Coaches

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.

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22 Responses to "Coaches"

  1. Mr DeBakey says:

    Interesting Post
    Considering that the vultures have been circling MacTavish all week.

    “Can’t coach kids” they all say, or
    “Can’t coach offense”

    There was a letter to the Journal.
    Stauffer’s been on the Rag all week.
    There are two, not one but two, threads running on Oilfans.

    They’re not big on facts,
    opinion dressed up like facts work very well though.

    So who has he screwed up:
    Riesen Rita Semenov Chimera Cleary Lupul Pittis
    and others I’ve forgotten
    That’s quite the list
    I guess they’re right

  2. Lowetide says:

    Actually I think that post from 2004 makes MacT look like a genius.

  3. Mr DeBakey says:

    MacTavish gets handed a sack of it every year

    “Craig, we’ve sent Pronger to California. We’ve got a 20-year-old Czech you can slot in instead.”

    or

    “Craig, we’ve traded Weight to St Loo. You’re number 1 Center is now an undersized, one-dimensional punk”

    As of yesterday Stauffer is on a holiday in my house & car, I’ll pick him up again in October maybe. And I’m getting my pizza from Pharaohs.

  4. Devin says:

    “Craig, we were too cheap to pay Smyth, or Hejda, or Sykora. But it’s your lucky day, you get to replace them with Sanderson, Nilsson, and Grebeshkov. Or if you don’t like them try Schremp, Jacques, and Gilbert. So many options – a coach’s dream!”

    Sigh…

  5. SweatyO says:

    I’ve never been a huge MacT fan, but until they have a Miroslav Satan slip through the cracks, I won’t buy this ‘can’t coach young players’ theory. At least to the full extent.

    Largely, the guys who went elsewhere turned into 3rd liners. At best. And even then, Cleary may only still be around in the NHL based on MacT teachings. Who knows?

  6. Dennis says:

    Yeah, I think it does as well, LT. Cleary’s the only guy who went and made anything out of himself and for those that could see past his contract and offensive numbers in the O, Cleary was rounding into an outscorer before he left. I specifically remember a line with him and Horc and Marchant where they were carrying the mail. A HNIC home 1-0 win with Cleary scoring the winner against the Avs comes to mind when I think of that period. OK maybe another guy was Poti but at the time we were thick with D and thin with guys that could score goals so I still support that trade

  7. CM says:

    What we will never know though is if any of those players who didn’t make it were the result of lost years of development under MacT…

  8. Lowetide says:

    cm: You have to believe that the great majority of players who wash out with one club will get another shot with a second (or third) team.

    So far, none of these guys have come back to haunt the Oilers. A guy like Cleary turned a corner, but it seems like he had to get to a point where he felt his career was in jeopardy to turn the corner.

    If Brad Winchester has the same kind of turnaround, can we blame MacT?

    Jani Rita, Michel Riesen, Alexei Semenov. There’s a long list now of guys who were high on the HF Top 20 who haven’t made it anywhere.

  9. Bendelson says:

    There’s no question MacT’s record as a coach seems to be as good as (if not a little better than) the players KLowe has provided.

    Give’m Peca,Pronger and Roloson at the deadline and he can take you places… surprising the shit out of Oiler fans along the way.

    As soon as you start taking away skill players/leadership, which is where the Oilers are today, MacT will struggle along with the team – just like every other good coach in hockey.

    MacT coaches the way he played and loves the physical game (no kidding). IMO the current KLowe roster can’t play that game (and survive).
    MacT should be concerned.
    KLowe needs that miracle trade.

    Just for fun:

    Malkin and a pick for,
    Horcoff, Staios & a better pick? Anybody… anybody?

  10. godot10 says:

    The Oilers have a coaching job on defense. MacT and Huddy have been adept at doing that.

    Losing Lupul gets rid of MacT’s major headache at forward. He should be able to find line combinations where the Oilers won’t beat themselves, and force the other team to beat them, unlike last year, when the Oilers were mostly beating themselves. Lupul just didn’t fit in, and screwed everything up because he couldn’t play with anybody.

