Sunday, March 18, 2007

Fixing the wrong problem

I read Lowetide religously, I think he's one of the most thoroughly knowledgable people in the Oilogosphere, but every so often I'm completely baffled by his take on something, and I can't let this post on the possibility of trading Hemsky slip by. It's not that I necessarily disagree with the idea of trading Hemsky, though I do, it's the reasons offered: namely, that we'd be better off building a team around MacT's style, which Hemsky doesn't really fit with. You should read the whole post to get all the nuance, which is admittedly truncated here, but essentially the sentence that sticks out for me is: "Time to get it right, and that begins by restoring the 5x5, sound 2way roster MacTavish can use extremely well."

I just don't know where to begin with how wrong I think this logic is. I guess, to start off with, I want to look at MacT as a coach, because I think he's an incredibly mediocre one. I'm not saying he's a bad coach, mind you, because he's obviously not: by the end of this season his teams will have made the playoffs at least half the time he's behind the bench, and his points percentage is a half-season over .500 (519 points in 473 games), even if his winning percentage (.465) isn't, even more impressive when you consider he's had two seasons in a row where he's been coaching teams with obvious unadressed deficiencies.

That said, it should be fairly obvious by now that MacT also has his failings, the biggest one of which is alluded to in LT's above sentence. As much as he's been able to turn players with little pedigree into regular, valuable, two-way contributors (Pisani, Horcoff, to a lesser extent Moreau, Marchant, who had a career year unmatched under MacT, maybe guys like Brodziak, Pouliot, Jacques), he just can't seem to coach top-end talent. Since MacT took over, exactly one player has finished in the top 30 in scoring: Doug Weight in 2000-01 (Hemsky missed by two points last year, by far the closest anyone has come since). Arguably his biggest succes stories for coaching one-way skill players outside of the world-class-talented Hemsky have been Mike Comrie and Anson Carter, both of whom he got 60 points out of, as much as or more than either has scored since. Raffi Torres is now also a regular roster player as opposed to a first-round wash-out, so maybe you count him, too. MacT is also unable to either coach a powerplay or find someone that can, and seems to be incapable of making a goaltender better or finding someone who can (though he does know how to use a good one, as evidenced with Roloson and pre-impolde Salo), though those are a little extraneous to the point I'm making here.

There are a couple of things I think we can take from this, some of it being what Lowetide already says or alludes to. MacT is very, very good at coaching players who fit his style, and mediocre to poor at coaching those who don't. He either cannot actually motivate people who are unwilling to play his style and have success (as, say, a Hitchcock can) or can't adapt his style to fit the pool of players he has (as, say, a Bryan Murray), maybe both. On the one hand, this leads me to believe (again) that MacT is nothing better than an average coach, but on the other, it does seem fair, as Lowedtide says, that we should attempt to fit our team around his style.

And it would be fair if MacT's teams were especially successful when he was coaching players who fit his style, but they haven't been by any measure I can think of. To flip the stats looked at above, he's just over/under .500, depending on how you look at it, and has only three playoff series won in six years, all of them with arguably the best defenceman in the game playing 30 minutes a night. Our regular-season standings in the western conference since he took the reigns have been 7th-9th-8th-9th-8th-11th (currently, god knows where we might finish). Excepting this season, I think it's entirely fair to say that those teams have been ones that play MacT's style of game (and if not, then Lowe has constructed exactly one team his coach can work with since he took over, and is officially the worst GM in hockey). MacT's style, then, is good for mediocrity and the occasional playoff game. Yee. Ha.

