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An Interview with Dave Staples of the Edmonton Journal

Over the weekend, Illegal Curve was fortunate enough to interview Dave Staples of the Edmonton Journal.  Staples writes the terrific Cult of Hockey blog for the Journal and has an abundance of knowledge on all things Oilers.

Here is the interview:

Illegal Curve: It has certainly been an eventful season in Oil country, so we have more than a few topics to choose from when asking you questions.  First off, we realize it is early and more than half the season remains, but for now, what do you think has been the Oilers’ biggest downfall this season?

Staples: Coach Craig  MacTavish. He’s been an excellent coach, and he still can be one, but he  tried to do too much with this team to start the year. 

First off, he  moved around veteran players out of their regular positions, Fernando Pisani  to center, Erik Cole and Dustin Penner changing wings, and Penner changing  from a top line/powerplay guy to a third line checker. The moves upset the  Oil’s flow for the first 20 games.

In the end, MacTavish blasted  Penner for playing poorly, but it’s no coincidence that Penner finally got  on a hot streak when MacTavish finally relented and put him back on the  first line with Shawn Horcoff and Ales Hemsky, as well as on the powerplay,  where Penner does  a tremendous job screening the goalie.

MacTavish has many supporters in Edmonton, but even his biggest fans have had moments of tremendous doubt. There’s also the issue of his handling of Mathieu Garon, who appeared to win the starting job based on his solid play of last season, but was put on a very short leash. As soon as he had a weak game, he was pulled, replaced by MacFavourite Dwayne Roloson, who has had some great games, but also some poor ones. This has created a goaltender controversy where none likely needed to exist.

The latest thorn has  been MacT’s use of journeyman defenceman Jason Strudwick instead of  promising Ladislav Smid, who is finally looking like he’s turned a corner.  Smid also provides the nasty edge that many Oil defencemen lack. But he’s  only recently gotten into the lineup.

MacTavish has been his own  worst enemy.

Illegal Curve: In light of  those concerns, do you believe MacTavish’s job with the Oilers is in any  kind of danger during the season? Or will he simply be allowed to finish the  season with a review of his work at that point in time?

Staples: The new owner, Daryl Katz, grew up in Edmonton in the 1980s with these guys, Gretzky, Messier, Lowe, MacT. He is their personal friend and admires them. So this isn’t a case of a new owner coming in, as Katz just did, and yearning to get rid of the old and bring in his own guys to run the team.

In fact, it’s the opposite. I suspect that if the old owners were still around and running things, they’d be much less likely to be patient with MacTavish and with Kevin Lowe.

Nevertheless, MacT isn’t off the hook. He set out the standard himself for this season. Before the first puck was dropped, he said that he had a team capable of winning the division championship. Right now he is
being judged against that standard.

If he doesn’t take this team to near the top of the division this year, he will have failed by his own standards, and I expect he’ll resign at the end of the season, maybe get bumped up into the front office.

If he doesn’t make the playoffs — or if it becomes clear this team is not going anywhere and will definitely fail to make the playoffs – he could be fired, but I expect that would happen later, not sooner, only after it’s clear the season is a lost one.

Let me make it clear, I’ve been a MacTavish booster. He’s an admirable man. But in past seasons  there might have been a few odd and perplexing coaching decisions on his part each year. The coach generally got the right players on the ice at the right time in order for his team to compete.

This year it’s a constant sore point that the wrong players are on the ice at the wrong time, hence all the MacTavish-bashing here in Edmonton from the coach’s own faction of fans.

It’s been extremely frustrating, as so much of it appears to be self-inflicted.

Illegal Curve: On the ice, youngster Sam Gagner has really struggled to get his game going.  To what do you attribute his struggles?

Staples: He’s got plenty of skill and a great head for the game. But that head only works when it’s mixed with confidence and experience. So his point-per-game seasons will come, just not as fast as some Oilers fans, including me, had hoped. We based out optimism on the last 30 games of last season, when he was outstanding. His strength is his vision, the way he sees the entire ice, and his decision making, but this year he’s been tentative, uncertain.

The good news is that MacTavish has stuck with this kid, given him all kinds of chances. The coach is a believer, and the vast majority of Oilers fans remain in the kid’s corner, despite his struggles.

