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

  • RexLibris

    Why couldn’t Belanger have (allegedly) asked for a trade when Gauthier was still the GM? Even Tambellini might have been able to coerce a 1st round pick out of him….

    Okay, maybe not Tambellini, but he could have at least nabbed a second. A 3rd? A signed Jean Beliveau sweater?

    Good news, maybe, the Oilers signed Davidson. Add another defenseman looking for some ice time in OKC next year.

  • oilerdago

    I am all for going with an unheralded name that isn’t experienced. I agree that none of the coaches being discussed with previous NHL experience really excite me. The more that I read about Jon Cooper or Dallas Eakins, the more that I hope they get an honest chance.

  • book¡e

    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.

  • oilerdago

    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.

  • @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.

    • Well the jury is still out on these two, but Guy Boucher and Peter DeBoer come to mind as recent examples. Mike Babcock had never served as an NHL assistant before guiding the Ducks to the Finals either.

      Beyond that, there are plenty of others. Scotty Bowman jumped from coaching junior hockey to the St. Louis Blues; they made the Finals in his debut season. Glen Sather moved directly from his playing career to the Oilers’ bench (albeit WHA, not NHL). Jacques Lemaire had half a season as a Canadiens assistant before taking the top job in his first year of NHL coaching. Mike Keenan took Philadelphia to the finals in his first season in the NHL. Marc Crawford took over the Avalanche after a strong junior/AHL career. Ditto for Bob Hartley.

      NHL experience is a nice thing to have, but not essential in the right candidate.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    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.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    Do not renew Tams contract . Get a new GM in place before he screws up with our kids moving forward ! He has bungled badly with forming a core base of performing veterans, and even coaches. This rebuild will ultimately fail in the results column so long as Tams is heading it . Lowe might also be part of problem like Tams – but at least he should try to get us a new GM .

  • Jason Gregor

    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.

    • Reg Dunlop

      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

  • Light, Sweet, Crude

    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!

  • 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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

    • Bucknuck

      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.

  • Clyde Frog

    The sky is falling! The sky is falling…

    I never thought DSF would become synonymous with chicken little, but yup there it is.

    I’ll give you a hint, we hope and talk because we are fans. You post doom because you want to be recognised as being smarter than all.

    Well, I’ll officially recognize you as the smartest kid who can google succesful teams and point out how we are not them, have not their roster, gm or coach.

    Kudos chicken little, kudos.

  • Light, Sweet, Crude

    @ 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.

  • Light, Sweet, Crude

    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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

  • Reg Dunlop

    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.

  • ralph_u

    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.

  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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.”

  • oldhippy

    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.