Examine the flip side, too: exactly which non-playoff team this year is suffering for a lack of good two-way pluggers? Montréal, sure, maybe Florida, and probably the Rangers if they don't make it. How many are suffering for lack of performing top-end talent? Phoenix, Columbus, us, Boston, St. Louis, Philly, Toronto, at least. And how many of the good teams are a bit softer? Buffalo, Ottawa(say what you want, they've won more playoff series than we have since 2000), Nashville (sort of, Legwand's unreal), Pittsburgh, Tampa, Vancouver (yeah, it's their goalie, but that never helped Florida to leading the division). Obviously the best teams (and players) are balanced (Detroit, NJ, Anaheim, etc), but shit, can we at least grant that a guy who can score 80-90 points a year playing soft minutes is at least as important as one who scores 30-35 points a year playing hard minutes, and that it's going to be hard to win more than half your games without a few of each? Because I see MacT teams that are really good at producing one, and not at producing the other, and history so far hasn't dictated that that strategy has a lot of succees.

To me, the argument against sticking with MacT's style goes even deeper when you look at the top of our prospects list: certainly three (Schremp, Nilsson and Mihknov) and maybe four (Cogliano) of our top five are one-way skill players, who may or may not take to rounding out, which essentially means MacT won't know what to do with them. Consider also that four of our ostensible top-six forwards (Hemsky, Sykora, Lupul and Torres) are similar players, and the 2007-08 or maybe 08-09 Oilers don't look like anything MacT could make a contender. Sure, he might be able to mold Pouliot and Thoreson and Brodziak and Jacques and Winchester and Trukhno and O'Marra into two-way contributors who can play on the second line when they're hot, but again: we've been doing that for a few years now, and eighth place is getting a bit old.

Obviously, no one can say for sure that a new coach with a new system would make us better than we have been, though I'm generally of the opinion that, goaltending being equal, a soft, offence-heavy team will ultimately win more games than a team of responsible pluggers who have trouble scoring. My bias aside, I do know that our current coach, who can't break out of his current system, has made us a perennial eighth seed, even when his team is best suited to his style. And we're not working with a small sample size, either. I'm certainly not unequivocally saying we should fire MacT, but if, as LT seems to say and I sort-of agree with, our only options are building a team around him or turfing him, then I say give him walking papers. Maybe I'm off my rocker, but MacT's "extremely well" looks an awful lot like "extremely average," which makes me extremely scared at the thought of how bad we might be when MacT is just doing okay (0-9-1?).

13 comments:

Scarlett said...

"he just can't seem to coach top-end talent"

Excellent post. I've been saying this for his entire tenure; he just can't seem to develop the talented players nor keep the team motivated throughout the year. There are too many ups and downs. This team needs a shake-up, and that means bye-bye MacT. Sadly, it won't happen for at least a year if ever.

Dano said...

I'm in total agreement with this post. There's only one thing I'd like to add. If the Oiler's are going to make a coaching change, they should hire outside the system. It's time for fresh ideas.

Epinonymous said...

I'm always reminded of the PPV commercial where MacT is droning on about financial statements or something in the locker room and the "fan" starts getting inexplicably hyped, displaying his excitement with an emotionless "yes, Yes, YES, YES, increasing in volume but entirely devoid of passion but for the empty, pleading look in his eyes.

Anyway, it's supposed to show "coaching" I guess?

Lowetide said...

So, I'll mark you down for a "no"? :-)

Since I wrote that this morning, I don't think anyone has agreed with me AT ALL, so imo you all need to give me props for uniting the Oiler fan behind a cause. :-) Even my wife gave me hell.

btw, excellent counter point. I would argue with you to the ends of the earth about MacT, though. imo he's a quality coach and his shortcomings are outweighed by his abilities.

As for Hemsky, I do hope he stays but Lowe is going to have to have a summer even better than '05 to get this team back on track imo.

Pleasure Motors said...

As for Hemsky, I do hope he stays but Lowe is going to have to have a summer even better than '05 to get this team back on track imo.

I'm with you fully on that one.

