Craig MacTavish: His First Mistake Was Firing Ralph Krueger


The first bold move Craig MacTavish made soon after he was anointed appointed General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers back in the spring of 2013 was to fire Ralph Krueger. The man was a first year NHL coach taking over from Tom Renney who had been let go after 2 years at the helm. Krueger did not have the benefit of full training camp, there was no rookie camp either, and he took on a squad with players coming from suiting up in different leagues and some not having played at all during the lock out. Adding to the handicap, all 48 games of that season were intra conference only, which meant the Oilers never got a break from the generally heavy, in your face hockey style of their side of the NHL fence.

Krueger also had rookies Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz to take care of, as well as sophomore Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Even then he managed to finish the season with the highest percentage of points earned since 2008-2009  with  .469% (45 pts in 48 games). So how did the Oilers do during that season?:

First let’s look at possession numbers. The team peaked in  Renney’s last year and then declined on the subsequent seasons. The caveat here is that Krueger’s squad faced only Western opposition. The bolstering of the face off percentage on Eakins’ first year can be attributed to the addition of Boyd Gordon. The goal differential remained practically unchanged in the lock out year, then it sank like a brick during Eakins’ junior year. Even with a tougher schedule, the 2013 Oilers actually had the better finishing ability of all 4 seasons. Luck has not been a factor for this team during the rebuild.

Looking at this table the strongest conclusion we can draw is that the worst coaching change was actually Firing Renney. He had the team trending up despite sub par supporting players and a very young core. That’s on Tambellini. Then Krueger took over and threaded above water, actually improving in the standings and keeping his charges from falling  off a cliff despite the handicaps of that season. Craig MacTavish had a whole year as senior VP of hockey operations to evaluate the performance of Ralph Krueger.

One can say that the Oilers spectacular implosion during a critical stretch that saw them go 1-9 and miss the playoffs was a big factor in the coach’s dismissal. What is difficult to understand is how a stretch like this undermined a somewhat ok season in terms of development (Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov were better than they have been since then, again, against more difficult opposition overall) and cost Krueger his job. After pondering all the moves made that summer, it is almost certain the Edmonton Oilers decided to do a soft reset of the rebuild plan. Craig MacTavish, either by his own conclusions or by directives coming from higher up in the ladder, decided to bring in his own head man, while keeping the rest of the coaching staff intact. That decision now looks like either a knee-jerk reaction or the result of a new plan that really didn’t look at the numbers.

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Fast forward to December of 2014 and the team already tied the record for worst season start in franchise history, it’s in the middle of one of the worst losing streaks, several players are underperforming, and the GM had to face the music earlier than desired for the second year in a row.

It is moves like the firing of Renney and Kruger that have some questioning the ability of Oilers management to build a contender, and some others asking if there has even been a cohesive plan to begin with. When MacTavish comes out and defends his coach from the epic debacle this season has turned into, and then we look at Krueger’s numbers, it is hard not to sense a double standard and a lack of real accountability in this organization. MacT threw Tambellini under the bus for such poor decisions, not realizing he was guilty of the same. It is hard to find an objective reason for the dismissal of Krueger, just as it is for Renney’s.

What is most telling about the Oilers and their inability to identify and retain top front office talent is where both former coaches are now: Tom Renney is the head of Hockey Canada and Ralph Krueger is the chairman of South Hampton F.C., an English Premiere League football Club. Hockey Canada is a World Class Organization and South Hampton is part of one of the top 3 leagues on the planet for the most popular sport on Earth. Make your own conclusions.

Whatever decision-making process Oilers brass uses, it clearly gives objectivity a back seat, starting with the concept of “improvement by eye”.

*Stats Box compiled from*