In the summer of 2013, the Edmonton Oilers decided to fire Ralph Krueger and replace him with Dallas Eakins. In so doing, they snagged a much-ballyhooed AHL head coach from the Maple Leafs organization and passed over Todd Nelson, a less-ballyhooed but equally accomplished minor-league head coach.
Leaving aside the qualifications of the individuals in question, it was a problematic organizational move for a couple of reasons.
The Uselessness of Job Interviews
There are reams and reams of data that suggest that the job interview is a terrible way to assess candidates for any position. This is how Laszlo Bock, a top human resources manager with Google, described his company’s findings in an interview with the New York Times:
Leadership is a perennially difficult, immeasurable problem, so suddenly people are saying, “Maybe I can measure some piece of it.” Part of the challenge with leadership is that it’s very driven by gut instinct in most cases—and even worse, everyone thinks they’re really good at it. The reality is that very few people are. Years ago, we did a study to determine whether anyone at Google is particularly good at hiring. We looked at tens of thousands of interviews, and everyone who had done the interviews and what they scored the candidate, and how that person ultimately performed in their job. We found zero relationship. It’s a complete random mess, except for one guy who was highly predictive because he only interviewed people for a very specialized area, where he happened to be the world’s leading expert.
When we look at the process that led the Oilers to hire Eakins – again, ignoring the individual and focusing solely on how things happened – this is problematic. Originally, Edmonton’s plan was to hire an experienced associate coach for Krueger, and to that end they interviewed a lot of candidates, including Eakins, Paul Maurice and Rick Bowness. The dominant narrative associated with the changeover was one that Elliotte Friedman explained at the time:
To me, @JonathanWillis it’s not about Krueger as much as it is about Eakins. People think very highly of him and my guess is the Oilers…
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) June 8, 2013
decided they wanted him. If they hire him as an associate, it’s rough because it means he’ll constantly be seen as a replacement.
— Elliotte Friedman (@FriedgeHNIC) June 8, 2013
Perhaps that isn’t exactly how it happened; I don’t know. However, what information became public is consistent with the idea that the Oilers interviewed Eakins, decided they liked him a lot, and opted to make him a head coach in place of Krueger because if they didn’t hire him someone else would have snapped him up.
If that is how it happened, it’s problematic because the typical job interview is a terrible way to assess candidates. Everyone thinks they can assess a person’s character in a 30 minute meeting, and they really can’t; there have even been studies that suggest that interviews can even negatively affect the hiring process.
Internal vs. External Candidates
Again, let’s ignore the individual candidates and focus solely on process. Consider two candidates, one internal to the organization and one external, and their track records:
- Four seasons as an AHL head coach, 157-114-41 record (0.569 points percentage), two playoff appearances, four series wins
- Two seasons as an NHL assistant coach, one as an AHL assistant coach, one as an NHL executive
- Three seasons as an AHL head coach, 125-76-31 record (0.606 points percentage), three playoff appearances, three series wins
- Two seasons as an NHL assistant coach, two seasons as an AHL assistant coach, three seasons as a UHL head coach, one season as a UHL player-coach
Of course we’re talking about Nelson and Eakins, and while Eakins has a touch more experience as a high-level head coach Nelson had been in the coaching game for a longer time and had a slightly better record as an AHL bench boss. Naturally, there’s a lot more data to look at than just that; respective team strengths, player and executive comments, and so on all play in. But superficially they’re awfully comparable candidates, with Nelson perhaps having a slight edge based on experience at lower levels.
But there’s an additional factor that on the whole should favour the inside over the outside hire. It’s obvious if we go back to a comment Nelson made last year, when asked about the general idea of an AHL coach giving guys he had in the minors a chance in the NHL (as his mentor Barry Trotz did in Nashville with players like Andrew Brunette):
Andrew Brunette was one of those guys – actually my brother was one of those guys, he played nine games with Barry the first year – but in the case of Will [Acton] and [Mark] Fraser and Ryan Hamilton and Ben Scrivens, Dallas has worked with him before so he has that trust in them and they trust him. We talked about that, right? He developed that with them, he knows what he’s going to get. If he sees that a piece can help the team up there, or having a guy like Ryan down here, he knows what he’s getting. I understand the value of a player that’s played for you before. If I move on wherever, and I’m looking for certain players, I know Teemu Hartikainen, Magnus, all the guys here. There’s guys I’ve coached in the past that I’ve tried to get here, guys like Nathan Oystrick, Clay Wilson, guys I’ve won with.
When an internal hire needs help in the NHL, his mind automatically goes back to the guys he had with the farm team, guys who can be called up at a moment’s notice and who are already familiar with the organization. When the external hire needs help in the NHL, he’s more apt to think about the guys he spent years with in another organization, rather than the guys down on the farm that he only knows from training camp.
It certainly rings true with the Oilers’ experience. A lot of Eakins’ old Toronto Marlies ended up playing in Edmonton: Ben Scrivens, Keith Aulie, Will Acton, Ryan Hamilton, Mark Fraser. That’s not solely the coach’s call; for example when Aulie was signed Craig MacTavish name-dropped pro scout Duane Sutter, who knew him from their time together in Calgary. But certainly having the coach say ‘yeah, I know X, he was a good honest player for me over in Toronto’ informs the decision to acquire that player.
In contrast, with Nelson’s elevation a lot of the players really standing out are guys he’s been familiar with from Oklahoma City. Anton Lander’s name springs to mind, but it’s interesting to watch the coach do things like play Ryan Hamilton and Iiro Pakarinen higher up the depth chart than Matt Fraser; there isn’t a lot of gap between those three players but it’s always easier for the guys with a history with a given coach to provide exactly what said coach is looking for.
We’ve veered back to the specific here, but the point I want to make is more general: In choosing between two similarly-qualified coaches, there are compelling reasons to prefer the internal candidate to the outside hire. The adjustment period is smaller, the internal candidate has better knowledge of the organization and its resources, and the job interview is *this* close to meaningless as an indicator of future success.
The grass isn’t always greener elsewhere.