MacKinnon: Rebuilding the City of Champions a tall order
Return to respectability sits with MacTavish, Hervey
Edmonton Oilers general manager Craig MacTavish made a bold move hiring coach Dallas Eakins and needs patience waiting for the coach’s defensive-zone and penalty-kill schemes to pan out.
Photograph by: Shaughn Butts, Edmonton Journal
EDMONTON - With athletes, it’s often said the legs go first, sometimes the hands. Or the confidence.
The cause of the decline in performance may not be easy to pinpoint, at first, but the drop-off itself is easy to chart.
With the pro sports franchises themselves, as led by the coaches, general managers, executives and owners, what erodes first to cause a downturn in fortunes? A slowing of organizational reflexes? Chronic poor judgment? Misplaced loyalty? A fuzzy mission statement? Internal conflict?
The questions come to mind given the current plight of the 3-9-2 Oilers and 3-14 Eskimos. One club trying to right itself after faceplanting early this NHL season, following seven straight non-playoff years; the other staggering to the finish line of a lost CFL season, eight sketchy years after it won its last Grey Cup.
The parallels can be eerie with these two franchises, their ups and downs often experienced in lockstep. One commonality linking the two bottomed-out franchises at the moment? Both are being led by rookie general managers who, as players, were elite-calibre, leaders, often saving their best efforts for the games that mattered most.
Both Craig MacTavish and Ed Hervey were winners, champions, go-to players, albeit in different ways. They have unimpeachable athletic pedigrees, which translates into credibility in their second sporting careers.
Hervey has learned his new craft on the job, mostly as a talent scout; MacTavish polished his talents by earning an MBA in recent years.
Early into their mandates, their strong pedigree has helped insulate both men from severe criticism, as you’d expect. It takes time to rebuild broken franchises.
Here’s another commonality: Both are working for franchises hardwired to give them ample time to succeed. Or fail, for that matter.
Hervey, for his part, reports to CEO and president Len Rhodes, a branding specialist, but not a football man. Should the Eskimos consider installing a vice-president of football operations to add some oversight and quality control to the football side? Seems reasonable.
Oilers owner Daryl Katz, meanwhile, was the last person in Edmonton to recognize MacTavish’s time as head coach was done, back in 2009. He had to hear that directly from MacTavish himself. Only then did he accede to MacTavish’s resignation. Since then things have devolved into an Oilers coaching carousel.
When the Oilers do win the Stanley Cup — so goes the organizational wish — Katz wants to swig champagne from the chalice with MacTavish, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and any other of his pals from the glory days he can add to the company payroll.
It’s a beautiful dream, one that may come true. It’s also a dream that could translate into being too forgiving and having mighty slow reflexes when it comes to evaluating the GM’s work, year over year.
As a hellish October has bled into November, an often grim, gloomy month for us all, MacTavish and Hervey are on the cusp of changes that could define their mandates for some time to come, for better or worse.
How might we assess the early returns?
MacTavish swept into his GM’s office pledging to make bold changes. The installation of head coach Dallas Eakins, in truth, was a bold move, one that may pay big dividends, once the rookie coach has had time to implement his plan.
So far, Eakins has tried to install a new defensive-zone system, a new penalty kill, loaded up his young stars with unprecedented ice time, pulled the goalie as early as possible and redecorated the locker-room walls. The players, it’s safe to say, have not yet found their collective groove.
MacTavish’s player moves have blended astute judgment (trading for David Perron; signing Boyd Gordon) and default options, such as giving last chances to Denis Grebeshkov, Ben Eager, Linus Omark and, for that matter, Ales Hemsky, once the new GM learned he could not trade the right winger for a reasonable return.
Bold isn’t the word that comes to mind regarding the roster moves, especially since MacTavish dialed that rhetoric down this week to say he wouldn’t make a deal just to make a deal. It’s early November and bold has been boiled down to prudent.
That’s a smart way to proceed, especially given the Oilers early-season injuries to Taylor Hall, Sam Gagner, Perron, Jesse Joensuu and goalie Devan Dubnyk. It’s just not what was advertised.
For his part, Hervey soon will act on whether to make wholesale coaching changes, as many expect. Which would be a tough, not entirely fair outcome for head coach Kavis Reed.
As a rookie head coach, Reed rode quarterback Ricky Ray, that on-again-off-again offensive line, a 1,000-yard season from power back Jerome Messam and good defence to an 11-7 regular season and a loss in the Western Final.
Last season, a chaotic, toxic one within the organization, Reed made the playoffs with a three-headed muddle at quarterback. The Eskimos lost to eventual Grey Cup champion Toronto Argonauts, led by the departed Ray.
This year, the results haven’t been there for Reed, whose in-game decisions often have been questioned by critics. The support he earned from his players, however, has not wavered, which is impressive.
All in all, Reed’s performance is creditable, given two seasons under the doomed Eric Tillman regime, and a third deemed a rebuilding year by first-year GM Hervey.
But if the GM, among other things, wants to have his own man at head coach, that’s the business. Hervey hit a home run in acquiring quarterback Mike Reilly last off-season.
Hervey’s do-list this off-season also includes providing his swashbuckling tough-guy quarterback with a reliable offensive line, and an elite running back to hand off to, a quarterbacks coach to guide Reilly, settling on a consistent kicker and much else.
Hervey, like MacTavish with the Oilers, has a great opportunity to direct the Eskimos down the pathway toward excellence. The question is: will the reflexes of either organization be sharp and responsive enough to take corrective action if things continue to go sideways?
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