Since taking over as head coach in the fall of 2000 Craig MacTavish has become famous for a few things. He’s an outstanding quote, a man who understands that humor can be very effective in getting the point across to the media and the public. He’s also pretty good at explaining strategy, something many NHL coaches imply is beyond the intellectual reach of the audience (which is so idiotic someone should write a book) and generally speaking he appears to be pretty good at his job. If the Oilers were to unemploy him anytime soon it is likely he’d get a job soonafter.
One thing that people think about MacTavish that runs counter to evidence is in his ability to develop young players. He’s very good at it, and this season would have to be the man’s watershed.
Let’s go back in Oilers history and track the young players who have emerged under his watch. Let’s also agree that a ‘good season’ for rookie development would be either one substantial rookie or two who would be solid role players. Fair?
In his rookie season (00-01) as coach MacTavish had the gifted but challenging Mike Comrie after the New Year and found a way to work him into the lineup successfully. MacT found a gem in Shawn Horcoff who almost made the team out of camp but was sent out and then recalled early enough to play in 49 games at the NHL level. He found spots for Dom Pittis (extra forward), Dan Lacouture (energy 4th line W until traded to PIT), Brian Swanson and Michel Riesen (together for a dozen games on the Bulldog line with Daniel Cleary), and played Chris Hajt in an NHL game (which he rarely gets credit for btw).
In 01-02 he had only Goalie Jussi Markkanen who ended up having a nice NHL career and cups of coffee were handed out to Jason Chimera, Jani Rita and Ales Pisa. None of them could get established under MacT although Chimera has turned into a nice NHL player for Columbus. This is sometimes mentioned as a negative in regard to the coach, but in my opinion it’s like finding fault with him for replacing Dan Cleary with Fernando Pisani: find fault all you want but the results were strong.
02-03 was his high water mark before this year in terms of developing useful NHL talent. Two players specifically stand out as highlights. First, Ales Hemsky was not sent back to junior and MacT and the coaching staff brought him along slowly. Any fool could see he had talent but getting it out of him at that age (he finished second in the NHL assists by a rookie that season) was important. The other was Pisani. Around the time he turned 26 years old, Pisani was in the AHL. He went 41gp, 17-15-32 down there before getting called up to the Oilers. It took a little time, but he’s been Fernando Pisani (and that is excellent) pretty much since. I often wonder how many other coaches would have given the 26-year old rookie (from the Coco Laboy school of development) the same opportunity. I suspect many would have looked at his first NHL games and thought of it as a fluke. Chimera was a rookie that year, fast as lightning. He gave 46 games to Alexei Semenov, 48 games to Ales Pisa on the blueline. Cups of coffee went to Jani Rita, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Jarret Stoll, Bobby Allen, Alex Henry and Kari Haakana. That’s a very good group.
03-04 saw several of the players mentioned above emerge as productive members of the Edmonton Oilers. These weren’t hangers-on or cups of coffee types. Shawn Horcoff, Ales Hemsky and Fernando Pisani were playing more minutes and bigger minutes. Raffi Torres also established himself as an NHLer this season.
Rookies in 03-04 included Marc Andre Bergeron, who had one of the best offensive seasons by an Oiler rookie defenseman in the club’s history (Coffey had 32 points, Gregg had 28, Bergeron’s 26 ranked him 3rd and 1st in points-per-game even ahead of Coffey). I always felt this was a telling player in terms of MacT as a coach, even moreso than Hemsky. For those (and I was among them) who said that the coach didn’t allow offensive free spirits to make mistakes and find their way, Bergeron was the boat against the current. He’s a better example because (unlike Hemsky) Bergeron wasn’t a first rounder and so was unlikely to get that automatic opportunity high picks often get no matter how badly they play.
It was also the rookie season of Jarret Stoll, whose career looks like it’s in some touble now. However, as a rookie and certainly in the following season Stoll had the look of a player who would one day join the Horcoff-Hemsky-Pisani group as the heart of the club. Hopefully he has a long career and certainly his development from his rookie season until his injury was impressive. Jarret Stoll was a good NHL player.
