This is a photo of Jimmy Skinner. I believe the photo is from the Indianapolis Capitals, a team he played for in 44-45. He also played for Winnipeg in junior, Flin Flon and Edmonton (the Flyers) in Senior leagues and for the Omaha Knights in the USHL (where his teammates included Lee Fogolin’s dad and Gordie Howe).
Skinner was a Detroit Red Wing product and he remained true to that organization for most of his life. He was their coach at one time, and then later chief scout, farm director, and much later their GM from 80-83.
The year he won the Stanley as coach Skinner had a murderer’s row in front of him. Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Earl Reibel and Alex Delvecchio led the offense and Red Kelly, Marcel Pronovost and Bob Goldham took care of the defensive duties in front of goalie Terry Sawchuk.
Jimmy Skinner died today. We don’t know much about him as a hockey coach except that he won a Stanley and he was forced to step down due to an illness.
We’re never going to know if he had any innovative style or introduced some key element of offensive or defensive play. We’re never going to know if he played the Howe line against soft opposition at home and we’re never going to know much of anything when it came to strategy and Jimmy Skinner.
Which is pretty much the same thing we can say about current NHL coaches. For all the information that is available now through NHL.com and other sources, we still haven’t begun the heavy lifting required to figure out who does what and why. We’re in the dark ages here, and that’s with a guy like Roger Neilson basically drawing us a map for crying out loud.
In April 2004, I wrote something called “Craig MacTavish in a Box” which I’ll post below. It’s a blatant bit of theft from Bill James and an amateur attempt to ask questions that will tell us something valuable about him as a coach. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Maybe someday when a coach who brought his town the Stanley passes away we can say a lot more about what he did and how he did it than we can say today about Jimmy Skinner.
What we’re looking for here is tendencies, and if MacT has changed as a coach in this time frame.
- Does he roll 4 lines or sit people on the end of the bench? MacT has become more of a 4 line man than he was when he became coach. Much of that may have to do with the roster he inherited versus the one he has now, but one could argue that MacT cultivated that change. The 00-01 roster had a big top line (Weight/Smyth/Guerin-Carter), a checking line (Marchant/Moreau/Grier) and a make shift 2 and 4 (Murray, Cleary, Riesen, Lacouture, Swanson, Kilger, Zholtok, Horcoff, Pittis, it’s a dog’s breakfast looking back). The defense was pretty consistent with the top 4 (Niinimaa, Ulanov, Poti and Smith) all over 21 minutes. Goal was patrolled by Tommy in 73 games. The 03-04 roster had no such dominant line, with a few taking turns. The top goal scorer among rw’s was Fernando Pisani, and three left winger’s scored 20 or more. Seven defensemen were over 17 minutes per game average. The goaltending was split up in more even terms, although Tommy’s poor play may have been a stronger contributer than MacT’s wish to share the job.
- How does he handle rookies? Craig MacTavish has used 22 rookies (or what I consider rookies) in his 4 seasons, or 5.5 per season. Each season the Oilers have brought in at least one rookie of interest (00-01: Comrie, Horcoff; 01-02: Markkanen; 02-03: Hemsky, Chimera, Pisani, Semenov; 03-04: Torres, Bergeron, Stoll), and one imagines a few more on the way. Some of these players occupy some very important roles on the team already.
- What KIND of rookies do well under MacTavish? Well, he loves forwards who can play solid postional games (Horcoff, Pisani, Stoll, Torres), and two pretty good goalies have emerged on his watch (Markkanen, Conklin). Defensively, the two players of note (Semenov, Bergeron) have had an uneven start but there’s loads of potential and they are going in the right direction.
