What will Bob Nicholson do?

Bob Nicholson has never been in this position before.

As President of Hockey Canada, he never had to contemplate firing a head coach or general manager during the tournament. The U17, U18, U20 (World Juniors), World Championships (men and women), and the Olympics (men and women), were so short once the decision was made on who would be coach and GM, it was final. Of course many Canadians wanted Marc Crawford fired the moment his submitted his list of five shooters at the 1998 Olympics, which didn’t include Wayne Gretzky, but by the time Dominik Hasek stoned them it was too late.

Nicholson’s role with the Edmonton Oilers is much different. As the Oilers season-long tailspin continues, we wonder: what Nicholson might or might not do?

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This has been a disastrous season. The Oilers are in 27th place and on pace for 74 points. That is 29 fewer points than last year. One could argue this season is setting up to be the most disappointing in franchise history, and that’s saying something considering they missed the playoffs ten consecutive seasons between 2007-2016.

So what is Nicholson thinking?

Sources tell me many in the upper echelon of the Oilers organization are not happy. I should hope so. Someone will pay the price for the losing, but who and when?

Usually when a team underachieves the head coach gets most of the blame. Todd McLellan and his staff need to shoulder some, but not all of it. The penalty kill, 71.5%, is the worst the NHL’s seen in 30 years. For my money, the system is too complex for the mainly inexperienced penalty killing forwards. And the PK has stunk, 75.8%, for the past 112 games. Don’t mention the home or away efficiency this season, because the truth is this team hasn’t been able to kill a penalty consistently for 14 months. The powerplay is 24th at 16.1%, but it has dropped significantly during the season. In the past 22 games, it is only 11.5%, and the PK is 67.2%. Both have shown no signs of improvement. The coaches need to own that.

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From where I sit, however, if Nicholson decides Todd McLellan is the scapegoat, then it means general Manager Peter Chiarelli is staying. Chiarelli is on the record as saying he won’t be firing McLellan. I’m sure he is thinking that today, but what if the Oilers lose the remaining three games on this road trip? We’ve seen many GMs state the coach is safe, only to see him fired a week or month later. It isn’t personal, just how the business works.

I think it is fair to ask if McLellan should look for another voice on his staff. McLellan has had Jay Woodcroft on his staff for eleven years and this is the SIXth year with Jim Johnson. A new voice could be a welcome change in the coaching room as well as the dressing room. A new voice and a new set of eyes can offer a different approach or viewpoint.

But a coach is only as good as his players, and Chiarelli has made some moves that have severely weakened the Oilers overall skill.

At the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he traded the 16th and 33rd picks to the New York Islanders for Griffen Reinhart. It is the one trade in Oilersnation history where almost everyone agreed it was a bad deal. The best case scenario for Reinhart was he’d become a #5 D-man in the NHL. Only Chiarelli and head scout Bob Green believed otherwise. The deal was a head scratcher for many reasons. The Oilers had Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Martin Marincin and Brandon Davidson in the system. All of them shot left like Reinhart. The Oilers had no skilled forwards developing in the minors or in junior outside of Leon Draisaitl and they’d chosen Connor McDavid 15 picks earlier. Why trade two picks for a left D-man who no one outside the Oilers management was projecting to be better than Klefbom and Nurse? At best he’d be a third pairing left D-man.

Then a week after the 2016 NHL draft, he traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Larsson is a quality NHL defenceman, and the Oilers desperately needed a right-shot D-man, but acquiring one at the expense of a winger who could drive a line was a bad trade. The interesting part was, while Hall rarely took a night off when playing for some brutal Oilers teams, many fans, along with Chiarelli, felt he was expendable. Larsson is a solid NHL player, but not a difference maker. No one can debate that it was a downgrade in skill. The comment section from that article is amazing considering how many felt Hall was bad in the room. It was a bogus argument then as it is now. Sadly, my concerns in the bullet points have come to fruition.

Chiarelli downgraded in skill this past summer as well, when he dealt Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. I cautioned many who ripped Eberle because he wasn’t physical, or looked disinterested at times and because he never scored in the playoffs. Replacing goals isn’t as easy as you think. Hoping young players will do it is much different than having young players who CAN do it. It was fair to say the Oilers needed more from him in the postseason, but the Oilers didn’t need to shed his salary this year. He might have been a cap casualty next year with McDavid’s new $12.5 million/year deal kicking in, but replacing a consistent 25-goal scorer is not easy. There was no need to rush it. Although, I never thought the Oilers would this bad. Every aspect of the team has failed from the GM, to the coaches to the players.

