The Problem with Passing Over Your AHL Coach

Todd Nelson

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

Dallas Eakins 2

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:

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:

External candidate:

  • 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

Internal candidate:

  • 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.

5-Fraser-1

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.

51-Lander-6

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.

RECENTLY BY JONATHAN WILLIS

  • Jordan88

    I think the key over the next few years for development is much more open lines of communication between the teams AHL coach and NHL coach and developmental staff.

    The fact that Nelson had so much experience and knows his players speaks volumes due to his successful transition to the NHL.

    Eakins had no clue, and was stubborn and set in his ways the fact he was playing Smyth on the first line at the start of the season was evident. I love Smytty he is the embodiment of what it means to be a hard working blue collar Oiler. But the wheels fell off and the years of blood sweat and tears had taken its toll. Everyone knew it and seen it how did Eakins not?

  • Jordan88

    Mr. Willis, you forget that one objective of an AHL coach is to get AHL players to turn into NHL players…how do Eakins and Nelson compare on that front?

  • Armchair_Gm

    I m Oilers fan living in Ontario, I knew hiring Eakins was a big mistake then. I always in favor of Todd Nelson over Eakins.

    Why was Kreuger fired? Oilers Penalty Kill and Power Play were among the top in NHL then.

    Eakins coaching approach is ‘His way or the Highway’, he put players in the dog house here with the Marlies instead of motivating them.

    Todd Nelson is a players’ coach, he evolve and adapt to his players. He motivate his players, he doesn’t hold grudges and put them in a dog house.

    Anybody can see how the players were playing with Eakins, their body language, they were not happy.

    With Todd Nelson it’s like night and day, the players are having fun and they play for their coach.

    Don’t win too many games down the stretch though, we need 13.5% for 2nd place to win a good pick in June. With the Leafs really tanking for 30th or 29th spot now, they are 4-23-3 last 30 games.

    Next season will be so much better, Oilers will contain for a playoff push then.

    Go Oilers Go!

  • Armchair_Gm

    I hated the Eakins hire right from the start, I thought at the time why not hire Nelson for a lot of the reasons Willis wrote in his article. Had oilers management done this we’d already know if Nelson was the right man for the job, and if he had failed as Eakins did we could at least go into this summer looking for an Experienced head coach instead of wondering what the hell to do now.
    Personally I’d like to see Nelson get a shot at the job I like his style and the way he handles the players even the ones he doesn’t know as well as the ones from the Barons.
    Dare to dream that this franchise will get things right sooner rather then later, but in not holding my breath. Go Oilers!!!!!!!

  • Goodkimchee

    JW, great column. Very insightful and thoughtful. I really appreciate your writing for those two characteristics.

    The thing I’m most worried about is MacT’s track record. As short as it has been, he has not made the best decisions, and I’m (unfortunately) confident that he will make a terrible decision for coaching. Again.

    We can clearly see that players that have not developed well under Eakins et. al have really stepped up under Nelson, and if Nelson is not hired as the new head coach, can we really say that the new coach, whomever he is, will be able to have players like Lander and Nail continue to trend upward? I’m doubtful. Granted, a lot of this upward trend can be attributed to maturity (for Lander) and a veteran centre (for Nail), but I still think that Todd deserves a pat for believing in these two young men, something that another head coach might not do, thereby causing these two players to regress and therefore be traded and then have us watch in admiration/disdain/disgust as those same players flourish elsewhere (hi Dubynk).

    As you said previously, this is a managerial issue: MacT does NOT have the ability to a) recognize talent, b) inspire his players and team (as a GM, not as a coach; he’s a great coach), c) acquire said talent. He just doesn’t.

    Question: the Oilers have been accused of cronyism for years. Was the Eakins hire (and passing over of Nelson) an attempt to show the hockey world and fans that the Oilers can look outside their own circle to identify and recruit? Was this MacT’s attempt at a bold move to just have it blow up in his face?

  • BobbyCanuck

    Thank – you Mr. Willis

    I feel a lot better about the two interviews I gassed in January. What does HR, or the line supervisor or the Director know? Bunch of half-wits, and no, I am not being sarcastic, just took this article for me to figure somethings out. Next time I think I’ll just straight up ask them if any internal candidates have applied.

    I think available coaches that are NOT in danger of getting thier house foreclosed on, would rather wait for an offer from any team, but the Oilers, much the same way we have been voted least favourite city to get traded too.

    What is a GM to do? Nobody want to play for us, is it because of the cold, the media/fan microscope, the no hope for a play-off position for 3 yrs (min).

    I am ok with any player/coach rejecting our love/hate/love for the above reasons, but if we are getting rejected because the word on the street is that Oil mgmt are bunch of back stabbing, vindictive aholes…well that reason can only be fixed by the owner…or his kid in about 20 yrs.

