Safe Is Death

Jonathan Willis
May 31 2012 12:42PM

There’s a school of thought out there that suggests that Oilers’ G.M. Steve Tambellini would be making a mistake if he opted for anything other than a head coach with NHL experience. If this hiring fails, the reasoning goes, it will probably cost Tambellini his job, and it would be a mistake to gamble on someone inexperienced.

That reasoning, while understandable, doesn’t jive with past experience.

Remember back in 2009, when Steve Tambellini was making his pivotal first hiring of an NHL coach? He decided to bring in the coaching dream team: the uber-experienced Pat Quinn as head coach and chief motivator, with former Rangers’ bench boss Tom Renney as an associate coach.

On paper, things couldn’t be better. Quinn had a long history with Tambellini and a successful career as an NHL coach behind him. He’d shown he could coach younger players by winning gold with both Canada’s U-18 and U-20 teams on the World stage.

For those who worried about Quinn’s ability as a tactician, Renney was on the staff as an associate. Like Quinn, Renney was a known quantity for Tambellini from their time together in Vancouver, and of course he’d also had a long career as an NHL head coach.

Then the team imploded under Quinn, stayed in last place under Renney during a rebuild year, and advanced a total of one spot in the overall NHL standings under Renney one year later (though it’s worth noting that they were much improved in terms of goal differential). Quinn was “promoted” to a front-office position to finish off his contract; Renney’s contract was not renewed when it ended.

The Best Candidate

Maybe the best candidate is an experienced NHL coach. If that’s the case, then so be it. On the other hand, there is a trio of first-rate AHL coaching prospects available, men that haven’t had an opportunity behind an NHL bench before. They’re all relatively young, all very highly regarded, and any of the group might be considered the best coach available depending on perspective.

It would be a mistake to develop tunnel vision, to say ‘this is an important decision that could lead to heads rolling; therefore we’d better turn to experience.’

Dan Bylsma had three seasons as an AHL assistant, one as an NHL assistant (with the New York Islanders) and a grand total of 54 AHL games as a head coach under his belt when the Pittsburgh Penguins handed him the top job in the NHL. He won the Stanley Cup in that first half-season with the team. Randy Carlyle had three seasons as an NHL assistant and six seasons as an IHL/AHL head coach when the Ducks hired him to run their team; he got them to the Western Conference finals as a rookie, and won the Stanley Cup with the team the following year. John Tortorella – who used the “safe is death” line when Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup in 2004 – had been an NHL assistant for a long time but had just two seasons of AHL head coaching experience when the Lightning hired him.

Experience can pay off, of course. Claude Julien, Joel Quenneville, Mike Babcock and Peter Laviolette had all coached other NHL teams before they won it all.

The important thing is to land the best candidate. If one of Todd Nelson or Dallas Eakins or Jon Cooper is the candidate that with the best plan for the Edmonton Oilers, then that’s the guy to hire. Nelson had success with an Oilers farm team that has been terrible since forever. Eakins guided his team to improvements in each season behind the bench, culminating in this year’s team, fighting for the AHL championship. Cooper ran an NAHL juggernaut, then as coach/G.M. of the Green Bay Gamblers took them from last place to the championship in two seasons, and guided his AHL club to 28 straight wins this year. If Ralph Krueger - one of the key architects of Switzerland’s rise from laughing stock to a team that can play any one, - is the man with the necessary vision, hire him.

When I look at the crop of NHL re-treads – a list reduced by one with Bob Hartley’s hiring in Calgary – I find myself wondering if there’s a fit there. There could be – there are arguments that could be made in favour of most of the candidates, in particular John Stevens – but I don’t see a slam-dunk obvious choice for the job.

I see a long list of people who might be the right fit – both with and without NHL experience – and I think it would be a mistake to cross of the latter group out of a misguided belief that there’s a “safe” choice in the former. The last time around, the safe choices didn’t work out.

Recently by Jonathan Willis

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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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#51 Gret99zky
May 31 2012, 06:34PM
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I think of coaches as teachers.

When I went to school some teachers made a big difference and pushed me further than where I thought I could go. I never skipped that class.

Others not so much. In fact, the less impressed I was by the performance the more I skipped class.

Some were too nice, some too strict.

Didn't matter their age and I never saw their resumes. Only that they made a difference to me.

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#52 Gret99zky
May 31 2012, 06:45PM
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If it turns out that Eric Belanger, after completing ONE year of a 3 year $5.25M contract, has asked for a trade...

and the season he had...

and the falloff...

well I hope he can live with himself.

In Oil Change ST commented that EB wanted another year because he believed where the team was heading and wanted to be a part of it.

I will reserve namecalling until it becomes official.

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#53 DSF
May 31 2012, 06:54PM
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Wäx Män Riley wrote:

For all the Oil-hating going on about how this team has no direction, how they continue to lose, and how management is screwing these kids up.....

