The Old Boys’ Club

Jonathan Willis
May 06 2014 01:33AM

Old Boys

One of the most commonly cited critiques that the management of the Edmonton Oilers (at this site and elsewhere) is the perception of it as an old boys’ club. In some ways that’s fair, in others it ignores NHL reality.

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The simple fact is that pretty much every general manager in the game makes use of his personal connections to some extent in hiring people to work under him.

Steve Tambellini certainly did when he joined the Oilers, bringing in a number of individuals with whom he had familiarity – people he knew from Vancouver or Hockey Canada or his playing career.

This isn’t unique to managers on bad teams, either. To pick one example, Detroit’s Ken Holland currently employs Chris Chelios, Kris Draper and Jiri Fischer in senior management roles. Kirk Maltby is a professional scout; Chris Osgood is the team’s goaltending coach. Another ex-Red Wing, Steve Yzerman, came up through Detroit management until he eventually ended up running the show in Tampa Bay.

Given a choice between strangers and trusted associates, most managers lean on their network and bring in people who they know and can count on. In that regard, to criticize Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish (who share much the same network) for doing what everyone else does is misguided.

Relentless

Daryl Katz

“Relentless” has been one of the favoured buzzwords in Edmonton the last few years. Owner Daryl Katz has described his commitment to being “absolutely relentless” in turning the Oilers into an elite team. General manager Craig MacTavish has used the term, too, most recently in reference to the messaging from head coach Dallas Eakins.

To be relentless means to be unyieldingly severe, strict or harsh. It doesn’t just mean never quitting; it implies total commitment to a goal unchecked by other considerations.

It’s a necessary quality in a manager overseeing people with whom he has a personal connection.

There exists a fine line between hiring trusted people and cronyism. For me, the line can be summed up in one word: merit.

There is nothing wrong with hiring a friend to a position he’s adequately qualified for, or in the case of an entry-level hiring if he will excel in the role with a little training. A problem develops when a subpar candidate is hired because of his personal connections, but at least that’s a correctable choice. The biggest problem is when a subpar candidate is not only hired, but maintained in his position even once his failings in that role have become obvious.

No amount of personal ties should excuse incompetence. It takes a relentless manager, someone with a streak of ruthlessness, to fire a friend who isn’t getting the job done, but sometimes it can be necessary. Job performance, rather than personal connection, has to be the basis for maintaining employees in their positions.

Another area where a relentless commitment is necessary is in management of communications.

Looking at the Oilers, as an example, the team’s president and general manager both have history with people much lower on the organizational depth chart – individual scouts (both pro and amateur) and of course the assistant coaches. This isn’t an uncommon situation in an NHL organization; we could say the same thing about Detroit and countless other teams.

For the team to work, though, people in the middle – scouting directors, head coaches – need to be able to function without being undercut by those close ties. For that to happen, three points are essential:

  • The lower-level employee needs to respect proper channels, refusing to use his personal connections to undermine his direct superior.
  • The person caught between personal connections needs to make his position clear. He has to be direct with both his subordinate and superior that his role can only be effectively filled if there isn’t a back-channel undermining his authority.
  • The decision-maker at the top of the organization chart has to be relentlessly professional. In social situations, he can’t be asking his lower-level friends about their bosses, and if the conversation moves in that direction it is his job to shut it down.

The Short Version

To recap, the unifying element in all of this is that in the workplace personal relationships need to be subordinate to performance.

There is nothing wrong with bringing in trusted people who can do the job; having mutual trust and respect makes for a more harmonious organization. Problems only arise when personal ties supplant professional merit.

Subpar candidates with personal ties should not be hired. Underperforming employees with personal ties should not be maintained. Personal ties should never be used to undermine proper channels.

Organizations that sacrifice merit at the altar of friendship fail.

From the outside it isn’t clear that the Oilers’ failings are a result of cronyism. What is clear is that the Oilers have plenty of failings, and that there has been no shortage of opportunity for cronyism.

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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#101 Wandingo
May 07 2014, 10:09AM
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Whatever you wanna call it, it's painfully obvious that it doesn't work. Time for change

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#102 The Soup Fascist
May 07 2014, 11:36AM
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@ Doug Sorensen

"Paul Holmgren just got promoted and they hired Ron Hextall as GM, zinggggggg"

Doesn't matter.

Isn't the GM just the puppet for the POHO's inept moves in ALL NHL organizations??.

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#103 Zarny
May 07 2014, 12:25PM
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Next up, is Connor McJesus. wrote:

Col by comparison has finished 28th or 29th 3 of the last 6 years. However, instead of twiddling their thumbs waiting for a G they drafted in 2004 to "maybe" become a #1 starter they rolled through Budaj and Anderson before trading 1st and 2nd round picks for Varlamov close to 3 years ago. Instead of navel gazing hoping someone would become a top-pair shutdown D they traded two very good young players (Shattenkirk & Stewart) for a former #1 overall pick over 3 years ago.

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In your opinion, who falls into that category right now for the Oil, considering it may be too late for any resemblance of a return for Gags? Too early for Yak, still?

Would you consider making Fasth part of a package if it brought back a handsome reward, could they/would you expect they'd receive something decent for Fasth and Gags together? Would you even deem this management group capable of making a decision such as this?

I have 10 more questions for you, but I don't want to tire you out there Zarny.

Which players on the Oilers' roster would I consider trading? The short answer is all of them.