  11. Freeborn says:

    I just like seeing Flin Flon in a Lowetide post…

  12. Steve says:

    two pretty good goalies have emerged on his watch (Markkanen, Conklin).

    Tee hee.

    (I’m not criticizing – Ty Conklin didn’t have a bigger booster than me for most of his career.)

    Malkin and a pick for,
    Horcoff, Staios & a better pick? Anybody… anybody?

    Sure, if the Pens’ pick is an eighth rounder and the Oilers’ is Tavares.

  13. namflashback says:

    The other myth of MacTavish that is popular with the message board crowd is that he is unrelenting with the “line blender.”

    In actuality, he is very methodical in his line approach and sticks with any line that works. When it doesn’t work, he changes it.

    Compared to many other teams — he doesn’t juggle any more or less. I don’t have anything analytical to compare, but the behaviours are pretty consistent.

    People see some of the lines during situations in a game, and think that he is going wild with the blender, when really the situation demands it. i.e. Stoll is out for an extended PP shift, so cannot be with his regular linemates versus, say Selanne, when the Ducks PK is done.

  14. Doogie says:

    Fascinating to look back, see some of the things we were talking about in ’04, see what led into ’06 and (from a very different perspective) ’07. I think, despite the loss of Smyth, this is gonna be a bit of a mullet team: business in the front, party in the back. There’s a lot of MacT guys who can play smart on the forward lines (meaning he can relax and just let Simpson fill their heads with horrible ideas of what a power-play looks like), which is good because MacT and Huddy will certainly have their work cut out for them as they try to develop this many youngsters on D.

    I also had to snicker at the Conkkannen thing a little bit, but then I remembered: Conklin was our starting goalie during the almost-made-it run in ’04, after we ditched Tommy Gun and picked up Nedved (I’m still stunned that worked the first time). I thought he and Markkanen would grow into a quality twosome, maybe more Fernandez-Roloson than Nabokov-Toskala, but good enough to keep the puck out of the net more often than not. To this day, I’m still a bit baffled by how horribly it went wrong, even though in hindsight, it’s kind of obvious (preseason injuries + coach panic = the three-headed monster). Actually, come to think of it, the Oilers have had shit luck with goalies the last five years, haven’t they? First Tommy, then the three-headed monster, then the third pairing breaks Roli (Wasn’t Bergie chasing Ladd in the first place because Greene lost him?). Welcome, Garon. Welcome to the machine.

  15. Dennis says:

    NFB, I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: People, by and large, are dummies.

    Doogie, I’m not shocked that it worked out the first time around because Jussi had some nice flashes with the Oil and Conks had A numbers good enough that it was worth a shot. He finished strong down the stretch in ’04 and then by all accounts was great the IIHF. Then he decided, for some reason, not to play much, if at all, during the lockout season and once everyone started playing again, he got hurt and never got over it. How big of a factor in his downfall was his injury? I’m not sure but Pronger admitted he was behind the curve because he wasn’t ready and Peca did the same. And keeping with the Oilers theme, I believe Brew said that he thought he might’ve missed so much of his ’06 with Stl because he wasn’t ready.

  16. oilblue says:

    To focus on a just a small section of your post is unfair, but the Hemsky references deserve some debate.

    First, I agree that he needs to shoot more. Obviously. Beyond that, your Hemsky points were somewhat slanted…

    >>(87 shots in a full season is very poor, especially when he’s got a good shot).< <
    Not a great total to be sure, but the 87 shot total is from his first full season in the NHL. If he has coachability problems, that number would not have changed…but it has.

    >>His not making the World Championships shows the Oilers aren’t the only ones who aren’t impressed.< <

    Wasn’t he injured late in the year? Wouldn’t that have more of a bearing than the 87 shot total from before the lockout? Not to mention the fact he played (and won gold) on the Czech team in the 2005 worlds (when 87 shots was his most recent NHL total). I’d say his late season injury was the deciding factor.

    >>Poti digressed into a poor defenseman with no confidence, Hemsky may not be tough enough to play at the NHL level.< <

    True, Poti did fall off. What does that have to do with Hemsky?

