NHL Hirings: Occasionally Imprudent

Jonathan Willis
November 19 2008 01:30PM

I don’t know how many folks around this area have seen Neil Smith’s (relatively) new website (with a hat-tip to Mirtle). Smith, you’ll remember, was the General Manager of the New York Rangers when they broke their long-standing drought and won the Stanley Cup in 1994. He was also the GM of the New York Islanders for about two months, until he was punted aside by Charles Wang in favour of the backup goaltender. His website tells us that he is presently a scout for the Anaheim Ducks, and a television analyst on the NHL Network and elsewhere.

Smith’s been writing about business and leadership in a column for the Conde Nast Portfolio, and his website has some of the articles archived. His latest has him grinding away at some familiar axes (including a very enjoyable shot at ex-Rangers coach Mike Keenan). Here is a pair of excerpts from the article:

While positions like coach and general manager are obviously critical ones, the hiring process often doesn’t seem to reflect their significance. Instead, it’s not uncommon to find a hire based on the idea that it’s better to go with the devil you know versus the one you don’t. Or ownership may have a personal bias toward a candidate that has little or nothing to do with their likely effectiveness.

In fact, in hockey generally, the vetting process more often than not comes down to a subjective decision by team executives rather than a careful examination of winning percentage, leadership ability, and consistency.

Despite the fact that Smith’s preaching a self-serving message (and the amusing Mark Messier head on his website), he isn’t wrong. He cites the Dallas Stars as an example, but the league is rife with them—Calgary and Florida both hired successful coaches for a job that required an entirely different skill-set, while teams like Vancouver and Tampa Bay hired player agents. Smith didn’t mention his former team, but Charles Wang’s decision to employ Garth Snow as General Manager has been the most bizarre GM hiring in recent memory.

Another team we could mention here is the Edmonton Oilers. Kevin Lowe, the team’s first draft pick, was an assistant coach for exactly one year before being handed the head coaching assignment. A single season as head coach and the departure of Glen Sather led to his installation as General Manager. The line of Smith’s about “personal bias” would certainly seem to apply here, and it’s been a hallmark of the EIG’s ownership. Craig MacTavish, the current coach, had three years as an assistant before being put into his current spot, but like Charlie Huddy, Craig Simpson, and countless others, he seems to have been hired primarily because of his connection to the team’s glory days. The fact that he can coach was fortunate, but hardly assured.

The good news is that the Oilers seem to be moving away from this tradition. Steve Tambellini, who seems to have had a good working relationship with Lowe from their time together at Hockey Canada, was plucked from outside the organization after many years learning the ropes in various capacities with Vancouver. The new coach in Springfield, Jeff Truitt, brings a track record of success from the WHL with him, and also doesn’t have a history with the Oilers. It isn’t so much that it’s wrong to hire people who have history with an organization; it’s just wrong to hire second-tier candidates because of that history.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 BUCK75
November 19 2008, 01:53PM
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Stay here Jonathan...we need you!

I would say they have broken the tradition after they hire a replacement for the current oach who is not tied to the organization in any way. Tambo & Truitt are a good start - we'll have to wait to see who eventually replaces MacT before or after the season ends.

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#2 Bob Arctor
November 19 2008, 02:15PM
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How come no mention of Buchberger? Doesn't jive with the good news?

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#3 Rick
November 19 2008, 02:23PM
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The Edmonton situation is an interesting one. More than a few people and bloggers tend to harp on the good 'ole boys club here in Edmonton but it doesn't seem as blatant to me as it seems to be to others.

Assistant coaches aside, because coaches bringing in assistants that they are familiar with is not unique to MacTavish, there has only been 1 significant shift in the Oilers front office in their entire 30 years. That happened when Sather left and Lowe was hired.

MacT being promoted was a natural extension of Lowe's promotion because MacT was chosen by Lowe as an assistant prior to being GM, it was logical that the guy he chose in the first place would get the promotion.

As far as Lowe's appointment goes, the EIG didn't hide the fact that Lowe was being promoted because of who he was and not what he was. Think back to time it happened. The Oilers were still fighting the optics left behind by Pocklington and Sather was the only guy that the fans ever really knew running the team. The Oilers OFF ICE was a bigger priority than the Oilers ON ICE and the EIG never tried to hide that.

If there is any real critisism it would be the duration of their tenures, atleast form a coaching point of view, but that is an entirely different debate.

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#4 Jonathan Willis
November 19 2008, 03:09PM
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Bob - Rick hit the nail on the head with this comment:

...coaches bringing in assistants that they are familiar with is not unique to MacTavish

Coaches like to pick their own assistants from the stockpile of guys they know, and it makes a good deal of sense to me.

Rick - I well remember the fears that Lowe would jump ship with Sather; it was a dark time. I'm probably largely in the minority, but I think that the vast majority of times a coach is fired, it was the GM who was at fault. Switching coaches generally gives an artificial boost in performance, because players know the knives are out, but generally it isn't the coach's fault, IMO. The obvious exceptions are where the coach is blatantly against the grain: Yawney/Melrose are recent examples.

MacTavish was a little rough the first couple of years, but he's evolved into an excellent tactician, and his player development is first rate. I'm not usually a big fan of his first-quarter experiments, and he's sub-par with goaltenders and powerplays, but he's well above league average in enough areas that I'm content with him. Basically, it boils down to the fact that I'm reasonably confident a replacement would be a downgrade.