Hall is the only player on the roster that approaches untouchable. 80 pts in 75 games as a 21-22 y/o during a season where only Crosby topped 90 pts is significant. So unless the return is Malkin or something ridiculous you don't gain anything by trading him.

On D the Oilers have a logjam of 19-22 y/o on the left side with Marincin, Klefbom and Nurse. Playing all of them together would be an unmitigated disaster. If Nurse is the long term plan as the top pairing LS D then Marincin and Klefbom are dueling for a spot on the 2nd pair. I'd shop both and see what the difference in return is and then I'd trade one of them this summer for an area of need. If the Oilers draft Ekblad I'd do the same with Simpson, Petry and Schultz in that order.

On F I believe you have to swap out 2 of Hall, Nuge, Eberle, Gagner, Perron and Yakupov for a C that better compliments Nuge and some size/grit/etc. If real life were a video game I'd trade Gagner and Perron because if you rank them 1-6 in terms of talent they are 5th and 6th. Real life isn't a video game though so I think you have to move Eberle or Yakupov. Eberle would bring the bigger return. Yakupov's struggles mean you likely have to package him with a draft pick (2014 3rd ovrall).

If the reward was handsome I'd consider packing Fasth but I honestly don't think Fasth/Gagner gets you much. And it leaves the Oilers with all of their eggs in one basket again in net. I like Scrivens but he's not proven. Unless Brossoit shows up in camp and forces your hand in net I wouldn't move either G right now.

Yes, this management group is capable of making these decisions. Not every move MacT has made has been a home run but he did fine trading for Perron, Fasth, Scrivens and Hendriks. This is not different; just different names. I'm not a Kevin Lowe fan but as GM he traded for Pronger, Peca, Roloson, Samsanov and Spacek for a run at the Cup. Heatley said no but they did work out a deal with Ott. Their primary failing has been dithering and inactivity during the rebuild.

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#104 Sorensenator
May 07 2014, 01:30PM
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The Soup Fascist wrote:

@ Doug Sorensen

"Paul Holmgren just got promoted and they hired Ron Hextall as GM, zinggggggg"

Doesn't matter.

Isn't the GM just the puppet for the POHO's inept moves in ALL NHL organizations??.

Except for the POHO that are both. A GM of an NHL team is a very important position, we are not talking USA politics here.

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#105 Cold Hard Truth
May 07 2014, 08:20PM
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Jonathan Willis wrote:

I'm sorry, where did I suggest cronyism wasn't a problem for the Oilers?

What I said was, "From the outside it isn’t clear that the Oilers’ failings are a result of cronyism. What is clear is that the Oilers have plenty of failings, and that there has been no shortage of opportunity for cronyism."

In other words, I can't say that the Oilers' failings are the result of cronyism because I haven't seen the internal dynamic firsthand. They very well may be connected; I'm just making a point of not drawing a straight line between them because the evidence (at least most of it) is circumstantial.

Your argument that you cannot draw a line between cronyism and the Oilers' failing is moot; unless we have MacTavish or Lowe stating explicitly that the hired personnel who are not qualified, which has led to the failings, we cannot know the 'internal dynamic' (Even then we cannot know for sure, because MacTavish's assessment of his team can be wrong.)

Nonetheless, based off what we know as outside observers I can still a draw a line between cronyism and the Oilers' failings (short of hooking MacTavish or Lowe up to a lie detector).

Let's look at the case study of Kelly Buchberger and Steve Smith. Is their employment the product of cronyism? Their history with the Oilers would seem to suggest so. But even MacTavish confirmed this suspicion when, during his last press conference, emphasized Buchberger and Smiths' ties to the organization as being one of their greatest qualities. As if this, rather than what they actually contribute to the team in terms of results, merits their place on the organization. This is clearly cronyism.

So now that we've established that their position is a product of cronyism, let's look at whether or not this has contributed to the poor state of the team. The results of the past several years would suggest that while they may not have necessarily hurt the team, they did not help it either. Of course, this could be the fault of the head coach and not the assistant coaches. However, MacTavish's struggle to give any coherent, semi-cogent answer as to why they have survived 5 head coach changes and what positives they bring to the team confirm that their employment has not led to anything positive, but as the results have suggested, have only contributed to the negative state of the team.

So there we have it. An example, as far as the outsider can observe, of how cronyism has led to a overall negative impact of the team.

Such micro-analysis is unnecessary; the cronyism and failure (which I have proven are causal and do not just correlate)is blindingly obvious to most people. But I thought I'd entertain you, any way.

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#106 seanjohn667
May 07 2014, 10:36PM
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well, Jonathan, everything you suggest might or could be happening, like cronyism and unprofessionalism, is IMO absolutely happening. No proof, only, like you say, a strong indication. the organization is broken. there must be some reasons why. sometimes, those reasons are greed and embezzlement (can probably scratch those), but other reasons are the examples you site and that everyone thinks. the fact that Lowe is employed is the strongest case for cronyism.

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#107 Casey
May 08 2014, 12:34PM
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It is okay for Katz to bring in a guy or two that he knows WITH EXPERIENCE in the role they will be employed in but when you chose someone for a job just because you know them is a really dumb to run a franchise, and if they fail in their jobs than fire them!!! Don't keep em around cause you are lonely. This isn't a lunch table at the cafeteria you eat in everyday

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#108 kel
May 08 2014, 01:11PM
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@Sorensenator

Just another hall lover. Puck hogs usually get lots of points. He can't pass can't shoot turns the puck over more than anyone because he's selfish! If they traded this useless over rated player for a d man oilers would be in better shape. Period.

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