The Edmonton Oilers will have yet another new face behind the bench next season.
In a surprise move, Oilers GM Craig MacTavish fired first-year head coach Ralph Krueger on Saturday afternoon, with the team hastily calling a press conference to announce it would be making a change for the fourth time in five seasons.
Krueger’s replacement is expected to be Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins, who will likely be introduced as the team’s new coach in the next 48 hours after several weeks as the hottest commodity on the coaching market.
A contract between the Oilers and Eakins has yet to be finalized but that’s considered a formality.
“We’re very close with a coaching candidate,” MacTavish said.
The Oilers were one of four teams – including the Dallas Stars, New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks – pursuing Eakins this off-season and, while MacTavish originally had wanted to hire an associate coach to assist Krueger, that wasn’t going to be enough to land the man he wanted.
“During the process of me conducting those interviews [to add an associate coach], I recognized I was trying to add a coach that was more closely aligned with the way I wanted to run the team,” MacTavish said. “And less about supporting Ralph as the head coach.
“It was at that point that I contemplated making the change if I found the ideal fit for our hockey club… That’s how we got to this point.”
The move to oust Krueger after only 48 games behind the bench comes less than a week after MacTavish met with Eakins in Toronto for a series of intense meetings.
MacTavish had intended to interview Eakins and several other candidates (Paul Maurice, Rick Bowness) to help out but said he soon realized that he was trying to change the personality of his coaching staff and that adding a right-hand man wasn’t the right way to go about doing so.
MacTavish was the Oilers head coach between 2000-01 and 2008-09 and often preached a more aggressive style than Krueger, who led Edmonton to a 12 place finish in the Western Conference in the franchise’s seventh straight season out of the playoffs.
“Philosophically, I differ somewhat from Ralph,” MacTavish explained. “I’m the general manger and it’s my job and my decision to make and that’s why I’ve made that decision.”
Eakins, 46, could be the ideal fit for a young Oilers team that has been spinning its wheels, as he has a solid track record with the Marlies and graduated close to a dozen prospects to the parent Toronto Maple Leafs over his four years as an AHL head coach.
The Oilers job would be his first crack at an NHL head coaching role, but he spent two years as a Leafs assistant between 2006 and 2008 and a third as director of player development.
The peak of his success with the Marlies came last season when they made the Calder Cup finals.
Krueger, meanwhile, had joined the Oilers as an associate coach in 2010 after years of success coaching in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. He became their head coach in late June of last year after the team decided to part ways with Tom Renney.
MacTavish said Saturday it “wasn’t an easy decision” to let Krueger go even though he felt it was “for the betterment of the club.”
“In my mind, faced with this set of circumstances, it was the right decision,” MacTavish said. “I stand by that decision and I’ll be judged on that decision. But that’s what led me to make that decision. Things change.
“I don’t think this was in any way fair to Ralph. This wasn’t about being fair to Ralph.”
Promoted to GM in April when Steve Tambellini was fired, MacTavish has been fairly outspoken of late but was tight lipped in Saturday's meeting with the Edmonton media.
Earlier in the week, he had spoken about how some veterans like Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky wouldn’t be returning despite being under contract next season, something he again referenced on Saturday.
“It’s going to be a bit of a tumultuous summer,” MacTavish said. “There are going to be many more difficult decisions to be made.”