I suggest doing what I just did....

1.Google "Ryan Nugent hopkins" (I'm sure you will get the same effect by substituting RNH with "Jordan Eberle" or "Taylor Hall"), then click the "Videos" link on the side.

2.Watch for 10 minutes

3.Come back feeling invigorated.

This team will be much improved in the standings next year and will be a force moving forward.

Yay Oilers!

Now, go Google Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Zach Bogosian and Atlanta Thrashers and get back to me.

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#54 David S
May 31 2012, 07:05PM
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@Jonathan,

Bylsma, Carlyle and Tortorella each had NHL coaching experience. They just didn't have any time in the big chair. I don't care how good a junior level coach might be, he doesn't have big league experience which I imagine has to count for alot.

Please name a successful NHL coach that made the jump from the junior level to a head coaching job in the bigs with effectively ZERO NHL bench time.

By your own definition, Krueger would seem to be a player for the job.

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#55 Quicksilver ballet
May 31 2012, 07:07PM
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DSF isn't too far off track here. Sure, today it's Belanger wanting out, how long till one/some of the fab 4 start getting sick and tired, if their mind isn't wandering already?

Take your time Tambo, no need to do more than the bare minimum. 4 and 14 are here for another 5 yrs, if you can keep them satisfied with the direction of the team that is.

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#56 Light, Sweet, Crude
May 31 2012, 09:19PM
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Twitter says to me, it says- Belanger wants out, and the Habs are kickin' the tires?

I give them Belanger and the First for the Third and Pacioretty.

Tweet that!

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#57 Walter Sobchak
May 31 2012, 10:00PM
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I understand that Bylsma had extenuating circumstances that played into it, but I’m kind of on the side that “Safe is Death”

There have been many good rookie coach’s that were better options then the so called veteran coach’s.

The biggest one comes to mind is Babcock, in his second year took the most unlikely team to the finals, then went on to become one of the games best.

Gulutzan took the Stars to the very brink of the playoffs, that team was not suppose to finish anywhere near the playoffs.

Nolan in his second season lead the sabers to the Northeast Division title and won coach of the year

All those teams were not very good teams.

I think Krueger deserves a shot as much as Sutter, however since Tambellini basically pinned a target on his head and his own job is on the line, he has no chose but to hire a veteran coach.

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#58 Reg Dunlop
May 31 2012, 10:35PM
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I have seen Sutter refered to as part of the old boys club. Can anyone explain how this is so?

During the oil glory years,any Islander was the enemy. The oilers were always kept Sutter free, like Alberta is kept rat free.

Tambo may have crossed paths with Brent on the Isles, possibly even briefly in Lethbridge as jrs. But I don't see any real connection.

Enlighten me.

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#59 Rob
May 31 2012, 10:40PM
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@ Gregor

Not saying he isn't a good coach, but the Oilers are a team that is coming off of 30th, 30th and 29th place finishes. I don't see anything comparable to them and the time Bylsma took over the Pens.

What he said! The Pens and Oilers situations aren't comparable.

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#60 Devolution
May 31 2012, 10:45PM
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The other day and by another writer there was a link to an article that statistically broke down how important a 'proven' winner is and the evidence was clear, not very.

The gist of the article is that organizational intelligence, knowing where to get help within the organization and how to leverage your contacts, is more important that the raw talent of the person in question. The estimate in the article was that only 30% of success could be attributed to the actual talent of the person. This carried over into other industries as well.

The conclusion? Find the best people who are already in your organization.

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#61 Bucknuck
May 31 2012, 10:46PM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

I have seen Sutter refered to as part of the old boys club. Can anyone explain how this is so?

During the oil glory years,any Islander was the enemy. The oilers were always kept Sutter free, like Alberta is kept rat free.

Tambo may have crossed paths with Brent on the Isles, possibly even briefly in Lethbridge as jrs. But I don't see any real connection.

Enlighten me.

Old boys club in my world is buddies with Kevin Lowe or Glen Sather or Mark Messier.

If you are buddies with those guys and it gets you an "in" with the organization, then you are part of the old boys club.

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#62 justDOit
May 31 2012, 11:14PM
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@Reg Dunlop

This might seem like a stretch, but isn't there a Sutter on the Oiler's scouting group? Still not exactly what I would consider the 'ol boys.

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#63 Reg Dunlop
May 31 2012, 11:37PM
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When I hear 'old boys club' I think association with '80s' oilers like Smith and Buchburger. At any rate I agree with Bucknuck,we need to break free from this living in the past thing,and while I think Sutter would be an upgrade over Renney, young hungry and smart like Jon Cooper deserves every consideration.

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#64 Reg Dunlop
May 31 2012, 11:43PM
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As an oil fan from the start, I used to refer to Duane(dog) and Brent(pup) Sutter as p#ss and s#it. Hated them just as much as Otto and Lanny. Sorry, just rambling.