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Chiarelli did make good deals in acquiring Cam Talbot, Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian for very little, and he made some decent UFA signings, but I believe a lack of overall skill is hurting the Oilers more than coaching.

The concern with Chiarelli is that for the past three summers he’s made a trade where he acquired a player with less skill. I understand you don’t win every trade, and sometimes you give up skill to fill a hole, but not to the degree he has. It is a trend, and while each summer he loses the trade a bit less, he is still losing it.

Nicholson has to wonder if the trend continues this summer. And more importantly, how will the Oilers improve?

Chiarelli’s biggest error this season was dead cap space. The Oilers have millions of unused cap space? Then trade Eberle next summer if you want to shed salary. Why do it now and not use the money saved to bolster the team?


One of Chiarelli’s responses in his interview with Mark Spector yesterday stood out to me.

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“I see the situation we’re in. I see levels of improvement, but I also see the losses piling up. There’s a plan in place, and a plan to bring up through the ranks, at the proper time, younger players.”

Which younger players is he talking about?

The Oilers have zero forwards in Bakersfield who can help, now or in the future. Their best forward prospects are Tyler Benson and Kailer Yamamoto. I sure hope Chiarelli and management don’t expect two 20-year-olds to cure the woes of the group next season.

On defence, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha are rookies. Bear missed two months with a concussion and then needed a few extra weeks to get back in shape. His off-ice conditioning has been an issue dating back to junior. Is Jones better than any of the LD currently on the roster? Nope. Mantha shoots right, which the Oilers need, but I don’t see how he will improve their defence next year.

This team doesn’t need to get younger. They need more experience, and yes, they need to keep developing players but don’t develop them in the NHL. Try playing them big minutes in the AHL first, instead of playing 27-year-old AHL veterans more minutes on a consistent basis.

The last thing the Oilers need is more inexperience. They need some more proven, consistent veterans, and the problem Chiarelli faces, or any GM who might take over if Nicholson makes a move in the summer, is the Oilers don’t have a lot of assets to give up to improve their team quickly.


The Oilers currently have $58.55 million towards next years cap with seven forwards (McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Lucic, Puljujarvi, Khaira and Kassian), four D-men (Sekera, Klefbom, Larsson and Russell) and Cam Talbot. They also have $1.33 million in dead cap space due to the Benoit Pouliot’s buyout. So basically $60 million is already accounted for.

The positive is most of their best players are signed. Re-signing Nurse will be Chiarelli’s main priority among the RFAs. Patrick Maroon, Mike Cammalleri and Mark Letestu are UFAs. Do the Oilers just let Maroon walk and hope Anton Slepyshev, Drake Caggiula or Khaira can fill his goal-scoring void? We’ve seen how that works. If they don’t re-sign Maroon they better bring in a veteran scorer with a proven track record. Don’t underestimate the ability to score goals. Yes, Maroon isn’t a perfect player, but he can produce.

So how can Chiarelli improve his team? The list of potential free agents isn’t long on players who can produce and be signed at a reasonable dollar figure.

An NHL scout said this in a text message to me on the weekend: “I don’t think they have the players to be honest. McDavid is so good every night, but no one can do it by himself. (Wayne) Gretzky (Mario) Lemieux and (Sidney) Crosby had lots of quality players around them. The Oilers have some other good players, but not enough.”

That is only one scout’s opinion, but it is fair to wonder how they improve. The parity of the NHL means they don’t need to make sweeping changes to improve, but if you believe the players aren’t good enough then that falls on the GM. He built the team.

The Oilers are not Stanley Cup contenders. I thought they’d make the playoffs at the start of the season, but this roster shouldn’t be in 27th place. The players are also responsible for some of this mess, but the organization can’t buyout or trade every player.

If they make a major move, it likely will be the coach or the GM.

It would be foolish to replace McLellan now, bring in a new coach, and if nothing changes axe Chiarelli in the summer. The new GM should hire his own coach, so forcing him to inherit a coach wouldn’t be ideal. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time the organization hired someone, Dallas Eakins, but didn’t let him pick his own staff, but I’m confident Nicholson realizes that is a recipe for failure, not success.