Of course, I also forgot to point out the one sentence in your post that probably blows this whole talk out of the water: "suffice to say MacTavish isn't going anywhere, so they might as well design the club around his strengths." If that's true, and my pessimistic side thinks it is, we might as well stock ourselves to the gills with Radek Dvoraks and pray that Pisani, Torres and Horc can trade off hot streaks enough to keep us in contention.

kurri_17 said...

I agree with what you've said here.

I think I've reached the end of chances with Mac T - regardless of the reasons lately.

Lowetide, man, I read your blog daily and I was appalled today. I agree with so much you have to say, but trading Hemsky is an absolutely NO. If they have to fire Mac T first, then fire him. If Hemsky has to continue to play under Mac T, then play him under Mac T, but for god's sakes if they trade Hemsky it's the end of the line for me. I'll convince myself to cheer for buffalo, and since they are an hour away from me, it will be easier logistically.

It would be the end for me. It just can't be done. Smyth wasn't the end, losing the only truly talented playmaker they have would be.

Anonymous said...

goddamn Toronto sure could use a guy like Hemsky.

PPP said...

Yes please! You can even have one of our puck-moving defencemen...McCabe maybe?

LittleFury said...

Hmmm. What's harder to come by: cheap, young, skilled talent? Or mediocre coaching?

Nelson said...

Examine the flip side, too: exactly which non-playoff team this year is suffering for a lack of good two-way pluggers? Montréal, sure, maybe Florida, and probably the Rangers if they don't make it. How many are suffering for lack of performing top-end talent? Phoenix, Columbus, us, Boston, St. Louis, Philly, Toronto, at least. And how many of the good teams are a bit softer? Buffalo, Ottawa(say what you want, they've won more playoff series than we have since 2000), Nashville (sort of, Legwand's unreal), Pittsburgh, Tampa, Vancouver (yeah, it's their goalie, but that never helped Florida to leading the division).

I disagree with this completely. You've oversimplified the teams' problems. Underperforming players like Nash, Zherdev, Sturm, Gagne are only a small part of the problem. Look at LA and Colorado with loads of high-end scoring talent, but shoddy goaltending and questionable defenses.

Ottawa + Buffalo + Nashville have solid offensive-minded D.

If Hemsky was traded for a top 10 D -man in the league - I wouldn't shed a tear. For another forward or goalie - no way.

squall said...

I'm no expert, and maybe this is an oversimplification, but when I think of Oiler coaching and offense, Sather said "be creative" and MacTavish says "be responsible."

My feeling has been that, with MacTavish, offense isn't recognized as the result of "play," but more the result of some schemes thought up over coffee and doughnuts. Offense happens when the game is played by skilled players using thier skills without the burden of really having to "think" about it. Granted, gaffs happen and some degree of responsibility is required, but I think MacT's methods take too much "play" out of offense.

squall said...

To expand a bit, I think the forwards catch shit from MacTavish for playing hunches. I know when I play hockey, sometimes you're not sure your guy is where you think he is (because you can't see through people, or don't want to show it with a look, or don't have time to look, or whatever), but you know that if he is where you think he is and you get him the puck, that he'll have a nice chance to get the puck into a good spot, hopefully the back of the net. That's where I have fun playing hockey, having hunches pay off, fooling the other guys, making plays that surprise them, getting the puck where it can help us. I don't think MacTavish's forwards feel free enough to play fun hockey, and when I read Ryan Smyth say that his job is "a grind" on that last road trip, I wonder about the coaching. I think when they try something they're not sure of, they get to the bench and hear "make sure you know what you're doing out there." The game doesn't work that way, IMO.

Good post. Thanks.

Bank Shot said...

"he just can't seem to coach top-end talent"

He's never had top end talent. Give him some quality two-way guys to work with like a Zetterberg or a Richards, or even an Iginla and ole Craiger could probably get something done.

But somehow the Oilers can never seem to get their hands on well rounded players. Instead they have the two types:
1. Solid, dependable grinders with hands of solid granite.
2. Skilled offensive guys with massive defects in every other part of their game.