In the kind of graphic admission you rarely hear at a press conference, Craig MacTavish explained why he fired Dallas Eakins as the Edmonton Oilers' coach, some 10 days after giving him a vote of confidence.
"There's blood all over my hands in this, because I put the lineup and roster together," MacTavish said. "And I'm not here to absolve myself of accountability for the situation we're in."
In confirming that he would go behind the bench on an interim basis, but eventually turn the job over to Todd Nelson for the remainder of the 2014-15 NHL season, MacTavish added: "I had no real good reason to do this, outside of performance. And that's really the bottom line we're all judged by – the performance level of the hockey club, and the record."
Ultimately, 15 losses in the Oilers' past 16 games cost Eakins his job. He finished with a 36-63-14 record in his first NHL coaching position and left with more than two-and-a-half years of salary owed to him on the four-year contract he signed to replace Ralph Krueger.
The decision to hire Eakins was supposed to end the parade of coaches trying to turn the Oilers around, which began when MacTavish himself was replaced back in 2009 by Pat Quinn. Instead, the Oilers went backward in Eakins's tenure, and failed to build on the progress Krueger had made in his one season behind the bench.
All in all, it was an eventful day in the city of former champions, one that had an entirely different vibe from MacTavish's previous meet-the-press event, in which he went to great lengths to defend the status quo. On Monday, before catching a flight to Phoenix for Tuesday's game against the Arizona Coyotes, MacTavish was far more blunt about how deeply his team's problems run and referenced his own fragile position in the Oilers' union.
"Everybody in the organization continues to be evaluated," MacTavish said. "My superiors will continue to evaluate me. We'll evaluate our scouting staff. We've got to make changes. To think this is a coaching issue would be naive. It's deeper-rooted than that. We have to get to the core of it – and we will."
MacTavish wouldn't put a timeline on how long he would stay behind the bench before handing off to Nelson, saying only it would be long enough to get a clearer picture of what's gone wrong. In effect, he's going from the executive suite to the shop floor to see how things tick. The intel he gathers will ultimately guide him with the moves to come.
More than anything, MacTavish and Nelson, who's being promoted from the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Oklahoma City, need to instill some life and joy in the team. As the losses mounted, there didn't appear to be any push-back from the Oilers. They lost in all sorts of ways: Some nights they gave up too many goals; other nights they couldn't score any. You can ponder all the advanced stats in the world, but sometimes the basic ones tell you all you need to know. In a 30-team league, the Oilers were 28th in total goals for and 30th in goals against going into last night's action.
Eight consecutive seasons out of the playoffs earned them a lot of high draft choices, including three No. 1 picks overall, but unlike the Tampa Bay Lightning and the New York Islanders, who managed turnarounds by drafting the likes of Steven Stamkos and John Tavares, respectively, the Oilers didn't show similar improvement behind Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, the best of their young bunch.
Up until now, MacTavish has been reluctant to trade any of the organization's young assets and said he wouldn't discuss that possibility "until I get a hands-on understanding of what's happening in [the locker room]. I've got a pretty good understanding of that, but I want ample opportunity to have eyeball-to-eyeball conversations with the core group in hopes that we can move this thing forward before I'm willing to do anything."
At the least the Oilers need to be trending in the right direction when their new downtown arena opens prior to the 2016-17 season. There are starting to be some empty seats in the old one now, something sure to catch the eye of owner Darryl Katz and the new second-in-command at Rexall Sports Corp., Bob Nicholson, the former Hockey Canada president.
Something needs to change, and if it isn't a blockbuster trade, maybe it'll be as simple as landing a highly regarded prospect such as Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel in the 2015 NHL entry draft.
Fans may ponder the long-term benefits of that, and team officials may, in their most private moments, wish for that, too. From his perspective, MacTavish cannot. He needs to prove to Katz that this team, his baby, is heading in the right direction. Otherwise, he will be like Eakins, looking for a new opportunity.