Maybe Nicholson does nothing and lets the season play out. The odds are very low, but not impossible, they make the playoffs even if he makes a major move now, so I don’t expect one, but he has to look at where they go in the future. Do they have the right pieces in place off the ice?

That is the question Nicholson needs to ask himself.


1. Changing a coach or GM will appease many frustrated fans, but history tells us continuous change leads to continuous losing. However, if you keep the same decision makers in charge and they keep making bad decisions, then you will never improve. Chiarelli and his scouting staff need to recognize they made three major errors the past three summers. Every GM or scouting staff will lose a trade, but try losing a minor deal instead of winning those and then getting crushed in the major deals.

2. Captain Obvious states the special teams need to be better. The fact the PK has been this terrible for 112 games tells me the system is not working. Of course the players have made mistakes as well, but this system is not working. And whatever they are coaching or showing on video to the PP group isn’t either. Make some changes. Stop doing the same thing expecting it to improve. It isn’t. It is getting worse.

3. Talbot needs to be better at EV. In today’s NHL your goalie often has to be one of your three best players most nights to win. It might not be fair, but that’s the reality in 2018. Of the 28 goalies with 25+ starts only Craig Anderson (.901), Matt Murray (.905), James Reimer (.912) and Semyon Varlamov (.913) have a lower EV sv% than Talbot’s .916. Last year he had a .927%. He can play better and needs to. Last year on the PK he had a .877sv%. And keep in mind that PK was 78% for the final 68 games. This year he has a .807sv% at 4×5. There have been some major breakdowns in front of him, no question, but Jaroslav Halak has a .863sv% for the Islanders and they have the second worst PK at 74.1%. Talbot is capable of being better than he’s played this year.

4. Chiarelli’s top priority must be finding a right-shot defender who can produce offence, move the puck up ice quickly and knows how to defend. This has been talked about for years, but we’ve yet to see him address it. Sure, it isn’t easy, but until you make that move, stop making other trades that lower the skill level on the team. That strategy is not working.

5. All the “Hall was the problem” articles and comments sure have quieted down. I wonder why? Because he wasn’t the problem. Learn from that and stop trying to pin the Oilers current place in the standings on some BS “off the ice issue.” The Oilers aren’t losing because the dressing room isn’t cohesive. Many of you believed that was the case with Hall and you’re seeing the errors of your ways. Don’t fall for it again over the next four months when some people are going to try and find a player to scapegoat for the woes of the team. No one player is the reason. Never has been and never will be.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • Heschultzhescores

    We have a very complex problem now. Lots of guys to sign, little money to do it with next year. How exactly are we going to be better next year? I think it’s a shame we didn’t go for it this year with the boat-load of cash we have in cap space. It won’t be better next year, or the year after. We paid too much for 2 guys. No 1 man or 2 man team can win the cup. You need a great stud defenceman, a great goaltender, and at least one or two great lines with a strong PP and Penalty kill. We might have one great fwd line….tons of work to do…tons!

    • crabman

      what would you have done differently with the McDavid and Draisaitl contracts then? By all accounts McDavid could have asked for more and most experts would have thought that would have been worth it. Many even called it a discount. That would leave Draisaitl. I would agree with you if you are saying $8.5M is on the high side. But really how much lower do you think would be fair value and also a contract you could get him to sign? between 6.5 and 7.5? 1 or 2 million dollars with a rising cap isn’t going to cripple your team when it is going to your best 2 players. draft good players, sign good players, keep good players.

      • Heschultzhescores

        You sign Drai first, at the going rate, not at the McDavid just signed the biggest contract in the NHL rate, so give me some of that kind of cash. That would have saved a million minimum on Drai’s contract, per year. I also would have tried to sign Drai to a 2 year deal with bonuses. He had a great playoffs, but we still were exited in round 2. At the money we paid him there is no worry of not finding another guy for similar $$$’s. We also could have seen another year of him to be sure he’s got the goods and is not just another of the McDavid effect guys. I like Drai, but he seems to have a lazy side to him, and he pouts easily, much like Maroon.