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#65 ralph_u
May 31 2012, 11:55PM
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Just the best candidate that is available I don't know enough but from this side of the fish bowl I would take Sutter or Krueger. Now most of the Sutter hating is from guys that don't like Flamers yet say management shouldn't discriminate against candidates based on experience. Take the fact away he coached down the highway and tell me what is not to like in good honest hard working hockey like the Sutter's bring. Really, btw met his brother Darryl when stuck in Viking last June changed my opinion of him immediately. Remember Tambo should hire best guy available and should have final say if it is his ass on the line.

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#66 count grishnack
June 01 2012, 12:05AM
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OB1 Team Yakopov - F.S.T.N.F wrote:

I've got to say Krugers accomplishments with the Swiss team make him an interesting candidate.

SHUT UP.

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#67 count grishnack
June 01 2012, 12:06AM
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The Beaker wrote:

@OB1

You think Tambellini is making the decision? THAT IS FAITH :)

#Pessimism #ConspiracyTheory #SortOf

Seriously enough of the Klowe puppet bs you moron.

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#68 count grishnack
June 01 2012, 12:22AM
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DSF wrote:

Now, go Google Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Zach Bogosian and Atlanta Thrashers and get back to me.

MAYBE LIKING MY NICE BALL AND GOOGLE THAT TO ME.

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#69 count grishnack
June 01 2012, 12:25AM
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Jason Gregor wrote:

I don't think anyone should ever bring up Bylsma as a comparison.

Has any other "rookie" coach taken over a team late in a season that had lost in the Cup final the year before?

He had Crosby and Malkin and basically he wasn't a tyrant like Therrien. I'd say more of a perfect scenario.

Not saying he isn't a good coach, but the Oilers are a team that is coming off of 30th, 30th and 29th place finishes. I don't see anything comparable to them and the time Bylsma took over the Pens.

Sure but an AHL coach for this team does wonders.Young and hungry could work well with the kids.

Jon cooper looks like the Coach I want to be with the Oilers

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#70 DSF 2
June 01 2012, 01:06AM
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The Detroit Red Wings are good. Clearly we should trade our first pick for someone's fifth round pick and draft the next datsyuk!

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#71 mlcselli
June 01 2012, 01:42AM
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I read on another site last night, that Belanger was on a sports talk show in Montreal and apparently he said he wants to play for the Habs. I didn't hear the program myself, just read the comment someone posted, saying they heard it. In any event, I hope it's true and he gets accommodated.

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#72 The Beaker
June 01 2012, 07:04AM
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@count grishnack

"Seriously enough of the Klowe puppet bs you moron."

Really? It really is true that 12 year olds do not understand sarcasm.

Can we ban him yet?

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#73 JB
June 01 2012, 07:14AM
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Sorry book¡e, not trolling. Renney has extensive experience in the best league in the world. His teams have won playoff rounds, and he has been endorsed by some of the best players in the world as being ideal to play for (see, Jagr, Jaromir). I'm not discounting Krueger as having some talent, just suggesting that he's not more qualififed than Renney. Which he isn't, unless you have some deep insight into his resume that the rest of the Internet does not. Are you his agent?

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#75 freeze
June 01 2012, 10:40AM
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bit more on Stevens via 30 Thoughts: "8. Drew Doughty's improved play may be rising John Stevens's stock. Stevens, a fitness freak who was known as "Rambo," is credited with helping Doughty reach his enormous potential in the second half of this season. One thing opponents really notice about the defenceman: he's a much better player later in games. That has to do with conditioning and confidence. Stevens especially influenced the conditioning."

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#76 Wäx Män Riley
June 01 2012, 02:36PM
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DSF wrote:

Now, go Google Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley, Kari Lehtonen, Zach Bogosian and Atlanta Thrashers and get back to me.

Yep, they are good too....

So are Sedin, Sedin, Kesler, Luongo and The Vancouver Canucks. how many playoff wins and Stanley cups do they have?

By the same logic, The Oilers should have kept Penner, Greene, Stoll and Fraser. They would be in the cup finals right now.

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#77 oldhippy
June 01 2012, 04:58PM
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I like Jon Cooper as a coach.....That said, Renney was criticized by some fans on COH for using big words and trying to sound to cerebral. Cooper has a bachelors in business and a law degree. Oiler Al's head will explode from Cooper's post game interviews.

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#78 Rod The Viking
June 01 2012, 10:45PM
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Reg Dunlop wrote:

As an oil fan from the start, I used to refer to Duane(dog) and Brent(pup) Sutter as p#ss and s#it. Hated them just as much as Otto and Lanny. Sorry, just rambling.

Brent's nickname is puke (he used to get motion sick on the bus) they had some of there best games against the Oilers

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