    Besides, I have no problem with Hemsky’s toughness. He takes hits to make a play, and fights hard for the puck, in direct contrast to Poti how always shied away from touching anything. True, Hemsky’s not like Moreau after the puck, but Hemmer is miles ahead of Moreau on the skill chart.

    As for whether MacTavish handles rookies/young players well, I think development of skill players is a weakness of MacT. I think First of all, MacT does play favourites. If you’re his type of guy–someone that plays a responsible defensive game–he tends not to lash out in the papers. Skill guys though, are given much less leeway. Prime example, the 3-0 debacle in Detroit last season. Zero shots on goal in the first period. Detroit had been resting for three days while the Oil played the night before in Montreal, but this was crazy. The only player that showed up was Roloson. Every skater was awful. Every last one of ‘em. Someone Roli kept it close though. A couple minutes into the third, Detroit takes a two goal lead on a shorthanded goal. For some reason, with the Oil on PP, down a goal, MacT has Petersen out there, while Hemsky is on the bench. Even down two, the game is within reach. But Hemsky sees the ice only two times in the 3rd period. To have a chance in the game, the Oil need a goal, and their most talented player is benched to send him a message.

    MacT was wrong in that game on so many levels:
    - if you’re going to send a message to a skilled player, bench them in the second period. They just might be fired up for the third. Benching Hemsky for the third period gave him no chance to redeem himself. And it put the entire team in a deeper hole (they needed a goal, but the coach kept their best chance at generating a goal on the bench…even on the PP).
    - the entire time was awful (outside of the goal crease). Making an example of Hemsky is one thing, but when the entire team is awful, humiliating your most skilled guy misses the mark completely.
    - if that wasn’t bad enough, MacT hammered Hemsky with post-game quotes. The entire team was brutal, but Hemsky and Hemsky alone takes the brunt from the coach.
    - if Hemsky has a confidence problem (as you alluded to), then exactly how does it help to throw him under the bus for a total team failure?
    - in that game, Torres flattened Justin Williams with a huge hit. MacT kept Torres on the bench for the remainder of the second for some reason or another. If it was Minnesota, I get it (keep the resident thug at bay), but this was Detroit. Who was going to do anything drastic to Torres (especially for a hit within the rules). If they went after Torres, he could handle himself. And the Oil could use a powerplay.

    That game and the post-game reaction is microcosm of MacT’s weaknesses as a coach.

  17. Devin says:

    Ahh Oilblue – LT’s post was from 2004… ummm… yeah.

    btw- doogie- you’re suggesting Fernadez-Roloson was a worse or better tandem than Nabokov-Toskala? Why exactly is it that Toskala is all of a sudden considered an elite G while Fernandez seems to be labeled as a 1B? Perhaps the same reason people are talking like Gerber will be sent to the AHL next year after his “disastrous” 15-9-3/.906SV% season?

  18. Devin says:

    Ohhhhh shit. Souray – 5 years. Ohhhh shit.

  19. oilblue says:

    >>Ahh Oilblue – LT’s post was from 2004… ummm… yeah.< <

    D’oh. < slaps forehead / > Thanks for waking me up.

    Souray? Cripes. Do we need another offensive defenseman? I guess with Simpson running the powerplay, more cannons are always needed.

    What are the terms?

  20. Devin says:

    They are saying 5 yrs, 27 or 27.5 at the moment. So, Ryan Smyth’s money! Nice “trade”.

    So who goes from the blueline now? Gilbert could reasonably be ready for a bottom-pairing role but he appears to be the #8D now. Gilbert and Greene both 3 yrs from UFA… but they are the only RHs left too.

  21. jon says:

    Oops, posted in the wrong thread. Anyway, yep one of Greene or Gilbert are gone, possibly in a trade for Mike Cammeleri or some other forward fighting for money from their club.

  22. Shawn says:

    Souray, Pitkanen, Tarnstrom… is Mac T going to be able to coach a team with players like this?

    Our fourth line could have the likes of Schremp and Nilson.

    It looks more and more to me like Lowe and Mac don’t have the same vision.

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