There are a lot of reasons why an NHL team will fire a coach in mid-season and on Monday morning, Edmonton Oilers' general manager – and the new interim head coach - Craig MacTavish was in a position to tick off every box as he dismissed Dallas Eakins.
Is the team improving? No. The Oilers' results are worse this year than last year and last year was, percentage-wise, the worst in franchise history.
If they're no better in the standings, are their young players improving? No. With the exception of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who does seem to be taking his game to another level. Their one very good player, Taylor Hall, is still very good; and everyone else is either spinning their wheels or regressing.
Are they ready to go each night? No. The Oilers seem to fall behind virtually every time – 19 games thus far in which they've given up the first goal – and despite their reputation as a young, exciting team, the reality is their collective offence has been abysmal.
Is the morale good? No. Every shot of the Oilers' bench, as they sink further and further to the bottom of the Western Conference standings, shows the players wearing that same discouraged collective 1,000-mile stare. The players were running out of answers, Eakins was running out of answers, and a 1-15 stretch which was further exacerbated by a 2-0 home-ice loss to the visiting New York Rangers was the last straw.
So Eakins is out – he leaves Edmonton with a 36-63-14 record – and MacTavish is in, on an interim basis.
The Oilers have most of four months to play out the string and perhaps most importantly, the goal now is to shed the team's losing culture and make hockey fun again - if such a thing is possible. The playoffs are not possible and the line the Oilers need to walk is to regain their credibility as an NHL market, but perhaps not win an excessive number of games from here until the end, because it would jeopardize their chances of drafting first overall next June. In the year of Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, projected by scouts to be franchise-altering players in the mode of a Sidney Crosby, it isn't easy. Your heart says one thing – win as much as possible, and let the lottery ping pong balls fall as they may. Your head says, someone's going to land these two kids; why not us?
Of course, the likelihood is we wouldn't even be discussing the Oilers in the context of the McDavid sweepstakes if MacTavish had left well-enough alone and just kept Ralph Krueger on as his head coach. Krueger coached the Oilers in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and they were showing signs of becoming competitive. They were 19-22-7, third in the old Northwest Division, and 12th in the conference, their best showing in six years. But MacTavish was convinced that Eakins was an upgrade; and was a hot commodity that would have gone elsewhere if he hadn't been offered the head-coaching position. So he made an unnecessary change; handled the fallout badly; and it exploded massively in his face.
The clean up started Monday, with minor-league coach Todd Nelson joining the staff as an assistant coach, with a chance to possibly take over next year, depending upon how the final four months unfold. The Oilers passed on Nelson when they gave the job to Eakins two summers ago, and it is unclear how that would play in public – to give the reigns to an unproven NHL coach, when the last time you did it worked out so well. No matter who lands the job eventually, it isn't going to be an easy fix.
Above all else, the morale needs to be repaired and the game needs to become fun again. The real danger here is that losing eventually just becomes too easy to accept and digest for a team that will miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season.
Rebuild 2.0 is underway. Let's see how this one plays out.