- Is there an area of concern with regard to rookies? MacTavish has been very effective in using the usual powers of persuasion (press box, playing time, minors) to get the best out of most players. However, there is an increasing list of players who are either not progressing or refuse to buy into the system. All of them are offense first players.Despite some tremendous success, Mike Comrie left town calling the Oilers “communists”. Michel Riesen’s 12 game NHL career ended when the rookie coach couldn’t get the 4th Bulldog line on the ice due to penalties and powerplays. Ales Hemsky’s young career is in trouble, as he appears to have lost confidence and become a perimeter player who won’t shoot the puck. The first thing MacT did as coach was to “break down” Poti’s game, after Poti had just come off a pretty good season.However, is that MacT’s fault? Comrie’s 33 goal season (in which his giveaway/takeaway number was 118/43) was followed by a good half season and then a disastrous second half in 02-03. Management’s belief that he isn’t a top line center (which is completely reasonable) seems to be one of the main factors that caused his leaving the team. Riesen was never going to be a quality two way player, and hasn’t done much since being dealt to St. Louis. Hemsky seems to have some coachability issues, as the whole world knows he should shoot but he continually passes up opportunities (87 shots in a full season is very poor, especially when he’s got a good shot). His not making the World Championships shows the Oilers aren’t the only ones who aren’t impressed. Poti digressed into a poor defenseman with no confidence, Hemsky may not be tough enough to play at the NHL level.
- Does he have specialists for certain roles? How rigid is this? He’s less rigid than Ron Low, I believe, but Ron Low was a brick wall. His top 5 penalty killers (by minutes) up front were Shawn Horcoff (2:34), Ethan Moreau (2:25), Ryan Smyth (2:16), Mike York (1:53) and Jarret Stoll (1:51). Marty Reasoner (3:29) would certainly have been the leader in this area had he not been injured.On the powerplay, York (4:18) and Smyth (3:30) re-appear, along with Oates (3:07), Hemsky (2:42) and Dvorak (2:33). He gave 3 minutes a game to Oates, but Torres (1:37) and Pisani (0:45) got little despite having fine seasons. In 00-01, Doug Weight (6:41), Ryan Smyth (5:31) and Anson Carter (4:37) all had bigger minutes, although the 00-01 group had more pp chances (398-338 in terms of chances, 59-44 in terms of goals).In many ways, MacT is less rigid with specific players because they all resemble each other. Is there a huge difference between Shawn Horcoff and Jarret Stoll? How about that powerplay? The Oilers pp looks exactly like what you would expect a Craig MavTavish powerplay to look like. He’s built this team for 5×5 play and they’re terrific at it, so it is somewhat predictable that they’d struggle with theman advantage, right? Well, 4 seasons in there are some signs that MacT is willing to try something new. He employed MA Bergeron in the back half of the season as a pp qb, and Nedved played a large role as a “one shot scorer” on the pp late in the season. This may be an indication that he’s going to have more specialists and fewer guys he plugs in everywhere.
- What are his strengths? MacTavish teams have a solid work ethic, and play a high tempo game. Despite the craziest pk number for much of last year, imo this should be a good penalty killing team. Most of the problem last season came from the opponent scoring on the goalie about 10 seconds after they set up the pp in the Oilers’ end. Salo just wasn’t stopping pucks.MacTavish seems to put his roster together bass ackwards, getting good role players to score enough to stay in the lineup. I’d say it never works, but Fernando Pisani scored 16 goals this season and played solid hockey all over the ice and this team of 8th rounders scored 221 goals. 4th in the conference. I bet a few NHL coaches would’ve overlooked Pisani. He’s also gotten solid seasons from players who haven’t been completely happy. Not just Comrie, by all accounts Hecht wasn’t thrilled here but he put up a solid season.A note about the backline, because I haven’t talked too much about it. It’s a pretty damn good unit, even though parts of it aren’t too sexy. They’re dependable, scored a whack of goals, and the numbers reflected that once the goalie started doing his job. And I think part of the credit for that has to go to MacTavish.After the Comrie situation, we can probably sumrise that MacT has the backbone to backup his beliefs. Right or wrong, that’s a good quality for a coach.One final thing here: when this team was left for dead, he wouldn’t give up. He kept trying, right to the last. I have no idea how many teams would be lining up for this guy if he came available, but he impressed me with that late season run. And remember, this came after a long stretch of awful and people wondering if he’d lost the room.
- What are his weaknesses? Well, he’s missed the playoffs in two of the 4 seasons, and his lack of imagination has made the pp a time for Oiler fans to hit the can. He can be stay with some players too long, as witnessed the Salo and Oates situation this season. A more vicious coach might have benched Salo earlier, and in doing so saved the season.We don’t know if the team’s distressing inability to develop skill players is MacT’s fault, but it has reached desperate proportions on his watch.