        • crabman

          1st off any player not over the age of 35 or in an elc is not eligible for a contract with bonuses. 2nd I’m not sure if it was Draisaitl’s camp or Chairelli who wanted to wait until McDavid’s cost was certain. If McDavid demanded a max $15M he probably gets it making Draisaitl a no go and traded.
          3rd not hard replacing a top 10 scoring big center? who in free agency are you replacing him with? and if not in free agency who do you trade him for that a team is willing to part with. We waited over 10 years for a big skilled center and now you want to get rid of him over $1M? and a bridge contract saves you a couple million this year and next but with a rising cap more than likely costs us more after that.
          4th All accounts of the player say he is one of the hardest workers/trainers and is extremely hard on himself. He trains hard and wants to be the best he can. sure he looks disheartened at times. He is a competitive person and the team has sucked. should he be skating around with a smile on his face or is it he doesn’t seem outwardly mad enough for your liking?

          • Hockey for life

            How is draisitle a top 10 center? People are still going on about this nonesense. As seen he was super inflated as a winger for mcdavid. As a center he is 27th in points and not even top 50 in plus minus

          • crabman

            @ Hockey for life, I am referring to the fact that he was top 10 in scoring last year. albeit most of that was on McDavid’s wing. But he was drafted to play center, he is playing center now and is expected to play center in the future. If he was even at last year’s average for pp points, which shouldn’t be a stretch, he would have another 10 points putting him top 15 scoring and ttop 10 for centers. He is having a good year at evens but like the rest if the Oilers is suc king on the pp. He is big and skilled and our second best offensive player. All that at 22 years old and still a couple years away from his prime. these are the types of players you keep. cost certanty for the majority of his prime years.

    • Dan 1919

      To me the biggest alarm I’ve seen with Chiarelli so far was the Draisaitl signing believe it or not. I like Draisaitl and want him to be an Oiler, but why in God’s green earth did Chiarelli give him a max signing last year with another year to go on his entry level deal… maybe the Drai camp said they wouldn’t do an extension and were only interested in a long term deal, then if that’s the case why not make him prove it again this year before handing him a MASSIVE $8.5million dollar cap deal. Did he honestly believe Draisaitl was going to outperform those numbers and become more expensive? For that to happen, Draisaitl would basically have had to put up 100pts or 50goals to justify a cent more than $8.5mill. As far as I can see there was very little risk in waiting another year to sign Draisaitl, and potentially big potential for savings, as there would be now… and yet again Chiarelli got overconfident and jumped the gun.

      • Dan 1919

        My bad, confused his entry level with McD’s. In any case, at those huge numbers he should have been put on a bridge contract. The Oilers took all the risk and Drai got a max contract for 8 years because he played on McDavids wing. The Drai camp fleeced Chiarelli and I bet they couldn’t believe he fell for it

        • crabman

          Draisaitl is and was the prototypical big skilled Western center. He got better as the year went on last year and went on a tear the last 20 games of the season and was our best player in the playoffs. That player gets paid. He is having another good year at evens but like most of the Oilers he has been awful on the pp. If he kept pace with his pp scoring this year he would have another 10 points. putting him top 15 in league scoring and much of the year he has played away from McDavid. People like to complain about players based on their contract, I do as well length of Lucic and Russel, but to say Draisaitl’s contract has anything to do with this teams current situation is just wrong. We are sitting on a tone of unused cap space this year and if we fix the pp we have a great 1 2 offensive punch with 2 top 15 scorers who have yet to hit their prime. the star players aren’t the problem just like Hall wasn’ty the problem. it’s the need to build around and support them.

      • BlueHairedApe

        From what I remember wasn’t there other teams that would have went higher than 8.5? Insiders on the radio were saying as high as 9.5/10 similar to Kopitar contract

        • Dan 1919

          So you’re talking they offer sheet him then? Let’s be realistic, the payoff of an offer sheet like that is worth it, especially when the team still had Nuge as 2nd line Center(even though he wasn’t as good last year). Again, Draisaitl is great but if a player is going to be upper echelon you can usually tell in their first season or two. No one had to wonder how Stamkos, Crosby, Malkin, McDavid, Ovi were going to develop. Draisaitl may still best last year’s career year but I think his actual talent alone(without McDavid) could be parted with for the amount that offer sheet would return

        • crabman

          there was no $10M offer sheet coming. He was signed in August. Who was making an offer like that that late into the off season? No one. I remember a lot of speculation before July 1st but most of that was coming from commenters on this site. Dan 1919 had it right that the Oilers were taking on all the risk with an $8.5M×8 contract, a risk I still think will payoff. There is no way another team risks even more money and 3 1st round picks. not happening.