  • Hemmercules

    So what does this discussion state about the individual or group that made the decision in question?

    Why is/are he/they still in charge of making those decisions?

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    I find it boring to dissect past decisions in this manner. It’s too easy to frame your “I told you so” argument. Eakins doesn’t work out, so we say “external hire bad, internal hire good”. Keeping Bucky as an assistance coach didn’t work out, so we does that mean “internal hire bad”?

    • jonnyquixote

      I agree with this in regards to the conclusions drawn here and summarized by you, though I think it’s also fair to hold MacTavish over the coals for the Eakins hire.

      Even without the hindsight, it was a risk. It was a stupid, unnecessary, ego-driven risk. He even acknowledged it at the time as a risk. And it failed spectacularly.

      So he gets to have that hung around his neck, and should be called out for it until the organization shows that accountability and consequence isn’t something that starts and stops with the head coach.

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    Hindsight is 20/20.

    I find it boring to dissect past decisions in this manner. It’s too easy to frame your “I told you so” argument. Eakins doesn’t work out, so we say “external hire bad, internal hire good”. Keeping Bucky as an assistance coach didn’t work out, so we does that mean “internal hire bad”?

  • toprightcorner

    Unless MacT can hire a very clear upgrade over Nelson in the likes of Babcock or if Hitchcock or McLellan shake loose after the season, Nelson, if the team continues at its current pace or better, should be the guy hired.

    Nobody, even Nelson, would blame MacT for hiring one of those three guys if he was able to.

    The key is, whoever the coach is next season, that person needs 100% authority to bring in his own staff and if more than one current staff member stays then its we have even more issues with management than already speculated. I could see Rocky Thompson staying as Nelson has a few years of experience with him in the AHL.

  • Darth Oiler

    The problem with the Oilers ( re in one of the many problems) is they always swing for the fences. It goes across the whole organization Drafting, Trades, Front Office moves waiver pick ups ect it seems to be ingrained in the cluture I think it comes from the Kevin Lowe who got it from Glen Sather. Eakins is one example Paul Maurice would have been the safe pick. Jesse Niinimaki MAP, Riley Nash all examples of swings and misses. Sometimes you want to go for it on 4th and 10 sometimes you need to punt. The oilers manage the team like there playing madden.

  • Zarny

    Nice article. Solid points throughout.

    I wonder if the players weren’t a bit chapped with a “hot-shot” coach being brought in to learn them up.

    I agree with the comment that if a coach like Mclellan or Babcock were interested the Oilers should consider it. I don’t think that will be the case as I expect both would have too many options; but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

  • Paul Fistinyourface

    The problem is not that Oilers management doesn’t interview external coaching candidates, but that they don’t hire head coaches with NHL experience.

  • MacT's Neglected Helmet

    eakins came with alot of Toronto and eastern media hype. How often do we see eastern hockey team come through the west and get clobbered. How many eastern players come to the western conference and see their point total or performance drop. tsn and the eastern media never give western teams or players credit. How often do they even stay up and to watch western teams play. All to often they make accusations about western players that is so false you know they never seen this player play before. good example was last nights game darren Pang mentions Yaks unwillingness to go into corners or get hit. Over hype by media

  • jonnyquixote

    I’m a little skeptical of a narrative that suggests – even somewhat – that a problem with the Oilers is a failure to promote and retain internal hires.

    Egomania? Sure. Bad decision making in general? Absolutely. Inability to identify talent? Of course.

    Problematically looking to the outside of the organization for talent? No. Not this bunch.

  • BlazingSaitls

    The only thing Eakins ever achieved in the NHL was informing people how well coached the Dallas Cowboys are.

    I wish Katz held a press conference to announce he’s removing the ‘interim’ title from Nelson and putting it on MAcT and Lowe.

  • Anton CP

    Pretty sure no matter what MacT and Lowe will screw it up. They won’t hire Nelson citing the “big catch all star coach theory”, the players will tank again under the umpteenth coach in the last 5 years. Just like I don’t trust MacT to make any meaningful good trades same thing applies here. I wonder where the Nicholson audit of everything is at ? In my world fire Lowe and Howson and put a lot of pressure on MacT to perform better or get out. Nelson is most likely the best choice and if he can continue to get some results and improved play with a depleted roster then he deserves a chance. He also must be able to hire his own assistants not keep the ones that are in place (see Acton) unless he wants them.

  • Anton CP

    Job interview is not really about if such candidates qualify for the position or not, it has more to do about how a person that is in charge of hiring feel about the candidates. It is more of personal than professional. MacT was fooled by TSN hype machine and thought Eakins is a can’t miss, this is a real problem with this managements. Oilers managements always bought in the hype machine without doing any actual home work, that resulted on lots of wasted draft picks. Very few former Oilers draft picks ended up playing for Oilers and some never made to NHL.

