NHL NEWS: Edmonton Oilers fire coach Krueger; expected to hire Eakins.

Stunning news out of the Alberta capital today as the Edmonton Oilers announced the firing of Ralph Krueger as the head coach of the team.  Krueger was hired last year after spending 2 years as an associate coach to Tom Renney, and led the Oilers to a 19-22-7 record in the 48-game lockout shortened 2012/13 season.

Hopes were high when Krueger was hired; after all, the team couldn’t get much worse than 3 consecutive years at or near the bottom of the NHL standings, and they were beginning to collect an envious amount of young talent.  More than that, Krueger was — and is — by all reports an extremely bright, personable and popular person, and a damn good hockey coach.  He is highly revered in Switzerland for turning that country into the hockey power it is today, and has been a great coach at all levels.  Also a renowned motivational speaker, Krueger was highly popular with his players, and nary a bad word has been said about the man.

So why, then, have the Oilers — led by new GM Craig MacTavish — decided to part ways with him?

Well, whilst a 19-22-7 record isn’t awful, at least by the standards the Oilers have recently set for themselves, the team actually performed worse in some areas – most notably goal differential – than they did under Renney, and the team didn’t achieve its goal of making the playoffs.  There were also some slightly funny coaching decisions, such as an almost complete lack of line-matching, a few funny systems, and the team’s second line was a complete disaster defensively despite two thirds of that line (Gagner and Hemsky) previously being at least competent in that area.

It was a tough year to be a rookie NHL head coach, given that it was only 48 games long, with an abbreviated training camp and little practice time thanks to the condensed schedule, but unfortunately for Krueger you are judged on what you do in the NHL, not what you might have been able to do under better circumstances.  No matter whether you’ve been given a good enough team to compete or not (they weren’t).

This move surprised many from the point of view that when MacTavish was hired shortly before the end of the Oilers’ season, he expressed confidence in Krueger going forward, indicating he’d receive at least one more year to show what he could do.  MacTavish in his press conference today even suggested that was indeed still the plan until not long ago, when the Oilers embarked on a much publicized quest to hire a new assistant coach to compliment Krueger’s skills.  However, whilst interviewing various candidates, he apparently came to the realisation that the way he foresaw the team moving forward was not the same as how Krueger saw it.  Who can really argue with that?  It wouldn’t be good for an organisation to have a coach and a GM who are diametrically opposed in terms of team philosophy.  MacT did acknowledge that this development was completely unfair to Krueger, a classy move by a man living up to his promise so far of making bold moves, but also stated that he did what he believed was best for the team.

I’m sad to see Krueger leave the organisation, he was a good man and a good coach, and I don’t believe we got to see everything in his arsenal.  Hopefully we haven’t seen the last of him in the NHL — he strikes me as a man who learns from mistakes — but I wouldn’t be surprised if he resurfaces with a head coaching gig back in Europe where he made his name.  Best of luck to the man.

So who may be coming in?  Well, the Oilers have reportedly interviewed Paul Maurice, the former Carolina Hurricanes coach, but the main subject of interest is apparently Toronto Marlies coach Dallas Eakins.  Eakins is one of the most highly respected coaches not currently in the NHL, having coached the Marlies of the AHL to 157 wins in 4 years.  This included a run to the Calder Cup Finals last year.

Early reports suggest that a deal has been agreed with Eakins, though a formal contract has not yet been signed so it’s not 100% finalised yet.  If true, this is fantastic news – Eakins has earned rave reviews from players, colleagues and writers alike in everything from his player management to his coaching tactics.  Whilst he would be another rookie head coach, in the NHL at least, he would be more familiar with the North American style than Krueger, and may meet with more success – not to mention the advantage of both the Oilers’ young stars being one year better, and also, hopefully, MacTavish providing a better roster than Tambellini ever did.

Bringing in Eakins does raise the question of what happens with the head coach of the Oilers farm team in Oklahoma City, Todd Nelson.  Nelson is much the same as Eakins – a young coach with tonnes of success at the minor league level, some NHL assistant coaching experience, and rave reviews from players, colleagues and writers.  It is somewhat surprising that the Oilers would not promote Nelson, who has more than earned his shot at the big leagues.  However, perhaps the Oilers are trying something different – both Renney and Krueger were already in the organisation when hired as Head Coaches, and going outside the comfort zone may be the more prudent course of action.

Also, why not Ruff, or Vigneault, or Maurice, or Tortorella, or wait to see if Tippett is available?  Whilst some of those choices would be great additions (I think it’s obvious which ones would and which ones wouldn’t), it also makes sense that a young team such as the Oilers would opt for a young coach so that they may learn and grow together, hopefully leading to success.

A very, very interesting day in the Oilers organisation.

The “Summer of MacT” continues, and we await the next move.

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