One night after his team was shut out for the third straight game at home, MacTavish met with his players on Thursday. His message to them was that there are still positives to take out of the dismal start to the season, and that it's still OK to have some fun.
"I've got my thumb out there feeling the divide in the room," he told the media after his meeting with players. "My basic message to them is that it's OK at this particular point to come in (the dressing room) and enjoy yourself. It was important they hear from me how I feel and what I see. The effort is fine, the improvement and coachability is better and I wanted to make sure they knew that."
Admitting he is a "bit surprised" by the team's poor performance thus far, MacTavish said he told the players the process "as painful as it is, is a necessary step for us to get to where we're going to be.
"My core message is we understand the level of frustration. Do we want to be paralyzed by the frustration going forward, to throw our hands in the air and stop playing because we're frustrated? Absolutely not. Do I see progress? Yes. Is there optimism? Absolutely."
The Oilers (4-14-2) are last in the Western Conference, are 1-8-1 in their last 10 games and have given up a league-worst 78 goals against. They haven't made the playoffs since 2006, and baring a sudden turnover appear destined to miss post-season again.
Team captain Andrew Ference said part of MacTavish's message was that the players have to remember there have been some positives this season.
"Communication solves a lot of issues and honesty solves a lot of issues and that was a dose today," Ference said. "It's not trying to bury our heads in the sand and say the record is okay … it's to pull some guys back from the one extreme that everything is wrong. It's tough to remember there are positives."
Forward Sam Gagner said the general manager's main message "was to focus on the right things and just stick with that. Today was an important day for us to take a step back and reassess what is going on."
The challenge now, MacTavish said, is not to do anything irrational that will hurt the team long-term.
"Are there things I could do to improve the team right now? Absolutely. Would it be the right thing? Doubtful. Would it penalize our ultimate objective of being a championship team? Probably."
MacTavish said he is convinced the team has a core of eight to 10 players who can make the Oilers competitive again and now is the time for management and coaches to build trust in that group.
"That's why it's my responsibility to support these guys," he said. "They're going to be great players and they're going to be Oilers and it's important they feel that support from the coaching staff and from management."
He admitted his "self-satisfaction meter is not too high right now" because he didn't realize that core group would need more support that he has provided.
He said "it's debatable how good a job I've done" surrounding that core with adequate support players. With it likely the team will once again have a high draft pick next summer, he's prepared to use that to try to get the support players needed.
"I don't view another first-round draft choice as what we need. We don't need another 18-year-old kid coming in here next year."
And trading one of the young core players won't happen, he said, because he's seen too many youngsters traded away only to become elite players on other teams.
MacTavish said the team's primary need is a "big, stud defenceman" and he is prepared to trade draft picks in a package to get that type of player.
"The blue-line needs to be improved upon," he said, in stating the obvious. "We don't have the physical makeup to be a good solid NHL defence."
The Oilers are home Friday to the San Jose Sharks.