Illegal Curve: I think rightfully so too.  Before discussing the team’s defense, I wanted to get your take on Rob Schremp, someone obviously of interest to us at Illegal Curve.  Do you see him eventually carving out a role with this team or he is soon going to be used as trade bait?

Staples: Rob Schremp is the object of controversy in Edmonton. A group of optimistic fans have always backed him, but to such an extent it’s brought down a chorus of derision of from more realistic fans, who mockingly refer to Schremp as the Hockey Jesus, among other less complimentary terms.

I would like to see Schremp get more of a chance this year. In his brief four game stint, he showed a tremendous capacity to pass the puck. He sees the ice at a major league/power play ace level.

But the Oil are already small up front — with Cogliano, Nilsson, Gagner. These are all younger, smallish players who are as young as or younger than Schremp, and they have all moved ahead of him. So he is in tough in Edmonton so long as MacTavish doesn’t want a third or fourth line scoring specialist.

Illegal Curve: Onto the team’s defense.  Why do you think coach MacTavish decided to move away from playing Ladislav Smid earlier in the season, and even at points, playing him at forward?

Staples: MacTavish had a “win now” philosophy, so it would seem he trusted the veteran, Jason Strudwick, more than  he trusted Smid. But Strudwick, as solid a citizen as he might be, struggled on the ice. He and his partner Staios made numerous goal-causing mistakes. The Oilers were badly outshot whenever the two of them were on the ice together. It was a source of some frustration to observers of the team that MacT took so long to recognize that Smid was the better choice.

Perhaps MacT was sending a message to the young players that school was over, it was not time for the real world, so he was going with the adults, the vets. But the team is much better of with Smid in the lineup. He has become a physical force, as Corey Perry of the Ducks will attest. On the game Dec. 19, Smid turned around the game with a legal but nasty hit on Perry. The Ducks went after Smid, and he took off his helmet/facemask to meet the challenge of anyone who wanted a piece of him. At that moment, Rexall Place had a new hockey hero, I’d say, Ladislav Smid, the European kid who is ready to fight. If Don Cherry would have seen that, he might well have fainted he would’ve been so ecstatic.

Illegal Curve: Making our way through the lineup, you previously mentioned coach MacTavish’s managing of the team’s netminders.  With Garon having a fairly short leash, Roloson getting a fair amount of play and Deslauriers moving from the bench to the press box and vice versa, what would be your solution between the pipes for the Oilers?

Staples: Both Garon, 30, and Roloson, 39, are free agents after this season. Clearly, Roloson isn’t the answer going forward. He’s been mediocre for a few years now. But is Garon the answer? He played strong last season, but has struggled this season. The only way to find out if he’s the one is to start him in five-to-ten games, see how he does. I suspect he’ll come through for the Oilers, but the Oil seem to have no inclination to go with him. Roloson is the MacFavourite here, not Garon.

Illegal Curve: Moving upstairs; with Steve Tambellini now in the fold, from your perspective, how much of an effect does Kevin Lowe still possess in the team’s decision-making process?  Is it the same as before?  Or does Tambellini have a fair amount of autonomy?

Staples: Bottom line: Kevin Lowe has never been more powerful within the Oilers organization. Under the old EIG model, Pat LaForge was the president, and the only president in the organization. Now both he and Lowe are presidents, LaForge of business, Lowe of hockey ops. Lowe has complete control over all hockey matters, not that he didn’t before, but now he runs his own show on his own, talking directly to the owner.

That’s why Tambellini was hired, because Lowe wanted some help, so he got some help.

Tambellini is part of the decision-making process, but Lowe is the decider. He’s the one who wanted to pursue Hossa. He’s the one who pulled the trigger on the Visnovsky deal. He’s the one who let Curtis Glencross go (a huge sore point with the vast majority of Oilers fans).

Lowe has got the power. We’ll see how he does with it. I’ve liked the majority of his moves, even the unpopular ones, such as cutting loose Ryan Smyth. But I worry about Lowe’s proclivity to sign up older guys long-term, such as Souray, Visnovsky, Horcoff. As excellent as these guys are, I wonder where the team is in three years with this bunch, as the skills of a hockey player can fast disappear.

But perhaps I worry too much.

Illegal Curve: Final question Dave.  The Oilers, playoffs or not?

Staples: They will figure it out. Too much talent on this team to be denied. So, yes, they will squeak in.