SUN Hockey Pool

Youthful enthusiasm

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI

, Last Updated: 7:23 AM ET

Day after day, for two straight years, Craig MacTavish's legion of critics choked the airwaves with cries for change.

The coach has to go, they insisted, because he doesn't know how to develop kids and he doesn't know what to do with offensive players.

Show after show, call after call, they served up the same unwavering argument like gruel in a prison cafeteria, spooning it out so frequently it became their default explanation for virtually every Oilers ailment.

And now, almost as if on cue, as if he'd waited till his critics were inextricably linked to the "MacTavish has to go because he can't coach kids and stifles creativity" thesis, he drops this on them.

His team puts together one of the most impressive and improbable stretch drives you'll ever see, and it's fuelled by, wait for it ...

Kids.

And creativity.

Two years after coaching veterans and defence to an electrifying run, he coaches rookies and offence to another one.

Hello, caller? Fire who? Are you still there? Hello...?

If MacTavish doesn't know what to do with talented coachable kids, it's news to Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano, Kyle Brodziak, Denis Grebeshkov and Tom Gilbert.

"That obviously isn't true," Cogliano said of the MacTavish stereotype. "He knew we were skilled players and told us to just play the game. He didn't put any damper on us, or restrict us in any way.

"The coaching staff here had a big impact on us.

"They showed confidence in the young guys right away, especially me. We weren't worried about making mistakes, we were in a situation where they let us play our game, let us get better.

"They helped with the little aspects of the game, which for me were things like faceoffs and defensive zone coverage. MacTavish would take me out early and help me out; he paid a lot of attention to us.

"HE KNEW WE WERE SKILLED PLAYERS AND TOLD US TO JUST PLAY THE GAME."

OILERS ROOKIE ANDREW COGLIANO ON COACH CRAIG MACTAVISH

"A lot of coaches don't pay too much attention to young guys, but here it was the total opposite and I think that's why we were all successful."

Gagner knows it's why they were all successful.

"At least once a week you were called in for some video, and there was stuff that went on after practice, too," he said, adding he found out very early that pure skill isn't enough anymore.

"A lot of times you can get here on your skill, but the guys who stay are the guys who know how to play the game and are doing the little things well.

"At the NHL level, that stuff means so much.

"From a developmental standpoint, this year was great for all of us.

"I think it's all due to the coaching staff giving us a chance and letting us ride with it. We had a great year because of that."

If there were young players in past seasons who didn't enjoy the same success that this year's crop enjoyed, it's because they didn't work as hard, weren't good enough, or weren't as receptive to teaching.

"He didn't become a bad coach last year, he just didn't have players who were ready to play," said Oilers director of hockey operations Kevin Prendergast, vindicated himself by the events of this season.

"We thought these were good prospects, but we certainly didn't envision them playing as well as they did this year.

"A lot of that goes to the coaching, they bought into what MacT expects of them. There's not one player in that room who doesn't believe everything he tells them because he tells them the truth."

MacTavish, loathe to talk about himself, takes more satisfaction in developing Edmonton's future than bending his critics over.

"It's been super gratifying for me to see the development of all these players," he said, giving most of the credit to the kids.

"It's really been a fertile development because the games have been so meaningful down the stretch.

"That's how you develop players, you get them in those crucial pressure filled situations at this young age. It's a real accomplishment for the group in there to have created that for themselves."


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