Safe Is Death

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

    • Bucknuck

      To hear someone in the know say this, before they even interview candidates, really makes me sick. Tunnel Vision close minded stupidity. EDIT – Not you Robin, Oilers Mgmt.

      IF they interview candidates and compare the candidates and then choose Kreuger, then I am fine with the choice. I like Krueger better than a lot of candidates mentioned. I just want them to make an informed and thoughtful decision.

  • Bucknuck

    After you mentioned Jon Cooper in a previous thread, I did some research on the man and there’s nothing not to like so far in his resume. He’s a Lawyer turned coach who has done nothing but win. Add his legal degree to the mix and you can’t help but think (future GM?) that he has a big future in the NHL.

    I hope they take a really hard look at him, and not dismiss him because he doesn’t have NHL experience, or because Tambellini and Lowe haven’t worked with him before. This should not be an Old boys club hiring (Sutter).

  • Bucknuck

    Would you really call it “imploding” under Quinn?

    Or can you attribute losing your best forward, defenseman and goaltender as a major reason for the decline?

    While the results may not of came immediately, Quinn definitely had the team playing a system which may or may not have been successful had the injuries not piled up.

    • Yeah, they imploded under Quinn.

      Even at the start of the year, when fans were excited by a percentage-fuelled run, the team was getting murdered on the shot clock. Even without injuries, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that the team was going to make the post-season.

      Quinn ignored line-matching entirely, settling for a 1-2-3-4 roll that saw JF Jacques on the top line and a grinder on all of them in the name of ‘balance.’ It was a terrible strategy, and while Quinn was cursed with a lousy run of injuries, his strategy was ill-suited to the personnel at his disposal.