  • CMG30

    I know I’m in the minority here when I say that I don’t think Eakins was as bad as people make him out to be, nor do I think that Nelson is the 2nd coming.

    BUT, there is no denying that Nelson has had some success since he took over and he’s got Yak and lander on track. That’s no small thing.

    So, because

    A: This coach-a-year nonsense in Edmonton NEEDS to stop.
    -and-
    B: I believe that you should run with the ball till you drop it and right now Nelson is running with the ball…

    Give Nelson the job for real.

  • toprightcorner

    The Oilers have proven over the last 10 years that they have no real consistent hiring process, in fact I think it could be said that they don’t even know what an interview process is. Even small companies implement a strict interview and hiring process when adding new employees, for a major business like the Edmonton Oilers not to show any assemblance of knowledge in this area

  • Serious Gord

    i think this article misses the mark in a big way.

    Everyone wants to always hear the “promote from within” mentality but it’s pretty dangerous to the organization as a whole, if you’re not balanced with internal vs external hires.

    There is a such thing as over promoting. There is also a danger in the organization not getting exposed to new ways of operating.

    I think I agree with the suggestion that an interview is not a reliable measure for future performance and instead results of the candidate should be valued higher.

    I don’t agree though if there is a suggestion that this is a wasted activity in an “office environment”. Maybe it is though in the NHL

    As a hiring manager in an office setting for many years, my perspective is that an interview is the equivelant of a first date.

    Does a good first date guarantee a positive future relationship? Of course not, that is where performance management needs to play a role.

    This is different though from the NHL.

    As a hiring manager in an office setting you do not have access to anything but a candidates CV and their referrals. You don’t have access to “reliable data”.

    If given the choice, I will always choose to measure and try to balance as appropriate external hires vs external hires. Even in the case of equal performance and known results there are benefits and drawbacks associated with both.

  • BobbyCanuck

    Also, I am not trying to pretend I am smarter than Googles Exec…

    But what about those candidates that failed the interview.

    It sounds like the quote by Google quote is based on those hired, and that there’s no correlation between those who did well in the interview and their job performance after being hired.

    What about those NOT hired? I’m sure impossible to measure but this may be the key.

    Summary: maybe the interview process does not guarantee you a strong performer but minimizes the risk?

    I don’t know. I do know that a lot of companies can improve their recruiting and hiring practices.

    I also know that just because the people you interview who do well and hire, only to perform badly does not necessarily correlate to the people that interview badly who would perform well.

    I would expect bad interviewees who don’t get hired to perform worse on average than good interviewees that do get hired.

  • Rdubb

    With the way many of the younger guys have improved their play since the coaching change, such as Yak, RNH, Klefbom, MM, Purcell (although he isn’t exactly so young), Lander, and perhaps most importantly, Eberle, I MUST lean towards taking the “INTERM” title off of Nelson’s position and just name him the COACH of the Edmonton Oilers…
    I’m guessing many are asking or wondering why I said was perhaps the most important improvement since the change, the reason why i said that is because under Eakins Eberle was lucky to be scoring @ .5 per game & he could generally get lost in most games, but since Nelson has taken over, Eberle is scoring @ just under a point per game, he is carrying this team right now offensively, he is making people around him much better, most notably Purcell, and Eberle is now engaged in the game almost every shift. He is playing much better in his own end, he is playing very well without the puck, he is starting to make the proper decision in most cases, and has anyone noticed how Eberle (and a few others) has started taking the puck to net. Plus, look @ what the PP has done, and lots of that has to do with the personnel on the ice starting to trust one another and make the right decisions.
    IF Eberle can continue to play at almost a point per game pace, not only the remainder of this year, but also next year, that bodes very well for the Oilers because that will also mean that RNH is starting to put those offensive numbers we’ve been waiting for, and don’t forget Hall, his stats too would go through the roof. He was a point per game last season and Eberle was knocking @ what, .8? Now imagine Eberle @ a point per game or better if Hall is playing, Hall’s numbers and RNH’s, NOW Edmonton has a true and powerful #1 line…
    Toss in Yak on the 2nd since his confidence has improved ten fold since Eakins went packing, hopefully Edmonton signs Roy to a smaller contract thus aiding in Yaks development, and the 3rd line C being McDavid…
    And if Nelson can continue get his young D core to play better, most notably Klefbom and MM, then the Oilers D should also be that much next season, especially when adding Nurse, and hopefully with a healthy, freshly signed Petry also playing on the back end, along with Fayne, Schultz (whom i’d try and trade), and have the 7th split between Fernence and Nikitan?
    Add a good tender in Jones, or BUF’s Neuverth, maybe a Bernier….
    OK, I jumped off topic there a bit, but Nelson SHOULD be kept as he is great with the young talent, knows them well, trusts them, and more importantly, they trust and respect him…