About Firing The Coach

Jonathan Willis
February 22 2013 12:43PM

Whatever Steve Tambellini ultimately decides to do to try and turn this struggling Oilers team around, firing the coach should not be an option at his disposal.

A Brief History of Tambellini’s Coaches

Photo: Steve Potter/Wikimedia

Ralph Krueger is the fourth coach of the Edmonton Oilers during Tambellini’s less than five-year old tenure as general manager, and the third one that Tambellini has hired himself.

When Tambellini took over the Oilers in the summer of 2008, he inherited Craig MacTavish. MacTavish, like most long-time coaches, was a favourite target of fans who perceived him to be the main problem with the team. The phrase “lost the room” started to hover around MacTavish’s name with the same frequency that “enigmatic” and “Russian” occur together in North American hockey writing. Whether such claims were fair or not, a disappointing 2008-09 campaign that saw the Oilers fall from 88 to 85 points was MacTavish’s last as coach.

To replace MacTavish, Tambellini hired Pat Quinn – a man he knew well from their time together in Vancouver during the early 1990’s. Quinn’s tenure was disastrous; the team fell to dead last in the NHL. After one season, Quinn was bumped upstairs to a “senior advisor” position and did not stay with the team when his contract ran out.

Quinn in turn was replaced by Tom Renney; like Quinn, Renney was another guy who coached in Vancouver during Tambellini’s time with that club. Additionally, Renney had served as associate coach under Quinn, so Tambellini had recent knowledge of his views of the team and coaching methods. Renney lasted two full seasons, but was dismissed after the 2011-12 team failed to meet expectations.

Ralph Krueger, Renney’s associate coach of two years, took over the team this summer. Owing to his time as an associate coach, Krueger represented yet another known quantity for Tambellini. The early results, despite Krueger’s impressive off-ice demeanor, have not been impressive; in a lot of ways it’s difficult to discern much difference between Renney’s team and Krueger’s team in terms of results.

Is Coaching The Problem?

In my personal opinion, with the exception of Quinn’s brief and disastrous term as head coach, coaching has not been the problem with the Oilers. There is, naturally, no such thing as a perfect coach but Craig MacTavish was a very good one. I didn’t like Tom Renney quite as much, but he was tactically astute. The jury is still out on Krueger, but I think it would be a mistake to lay this team’s problems solely on him.

When the word “disappointing” can be used to describe the results of a team under four different coaches in less than five full seasons, it gets awfully difficult to posit that a coaching change is going to make much difference. That’s because that kind of track record lends itself to only two possible conclusions: either the coaches aren’t the problem or all of the coaches have been a problem. In the first case, changing the coach does nothing; in the second, it’s pretty clear that the guy picking coaches doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Like I said, I don’t think the coaches have all been bad. In some ways, it’s like a vehicle – operator error can be responsible for a lot of problems, but sometimes a car or truck just needs to be recalled because the manufacturer did something wrong. In those cases, it’s not the fault of the guy driving the car, it’s the fault of the guy who made a mistake during the original construction.

That’s where the Oilers are at now. Three times in the last four seasons, the team has disappointed, and in all three cases the head coach lost his job as a result. There’s still time to salvage the 2013 season, but if it once again leads to disappointment it should be the general manager who pays the price.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.