It was nearly four years to the day that the Edmonton Oilers organization was in a nearly identical position as the one it found itself in on Tuesday, where a recently hired general manager — a highly regarded, Stanley Cup winning general manager — was holding a press conference to announce the hiring of a veteran head coach with a strong track record of success in the NHL.
In 2015, the cast of characters included Peter Chiarelli introducing Todd McLellan, a duo that was supposed to lead a perennial dumpster fire of an organization out of the ashes by providing some much-needed stability and building something around the NHL’s next great superstar (Connor McDavid) that fell into their laps.
Obviously, things did not go anywhere as planned and the organization was forced to smash the reset button once again over the past year. That reset process continued on Tuesday when Ken Holland introduced Dave Tippett as the 16th coach in franchise history, and the eighth in just the past 10 years.
The job for these two is a significant one as they attempt to build something out of an organization that has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including a 2018-19 team that wasn’t even a close to a playoff spot in a watered down Western Conference despite having two of the league’s top-five scorers (McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) on its roster. It takes a special kind of failure to miss the playoffs under those circumstances, but this team managed it.
At the introductory press conference on Tuesday Tippett and Holland hit all of the usual buzzwords new coaches and managers love to use in these situations, including stability, communication, and structure. Holland praised Tippett’s experience and talked about him being one of his leading candidates throughout the entire process.
Tippett also expressed optimism that the situation isn’t as bleak as it seems from the outside, saying “everyone talks about McDavid and Draisaitl, but there are more pieces here than McDavid and Draisaitl. There is a lot here to build on.”
From a hockey standpoint, Tippett at least sounded like someone that has his finger on the pulse of the current NHL and what it takes to win.
He spoke of needing scoring depth including a fourth-line that can provide offense.
He talked about the necessity of a five-man attack on the forecheck and having defenders that can not only move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the middle of the ice, but also get involved in the offensive zone.
He also fought back at the suggestion that he is a “defensive-minded coach” and talked about finding out what his players do best, putting them in a position to succeed, and maximizing their potential. In other words: He’s not planning on going to Edmonton and trying to force his roster into a set system, but rather build a system around the roster he has.
“I laugh at that all the time,” said Tippett in response to a question about his reputation as a defensive coach. “My first [head coaching] job in the NHL, I got from Doug Armstrong in Dallas because I was an offensive coach and they hired me because they thought I could bring some new ideas. We had some pretty good offensive teams in Dallas, but when I got to Arizona we had to figure out how to win without those guys. I don’t look at myself as a defensive coach or an offensive coach, I look at myself as a coach that tries to win with what I have.”
So what does he have to work with in Edmonton?
For starters he has a McDavid-Draisaitl duo that dominated their ice-time together last season. When asked whether he would prefer to see them as a duo on the same line or separated where they each center their own line, he spoke glowingly of their ability to feed off of each other and seemed to indicate that he sees them on a line together. And that is probably the right move because there was almost no other duo in the league that did more last season than those two.
Assuming he keeps those two together he still has Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (barring an offseason trade, which would be a bad idea for the Oilers) as a more than suitable No. 2 center.
After that? There is a significant drop in talent and will probably take him back to his early days in Arizona where he had to figure out a way to win with a patchwork roster.
The defense is severely lacking in the type of players he talked about when it comes to joining the rush and moving the puck.
The scoring depth beyond the top-three forwards rapidly falls off a cliff, as shown by the fact McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins combined to score 52 percent of the team’s goals during the 2018-19 season. The depth was so bad that when none of those three were on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Oilers were outscored by a 45-26 margin. They were not just bad, they were not even competitive.
There is only so much a coach can do to remedy that, and while Tippett had some early initial success in Arizona, making the playoffs in three consecutive years including a stunning trip to the 2011-12 Western Conference Final, the lack of talent at his disposal eventually caught up to him in the latter years of his tenure when the Coyotes missed the playoffs in his final five seasons with the team.
And that brings us to the key point here with the Oilers — their success or failure probably isn’t going to be determined by what Tippett does or does not do as a coach. There is very good reason to believe that he is a good coach. HIs approach seems sound. He has had success in two different cities, won more than 550 regular season games as a head coach, and taken teams deep into the playoffs on more than one occasion.
But the Oilers have had successful coaches come through and fail before him.
Todd McLellan’s resume before his time in Edmonton was a strong one, but he couldn’t win with the Oilers.
Neither could Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, or Dallas Eakins. Not all of them were bad coaches or bad hires. Sometimes it’s more than the coach, and when this many coaches come through one organization in such a short period of time and all experience the same fate it is probably a good sign that the problems start much higher than behind the bench.
As much as Tippett — or any coach — likes to pride themselves on coaching up players and “just finding ways to win” it is still a talent driven business, and the Oilers as presently constructed just do not have anywhere near enough of it. That puts almost all of the pressure not necessarily on Tippett, but right back on Holland to build something out of this team and give his new coach enough to work with around the McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins trio.
If Holland can do that, Tippett might very well be the right coach for the Oilers and one that can succeed where so many before him have failed.
If Holland can not do that, we will probably find ourselves doing the exact same thing in another couple of years where another freshly hired, big-name general manager is introducing the next highly respected veteran coach.