          • OilersGM

            To add to your point any team that offered a offer sheet had to have 4 – 1st rd picks that were theirs and not acquired from other teams and the list of those teams were 2 or 3 at most
            Carolina, Buffalo and I’m missing one and Buffalo had the Eickel’s contract to worry about so most likely they were out.

      • crabman

        Draisaitl played his last year of elc last year. He was an RFA this summer. He was top ten in scoring last year. I would have liked it to come in around $7M-7.5 But that extra million isn’t going to sink the team. if they signed him to a 2 or 3 year bridge I doubt you get him for any less than $6-6.5M and if he continues to even keep pace with last year’s production he would be looking for the range of $10M with the cap going up and being a big top end producing center. Great players are always looking at % of cap and with a rising cap salary goes up. I think the Oilers were looking at the Subban Montreal situation. Montreal.gave a show me style bridge contract and Subban went out and won the Norris. Edmonton has been looking for a big skilled center as long as they’ve been looking for a #1 Dman. draft good players, sign good players, keep good players.

        • Dan 1919

          I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see it. I think if they gave him a bridge deal for a year or two he would be back down closer to what Monahan is making ($6-7mill)… assuming they have him at centre.

          • Heschultzhescores

            All you have to do is keep him away from McDavid if he starts getting too many points. Alone he’s ok, but not a superstar! Yet! He may be one day, but has to get a much better work ethic every shift.

        • crabman

          @Heschultzhescores, if he gets too many points separate him from McDavid? That is the solution to not over paying him after a bridge deal? A player putting up a lot of points is probably contributing to a good pp and winning games. regardless of the contract implications you don’t hurt the team buy breaking up something that is helping you win. with that logic they should have just sent Draisaitl down to the minors the second half of last year while he was still waiver exempt. would have had less points from playing with McDavid. maybe we could have saved a million or two.

  • Hockey123

    Trading #16 + #33 for Reinhart was the worst thing he did. In a so called strongest draft in over a decade he got 0.

    No backup goalie

    Signing Lucic longterm with no trade.

    These are major mistakes.

    Chiarelli – McDavid =

  • Eyedoc

    Oilers need to find a number one D.Even two.Time to trade Drai and his rediculus salary for a Karlsson or Ekman Larsen.This team is poor on PK andPP because we are lacking a D who can scale the puck out and quarterback the PP.

  • ” Chiarelli’s top priority must be finding a right-shot defender who can produce offence, move the puck up ice quickly and knows how to defend.”

    Pretty sad that he traded Taylor freaking Hall and this is still not resolved

  • Oiler Al

    Janson, no “flannelmouthing” in this write up.Very accurate summation that I and many other fans would agree with you on the current ills and short comings of the Oilers. What, if any will the move be?
    The organization, should sit on its hands. Is it Pete? Is it Todd?If the inclination is to do little at this point,then at least fire Woodcroft and Johnson to make it look like you care and are doing something, even if its not the total requirement.

  • Heschultzhescores

    Shorter term deals are what we need to start signing our guys to, with the exception of McDavid. Who cares if they go elsewhere, there is alway another guy that can be bought.

  • oilerjed

    @ Jason Gregor
    When Chia says”“We’re going to look at other things, other than what people are asking for as an obvious change. ” in his interview with Spector yesterday, can you think of anything that this would be? Seemed like the most interesting part of that interview to me.

    • Jason Gregor

      I suspect an coaching consultant. Easy to do and Struds brought it up a few weeks ago. I could see it happening over bye week. Not sure I see it in way of a trade, because right now teams will try to pick Oilers carcus rather than offer good deals.

  • CMG30

    Good article article Jason.

    It’s a common theme that when a team isn’t doing well, fans blame the parts that ARE working for not being better.

    One really has to wonder what Chirelli was thinking with both the Hall and Eberle trade. It’s almost like he doesn’t know how to value a hockey player.

  • smiliegirl15

    If Chia hasn’t done anything useful by the trade deadline, he and all the scouting staff should go. Hire a new GM and make any other changes in the summer. I like Todd but his assistant coaches need to get their heads out of their asses.