Cups of coffee went to Mike Bishai, Peter Sarno, Mikko Luoma, Tony Salmelainen, Jani Rita, Doug Lynch and Steve Valiquette.
05-06 is the season MacT will be remembered for, due to the outstanding DET series win and the run to G7 of the SCF. ALL the bets he made on players (Hemsky, Horcoff, Pisani, Stoll, Torres, Bergeron etc) paid off in one shining moment and they rallied around two veteran pickups (Pronger, Roloson) and some outstanding role players (Dvorak, Peca, Spacek) to come within a heartbeat of history. That team was underpaid and undervalued in any era.
The rookies on that team? Jani Rita got 21 games before being shipped to PIT so he could score 50 a year on Crosby’s wing, Matt Greene played 27 games in the regular season and had a major role (for a rookie) in the Stanley run plus there were cups of coffee went to Pouliot, Winchester, Mathieu Roy, Yan Stastny, Dan Smith, Jean Francois Jacques, Kyle Brodziak, Danny Syvret. Mike Morrison was a rookie too, played in 21 games and won 10 of them before being shipped away.
06-07 saw a ton of rookies, mostly because of injury, the lockout season of 04-05 and the fact the veteran-laden 05-06 squad didn’t supply any rookies of consequence (unless you count Greene’s play in the SCF a consequence).
They pretty much ALL got a shot in 06-07 andit was ugly:
Patrick Thoresen 62gp, 3-12-15 +2
Marc Pouliot 40gp, 4-6-10 +1
Brad Winchester 53gp, 4-5-9 -7
Ladislav Smid 71gp, 2-7-9 -13
Tom Gilbert 6gp, 1-1-2 +2
Kyle Brodziak 6gp, 1-0-1 E
Zack Stortini 25gp, 1-0-1 -8
Mathieu Roy 14gp, 1-0-1 -5
Jean Francois Jacques 35gp, 0-0-0 -11
Dan Syvret 12gp, 0-0-0 -9
Alexei Mikhnov 2gp, 0-0-0 E
Bryan Young 9gp, 0-0-0 -7
Sebastien Bisaillon 2gp, 0-0-0 -1
So entering this season, MacT’s developmental record looked like this:
00-01: Shawn Horcoff, Mike Comrie
01-02: Jussi Markkanen
02-03: Ales Hemsky, Fernando Pisani, Jason Chimera
03-04: Raffi Torres, Marc Andre Bergeron, Jarret Stoll
05-06: Matt Greene, Mike Morrison
06-07: Patrick Thoresen, Ladislav Smid, Brad Winchester
This season is one of those years I think we’ll all talk about. It’s a mega-cluster, it’s Haley’s comet, it’s the Boston Red Sox of 1975.
Sam Gagner looks like the smartest teenager on planet earth, Andrew Cogliano is the new Butch Goring, Tom Gilbert put himself in the record books for rookie D scoring, Kyle Brodziak was tremendous in his first real NHL season and on it goes.
I’ve never been a fan of the NHL’s rookie requirement (Brodziak doesn’t qualify) but let’s just list the NHL.com rookie list for the Oilers:
1 Sam Gagner 79gp, 13-36-49 -21
2 Andrew Cogliano 82gp, 18-27-45 1
3 Tom Gilbert 82gp, 13-20-33 -6
4 Curtis Glencross 62gp, 15-10-25 8
5 Mathieu Roy 13gp, 0-1-1 0
6 Rob Schremp 2gp, 0-0-0 -1
7 Bryan Young 2gp, 0-0-0 -1
8 Liam Reddox 1gp, 0-0-0 -1
9 Theo Peckham 1gp, 0-0-0 0
Add this to the youngsters who don’t qualify (Brodziak, Grebeshkov, etc) and I would hope we can finally end this silly talk about MacTavish and rookies.
The evidence is crushing. Enough.