Outside the box: who’s next?

Puzzled man with laptop on edge of seaside cliff

If Craig Heisinger can go from sharpening skates and ordering shoulder pads as equipment manager of the Winnipeg Jets to running one of the most successful franchises in the AHL as GM of the Manitoba Moose, anything is possible.

That’s exactly what Heisinger did. He went from the equipment room at old Winnipeg Arena to the executive suite with the Moose — he was promoted to assistant GM under Randy Carlyle and took over as GM in July 2002. If that’s not the hockey equivalent of working your way up from the mail room to running the company, nothing is.

Eight years later, with Heisinger still running the show under the True North Sports and Entertainment banner with the Vancouver Canucks AHL affiliate, it’s obvious the right man got the job and that somebody was smart enough to think outside the box in making it happen.

A hockey mind is a hockey mind. Teams with the intuition and smarts to spot one, and then put that person in a position where they can use it within the framework of player development, are successful more often than not.

There’s got to be a message for the Edmonton Oilers in there somewhere as they begin the search for a person to oversee their AHL farm team in Oklahoma City now that assistant GM Kevin Prendergast has been fired.

They’ve got to find the right person, and with the mess their AHL teams has been the past few seasons — when they had one at all — they’d better be willing to think outside the box.

They’d better get it right.

THE NEXT ONE

After 20 years in different capacities with the Oilers, including assistant GM in Edmonton, chief scout and overseer of the organization’s farm system, Prendergast lost his job today because, in the mind of GM Steve Tambellini, he wasn’t the right guy for the job. There’s been plenty of evidence of that.

That decision, given the organization has been a black hole at the AHL level too long, even before the call was made to suspend operation of the Edmonton Road Runners, comes as no surprise.

That’s especially true framed in what Tambellini said after the Oilers missed the playoffs for a fourth straight season as he, essentially, pointed a gun at Prendergast’s head in his address to the media. Today, he pulled the trigger. I’m thinking, given we’re talking about a 30th-place team, Tambellini has some bullets left, but I digress . . .

With the Oilers set to open shop in Oklahoma City, they have to get much better in the player development end of the business. If they don’t, it won’t matter what they do at the upcoming Entry Draft or any draft that comes after.

The Oilers farm system, especially at the AHL level, can’t be where prospects go to fade away. There’s been way too many cases of prospects succeeding in spite of the system instead of because of it.

So, who’s the right person for the job?

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

What Tambellini has to do now is identify that hockey mind, find the kind of overseer the Moose did with Heisinger’s unlikely rise from the skate sharpening machine. The challenge is to uncover a candidate with a real acumen for the job.

That person might be right under Tambellini’s nose. Maybe not. It might be somebody with a lengthy resume or somebody, like Heisinger, working in the equivalent of the mail room.

Either way, that acumen — the ability to assess talent, help procure it and, most importantly, understand what it takes to help develop it within the framework of an organizational concept —  should be weighted every bit as heavily as a thick resume.

Could it be somebody like Heisinger, with no track record in the front office? Sure. Why not? Will it be? That’ll depend if Tambellini is willing to look beyond the obvious candidates, the retreads, the people who’ve paid their dues and "deserve" a promotion.

As we get deeper into what promises to be an off-season of greater change than this organization has experienced in many years, we’re bound to get plenty of speculation about who might get the job.

I’m hoping Tambellini looks outside the box. If he does, he just might come up with a name or two who should be in his appointment book this summer. Somebody you wouldn’t expect. The right guy. The hockey mind.

NO HOMECOMING FOR HITCH

Ken Hitchcock’s name came up in The Journal today as a possible candidate to replace Steve Pleau as coach of the Edmonton Oil Kings, but that’s not likely to happen.

I talked to Hitchcock today and asked him about the possibility of a homecoming with the Oil Kings, seeing as he was fired as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets this season, not to mention the fact he has ties to Tambellini and Kevin Lowe through Team Canada.

Hitchcock, part of Team Canada at the Olympics in Vancouver, still has two years left on his contract with Columbus. Any potential job offers would have to go through GM Scott Howson.

"I still have the burn to coach, but my heart’s still in the NHL right now," Hitchcock said. "I feel like I’ve got five, six or seven good years left in me."

After years in the coaching grind, Hitchcock is laying low in California and recharging his batteries. He’s working out and resting up.

"I feel re-energized right now," he said. "I really just want to be ready for the next opportunity."

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.