff contention to hopelessly out of the playoff mix in about a fortnight this spring.
Thankfully for MacTavish, there is a recent blueprint he can follow – in Pittsburgh, where the general manager Ray Shero inherited a promising Penguins team in May of 2006, and efficiently guided it to the next level.
The Penguins were 81 games and 102 points into the Sidney Crosby era when Shero took over. In his first three months on the job, his primary task was getting another high draft choice, Evgeni Malkin, signed and into the lineup.
Malkin was drafted two years previous, second behind Alexander Ovechkin, but while Ovechkin came to the NHL right after the 2004-05 lockout, Malkin stayed at home and played for his Russian team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk. The negotiations to get him free were complicated and almost involved a Cold War-esque escape. Weird but true.
But with Malkin in the lineup and Crosby in his second full season, the Penguins made the playoffs that year and have been remarkably consistent team since – no fewer than 99 points, no more than 108, never finishing lower than fifth in the conference and qualifying for the Stanley Cup final twice in that time.
Like MacTavish, Shero inherited a lot of primary pieces. The genius is in what he did next. He found a way to pay Crosby and Malkin and survive the long stretches when one and sometimes both were out with injury. On the trade front, he did a masterful job.
Chris Kunitz came over from Anaheim in a one-sided deal for Ryan Whitney. James Neal and Matt Niskanen came over from Dallas in a one-sided deal for Alex Goligoski. Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis came from Atlanta in a one-sided deal for four prospects and draft choices, none of whom panned out.
Brandon Sutter and the eighth-overall pick in last year’s draft came over from Carolina for Jordan Staal and though Shero made the deal under duress – after Staal had turned down a $60-million (U.S.) contract extension – he got great value in return.
It remains to be seen how his aggressive trades at this year’s deadline – adding Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray – will ultimately play out, but he made those moves without surrendering any of his A-list prospects. Whitney and Staal were high draft picks – a fifth overall in 2002 and a second overall in 2006, respectively – and those are hard players to move, as MacTavish will soon discover.
Trading a player drafted in the top five – and touted as a big part of your team’s future – takes courage, but that’s the sort of deal MacTavish promised to make when he took the job. The Oilers, he said, needed to take bold steps and assume risk going forward. Good.
MacTavish’s predecessor, Steve Tambellini, usually erred on the side of caution, probably the correct approach in the early days of the rebuild. Tambellini was really the perfect choice then, endlessly patient and willing to endure the hard and seemingly endless nights of losing that an organization, out of necessity, endures when it builds from the ground up.
MacTavish, by contrast, seems prepared to roll the dice on an actual hockey deal or two, where you strip out the financial components and focus your attention on your on-ice needs.
In the salary-cap era, it’s a quaint and almost antiquated approach that doesn’t happen much in the NHL any more.
How hard can that be? Harder than it looks actually – but as long as MacTavish lands a few players, cast in his own image, he should manage just fine.