Duelling Banjos



The Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars have pretty much been dogs for the better part of the last decade.

Every Oiler fan is painfully aware of how inept their favourite team has been since 2006 and, while the Stars have made the post season a few times since then, the dominant Stars of an earlier era have become a faded memory and, under the ownership of Tom Hicks, the team was in a horrible tailspin…much like the Oilers under EIG although the Oilers are always able to hang on to their fan base while Dallas’ deserted in droves.

More recently, both teams have been on similar although not identical trajectories toward returning to respectability.

Both teams are now owned by billionaires and, ironically, both Daryl Katz and Tom Gaglardi are based, of all places, in Vancouver.

But the similarities don’t stop there…

On April 29, 2013, The Dallas Stars appointed Jim Nill as their new GM while exactly 2 weeks earlier on April 15, the Edmonton Oilers appointed, after what one would hope was an exhaustive search for the best candidate, Craig MacTavish as their new GM.

You have to wonder if the Oilers even spoke to Nill?

And there’s more.

On June 10, 2013, after a mere 7 weeks on the job, MacT decided that Dallas Eakins was a better head coach choice than Ralph Krueger and, presumably,  Lindy Ruff, who was hired by the Stars 3 weeks later.

Soooooo…how’s that working out?

Craig MacTavish took over a team that had been so bad that it was able to accumulate a brace of first overall picks but the team had gaping holes…needing a #1 or #2 C depending on how you view Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 2 top pairing defensemen, above average goaltending and depth players all over the ice.

Now, the Stars had been decidedly mediocre but were never bad enough to have a top 5 pick…in fact, their last #5 pick came way back in 1996 when they selected Richard Jackman.

If you look at the Stars roster from the season before Nill took over, it’s pretty apparent that Dallas, despite having stability in goal, was also riddled with holes.

Their best centre was Mike Ribiero…their second best was an aging  Steve Ott.

Their D consisted of a promising young Gologoski and an assortment of aging vets or AHL level hopefuls.

At this point, in the summer of 2013, Craig MacTavish declared:

“I’m an impatient guy and I bring that impatience to this situation,” MacTavish said the day he was hired, April 15.

“I think we’re at the stage in terms of the cycle of our hockey club right now that we have to do some bold things.

“We have to expose ourself to some semblance of risk to try to move the team forward in a rapid fashion.”

Jim Nill, of course, didn’t say much of anything except:

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill said of elite center depth. “I came from Detroit, we always had it. It was Yzerman-Fedorov, Zetterberg-Datsyuk. You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen. We knew that was a little bit of a weakness on our team.”

And then, while MacT was out being “bold“, Nill quietly got to work.

In his first major transaction, Nill traded Loui Eriksson and a couple of prospects for two NHL centres…Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley.

Nill quickly followed up that trade by sending under performing young defenseman Philip Larsen to the Oilers in return for Shawn Horcoff…so, in about a month, Nill had acquired THREE NHL centres.

While Nill was following his stated game plan…MacT was certainly busy although it remains to be seen if he’s done anything that could be described as bold.

His pre-eminent acquisition has been a winger, David Perron, while the holes at centre, on the top D pairing and in goal have not been adequately addressed to this point.

Bruce McCurdy, at the Cult of Hockey has a very good summation here. 

In the poll of Oiler fans that follows Bruce’s post, you’ll note that fully 50% of fans don’t think MacTavish’s performance has been adequate.

I expect a poll of Stars’ fans would look very different.

Fast forward to this past offseason and Jim Nill pulls off another blockbuster, this time acquiring another elite centre, Jason Spezza, for promising young forward Alex Chiasson as well as a trio of former Stars’ draft picks of dubious potential.

Days later, Nill added another former Oiler, Ales Hemsky, who had immediate chemistry with Spezza (20GP 17P) who the Oilers had traded to the Senators for 3rd and 5th round picks.

Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail described the transactions this way:

So the dominoes are starting to shift, with virtually every team in the Western Conference now trying to follow a script established by the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, who had a quartet of accomplished centres in their line-up: Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards. Los Angeles plays a four-line game, which has proved to be a successful playoff strategy where wear-and-tear and fatigue essentially undermined the Stanley Cup aspirations of a number of teams.

In his new home, Spezza should be a good fit. He will play for coach Lindy Ruff, who is familiar with his game from Ruff’s years of coaching the Buffalo Sabres, a long-time divisional rival.

The Stars then went out and signed Spezza’s Senators’ teammate Ales Hemsky, to a three-year deal for $4-million per season. Hemsky played 20 games for Ottawa last year after coming over from the Oilers at the trading deadline and managed 17 points. He will also play a top-six role on a Stars’ team that’s aggressively fast-tracking their rebuild.

The story is here

If anyone has been bold in this scenario, I think you’ll have to agree it’s been Nill, not MacTavish, who has mostly fiddled around the edges by adding depth wingers, second pairing defensemen and a couple of unproven staring goaltenders.

Nill still has some work to do on defense but Patrick Nemeth and Jamie Oleksiak are reportedly ready to take the next step and join Jordie Benn, Brendan Dillon and Kevin Connaughton on the Stars’ young D corp and, considering Nill has not been afraid to make bold moves, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was in on the contest to pry Johnny Boychuk out of Boston.

With his acquisitions at centre (Nill now has 7 on the roster), drafting Valeri Nuchushkin and Julias Honka (a near PPG defenseman in the WHL), the Stars are inching very close to elite status in the Western Conference.

Given how bold Nill has been to this point and how successful he’s been in acquiring elite players, he will be in prime position to finish his rebuild when Sergei Gonchar’s and Erik Cole’s combined $9.5M cap hits are gone.

I certainly wouldn’t bet against the man.

So, in the meantime, what script is MacT following?

He said he wouldn’t be acquiring any mid level defensemen, and then acquired 2.

He hasn’t, at this point, addressed the weakest centre depth in the league instead seeming willing to rely on a rookie and a couple of AHL players to step up.

What he has done is acquire a couple of bigger depth wingers which, while important to the Oilers, does not address the team’s most urgent needs.

Nothing bold about that.










One thought on “Duelling Banjos

  1. I think it’s fair to say MacTavish probably regrets that comment now. He hasn’t used that word in a while. I think it’s also fair to say that most Oiler fans wanted Nill as GM. You may recall the MSM said as late as 2012 Nill wasn’t leaving Detroit. Lo and behold he goes to Dallas when the Oilers brought on MacTavish. So, agree and wish they had pried him from Detroit’s hands, but it’s water under the bridge now. We should focus on who might reasonably replace MacTavish should he fail.


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