MacTavish's blast at Penner might have had higher origin


Physics and human nature ensures the gravity of a given situation will cause the proverbial effluent to run downhill.


Physics and human nature ensures the gravity of a given situation will cause the proverbial effluent to run downhill.

When it reaches the bottom of the company flow chart, cascading onto an obvious target like underachieving Oiler winger Dustin Penner, as was the case last week, is there enough reason to believe it came directly from the fertile imagination of frustrated head coach Craig MacTavish, or was the source somewhat higher up? Say, general manager Steve Tambellini, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, or new owner Daryl Katz? Regime-change and an upgrade in skill has produced much higher expectations without results to match, after all.

Is the head coach feeling the heat from on high, or did Penner provoke a somewhat lower pain in MacTavish? "I think that any pressure Mac would feel is out of common sense, out of having been around the game forever and is totally self-imposed," said Lowe. "And that's a good thing. For the naysayers who think we sit around and feel comfortable in our positions, I'd like to take them and throttle them. They have no idea how much we put into this, how much we grieve and sweat and the other emotions we exude after losses." But the verbal beatdown laid on Penner last week was not vintage MacTavish. That public diatribe smacked of a man at the bitter end of his tether, and that must surely speak to the continuing coaching efforts he has made, in vain, with the big kid. The Oilers were only 18 games into an 82-game sojourn and were flirting with .500, but MacTavish blew Penner up real good, ensuring the Oilers could not possibly trade him this year, even if they wanted to do so.

It was certainly not the MacTavish we know and respect for his sense of humour, timing and a penchant for doing what's right. So, it was natural to suspect that something had indeed splashed the head coach before it reached Penner.

"No," MacTavish said Saturday, when hit with the time-worn theory.

"We're on the same wavelength in terms of where we want to get to. Sometimes I'm the most impatient. As a coach, you need to be. Coaches are more in the here and now, dealing with the day-to-day emotional roller-coaster of wins and losses, where managers thankfully are more longer-term. Tamby and Kevin, they're seeing lots of potential in the team. As a coach, I want immediate results." They came from Penner, who scored a goal against Columbus on Tuesday in a 7-2 win. But it was clear from his comments on Wednesday that MacTavish was still uncomfortable with the strategy, regardless of its efficacy.

"I don't believe in it," he said.

But he carved Penner anyway. And that only raised the level of suspicion. From some corners came an immediate declaration that MacTavish was already in jeopardy. Sources have said otherwise, that Katz is perfectly willing to be patient until April. If the Oilers make the playoffs, that may well be enough to satisfy him. If they are on the outside looking in, I'm not sure MacTavish is safe.

This is Year 4 of the salary cap era, the only appropriate measuring stick, and his teams have already missed the playoffs in two of those seasons. A third might be enough to prompt a change. Perhaps that is the source of the self-imposed pressure he is feeling.

That said, Penner deserved a smack. MacTavish could also have targeted Kyle Brodziak for his passive disappearing act, Shawn Horcoff for his dismal offensive contribution through the first 15 games, erstwhile starter Mathieu Garon for losing his mental edge, or Erik Cole for wandering aimlessly. And there are others. Penner was merely the most deserving and he clearly took one for the team.

It's a team with a 9-9-1-1 record, but to write it off as only average is to discount the fact 14 of their 20 games were played on the road. To pump its tires is to ignore the many flaws in its physical play and gamesmanship that must surely be making MacTavish crazy and impatient.

"It's probably tough on him, too," agreed Robert Nilsson, who plays on the underperforming Kid Line with Andrew Cogliano and Sam Gagner.

"We're supposed to have a better team this year and we still have a couple guys who aren't playing (up to expectations). Me, Cogs and Gags, we know we can do better.

"There are still 62 more games but it feels like it's time to get it going. I know I can be a lot better. We're still creating a lot of chances so you can't be too mad about that. You've got to look at the bright side, whatever that is." The bright side for everyone but Penner is the fact MacTavish won't drop another load like that on anybody this year. The bright side for everyone, including Penner, is the fact they are very much in the hunt at the quarter pole. All those expectations can still be met.

"The thing I like about the team," said MacTavish, "I don't get the sense they feel the expectations are unreasonable. You've got to have high expectations if you're going to have success." If they don't meet those elevated expectations in April, the effluent may well be released from a higher point than it was last week. And there is just no telling who it will hit on the way down.