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#5 Jonathan Willis
November 19 2008, 03:11PM
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Oh, and to everybody: I'm not going anywhere. Wanye's got the facts correct in the post below this, but basically the fellows running this site (DJ and Wanye) have been extremely professional and easy to get along with. Any problems that come up are usually a result of me not communicating things clearly - and fortunately they're pretty patient guys.

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#6 Wanye Gretz
November 19 2008, 03:16PM
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"professional and easy to get along with" - take THAT parole officer.

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#7 namflashback
November 19 2008, 03:33PM
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KP was hired sometime ago and wasn't an "Oilers" guy. Can't dispute his improvement of the scouting and developmental group.

Olcyk was a smart hire too. Lawyer. Former consultant to the NHLPA. Young, numbers guy.

Bob Mancini was not involved with the Oilers before and is there Development Coach.

The Buchberger ascent is a head scratcher for sure, but including Tambellini, that's 4 key guys who were uniquely qualified for their roles.

With Moores, Buchburger, and Huddy all at contract end this year -- we may see some interesting change.

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#8 Jerry MacWire
November 19 2008, 06:24PM
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First to John Mackinnon at the Edmonton Urinal, because I know you read these blogs. Yeah, blogs, something that Canwest only recently noticed exist, hence the emphasis on them. While I write this, maybe Lenny Asper should post a blog instead of his mass emailings to staff all across the chain about what a sad life it is when you spend more money than you have.

John, I am writing this under a pseudonym, something that I am loathe to do. Remember as you pontificate to us about anonymous callers and posters that because we don't have to fear retribution we can call a spade a spade with the Oilers, unlike the majority of the local media who have been ultra easy on MacT.

Does anyone really think that Mr. K is going to have a wholesale housecleaning until he sees exactly how the organization is run, from top to bottom?

I see a major wiping of the slate coming within a year, regardless of how the Oil do. The championship tradition is a memory of what it once was. Katz didn't get to be where he is by making bad decisions in business and not learning from them.

Relax everyone, Bucky and the boys will be working elsewhere in a year.

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#9 Jonathan Willis
November 19 2008, 06:39PM
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Olczyk was an excellent hire, and maybe it's just me, but I get very excited when I hear words like "salary grid" coming out of Oilers head office.

Prendergast was a nice steal from Central Scouting back when the Oilers were winning cups, and his record speaks for itself. Mancini seems like another good hire.

Prendergast, Mancini, Olczyk

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#10 Antony Ta
November 20 2008, 12:23AM
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Kelly Buchberger would be one of them.

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#11 PaperDesigner
November 20 2008, 11:23AM
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At the time of the hiring of Lowe and MacTavish, was there necessarily any qualified candidates who wanted to muddle along with a mediocre franchise that seemed destined to finish 7th to 10th in perpetuity?

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#12 shakey
November 20 2008, 01:08PM
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'Offering' Rob Daum a scouting position so Bucky could be an assistant is a blatant example of Boys on the Bus helping each other. Daum was a successful university coach that could have brought fresh ideas and a different approach to the team. His value is weakened by being a scout. Bucky is a Mac T clone and oving forward I don't see that as progress.

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#13 Deep Oil
November 20 2008, 01:11PM
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Canwest Global 0.68 per share down 90% from 2007 - Oilersnation - Priceless Lets just face the fact that we are bored with a non playoff team with a coach that has been here too long - without the blip in 2006 - would MacT be here still - Lowe has a job for life with Batman until he desires to take Bettman's place back in NYC - remember the Oiler mantra - one step forward - one step back - tease the fans with some splash and dash every 2nd and 3rd game like a high school girlfriend - never let go - what could of been.... bottom line is trade the 4 or 5 non producers on this team and start over - sell Penner while you still can - we only lost multiple draft picks on this guy - we were ALL in shock and liking the fact that Burke was pissed off - it created a distraction that if we added up all of our dimes that - we could have TWO superstars on this team via free agency if we didn't settle for second best playing like 3rd and fourth liners - bottom line is I am hoping rock bottom hits so we can clean house and start with a coach that is respected by the fans - players and management - at this point - guessing who that is - is anyone's guess - as the economy cracks it will be interesting to see how many teams fold and players are looking for new homes on lower contracts - can you say Mario three times fast - he had to take the team as a creditor....

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#14 Jonathan Willis
November 20 2008, 01:25PM
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Shakey - What I wrote about Daum in May:

The big thing I dislike here is the rumoured Buchberger-Daum swap. If Daum is so valuable at analyzing players, bump him into a management position or keep him coaching. Beyond apprenticing Buchberger for an eventual head coaching gig, what does promoting him do? Certainly many of these ex-Oilers are quality guys with a decent skillset, but are they really the most qualified candidates out there?

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#15 Bob Arctor
November 20 2008, 04:19PM
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JW -My point was, you couldn't mention all the previous assistant coaches and nepotism while not bringing up Buchberger. If Kelly was solely Mac T's choice, then it reflects poorly upon him. Guy had a good post on Kelly back in April here. The qualities Guy lists doesn't give me much hope for Buchberger ever coaching a skilled team.

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