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Bob Nicholson speaks on the disappointing season

During last night’s Oilers and Rangers game on Hockey Night in Canada, Executive Officer and Vice-Chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group Bob Nicholson joined David Amber, Cassie Campbell, and Doug MacLean for a short interview regarding the state of the Edmonton Oilers. It sent Twitter into an absolute frenzy, so let’s break down what was said.

David Amber: Thanks for joining us and congratulations on this amazing facility. We’ve got to talk a little bit about how it’s been a tough season for the on-ice product. We’ll start with this, Bob, over the next month during the season and the summer months, what’s the main thing you’re looking to accomplish here?

Bob Nicholson: We’re disappointed with the year, there’s no question about it. We’re going to take our time and we’re going to make sure we evaluate everything about the hockey part of the organization as well as everything within our organization. It’s disappointing. We have a plan and we’re going to get it right.

The interview starts off with a softball from David Amber about the general feeling of the team right now in the final stages of a disappointing season. Nicholson gives a standard non-answer about assessing things moving forward but emphasizes that the team has a plan. Nothing much to see here.

Cassie Campbell: I remember when you went from Vice President to President of Hockey Canada and it wasn’t always easy. Then, all of a sudden, you built it to this enterprise and there was gold medals after gold medals and I wonder looking back at that and then looking back at last year, do you think this team didn’t face enough adversity last year? It almost came a bit too easy?

Nicholson: That’s a good point. Everything worked out for us. All our players played extremely well and expectations were really high in the summer time and we couldn’t get that under control and that hurt us coming out of the gate. But we have some really good pieces. People want change but I’m going to be patient. I want to make sure we do a really thorough evaluation and get it right. Because we do have a lot of good things and we don’t want to destroy that.

This is an interesting question from Cassie Campbell who likely has quite a familiarity with Nicholson from their time at Hockey Canada. Nicholson was with Hockey Canada from 1998 to 2014, and, of course, Campbell captained Team Canada to two gold medals in Women’s Ice Hockey at the Olympics in 2002 and 2006.

She starts the question by brining up Nicholson’s success with hockey Canada and then moves into asking if things happened too quickly for the Oilers last year. In his answer, Nicholson gives away an interesting tidbit in the line “expectations were really high in the summer time and we couldn’t get that under control and that hurt us coming out of the gate.”

Many speculated with the team’s slow start that the players got too cocky, and Nicholson essentially slipped out a confirmation that that’s the case here. Nicholson then turned around and said that the team has good pieces moving forward and then slid back into the non-answer of evaluating the team moving forward.

Doug MacLean: One of the most important things during a tough year like this is motivating your management team, keeping them focused, dealing with that side of things, and then also dealing with an owner that would be very disappointed with what’s going on.

Nicholson: The relationship with Peter Chiarelli and Keith Gretzky has been very good. We’re going to keep to planning. In fairness, I talk to Darryl Katz all the time. He asks tough questions but he’s been very fair with me and I couldn’t ask for a better situation to turn this thing around.

Doug MacLean then comes in with more of a statement than a question, which makes sense given that he was previously the general manager of the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets. MacLean, who knows what it’s like to navigate tough seasons, mentioned interacting with the owner during difficult times.

Nicholson said that the relationship between him and Peter Chiarelli is strong and they’re going to stick to the plan. Then he quickly jumps to talking about his relationship with Darryl Katz being strong how great the situation is to turn things around. No surprise, Nicholson kept his cards close to his chest here.

MacLean: You brought Wayne Gretzky back into the organization as a Vice Chairman. Paul Coffey has recently joined the organization. How has that gone over? What are their specific roles?

Nicholson: Wayne Gretzky is Wayne Gretzky. Any time you can have time, he’s in the building tonight, he’s tremendous, he was here with Commissioner Bettman the other night, Wayne doesn’t get too deep involved into the hockey, you know, that’s Peter’s call. We brought Paul Coffey in because we wanted to look at our speciality teams, the power play especially. He’s in and out but he’s already made a big influence on the players. Where his role will be in the future, we’ll evaluate that at the end of the season.

This is kind of an odd one. Saying Wayne Gretzky is Wayne Gretzky is in no way an answer to this question. Yes, we all know having the greatest hockey player of all time around is a good thing and it’s very likely great for Connor McDavid to have him as a mentor.

But this certainly doesn’t ease much of the speculation that Gretzky is pulling strings behind the curtain here because nobody seems to be able to explain exactly what he does. Nicholson does say Gretzky leaves Chiarelli alone with the hockey operations side of things, though, but it’s still an odd quote.

Then there’s the Coffey line which is predictable. We all knew Coffey was coming in as a part-time guy to help out with special teams and Nicholson clarified it. Then it goes back to the evaluation non-answer.

The reality here is that the question was a softball and MacLean didn’t ask why the Oilers continue to bring in members of the same clique with similar voices, and, as a result, we got answers that don’t shed much light on what’s going on and only further the Old Boys Country Club speculation.

Campbell: How are you watching the rest of the season? On the ice and in the room with your managers and coaches, I know you don’t want to be too hands on, but this time of year, what are you specifically looking at?

Nicholson: I think we want to make sure we have the right culture in the dressing room. We’ve got to make sure that this organization wants to be put in a position to win. That includes our management, our coaches, our players. Everyone’s being evaluated every game in the NHL whether you’re winning or losing. I think we have to make sure we take a big approach here and we look at all areas. There will be some change but we won’t make those to the end of the year.

Campbell asks another insightful question here about what Nicholson is specifically looking for to close out the year. Nicholson very adamantly says that they’re looking into the locker room to ensure that the team has a winning attitude and then he finishes off by explicitly saying there will be change.

Amber: It’s such a passionate fanbase here getting to interact with some of the fans. What’s the message to the fans? Preaching patience is great but for a lot lot of them they’re saying it’s been so long now since we’ve tasted what we want.

Nicholson: This is my third year. We had a great year last year. But we did change coaches a lot here and we did make a lot of changes. I really feel that when you make a change, make sure you make a better change, don’t just make change for change. We’re not to that point to make the change but we will be here at some time… The fans will buy-in if they can understand the plan once we make those changes.

David Amber asks about the message to the fanbase, who are clearly irritated with the step back in success from last year. Nicholson mentions how it’s his third year in the organization and before that there was a lot of movement in personnel, and he specifically mentions coaching. He doesn’t want to make a change for the sake of making a change, which is what you obviously expect him to say.

But then comes the interesting part. “We’re not to that point to make the change but we will be here at some time…” Hmmmm. After dropping that line about soon being ready for a change, he quickly jumps to saying that the fans will get on board with it so long as they understand the plan. So there’s going to be a change, we don’t know what it is, but given the fact coaching kind of got blurted out in the answer, that’s where they’re looking. That’s just my interpretation, though.

MacLean: Connor McDavid starts a new contract. $12 million. Draisaitl, $8.5 million. Salary cap ramifications in the next few years will be a challenge.

Nicholson: I think we’re okay on the salary cap. The salary cap is going to continue to go up. It all starts with you want to have two good centres and we have those two. It starts in goal. Cam hasn’t been great this year and Cam will be the first guy to tell you that. We think Cam will get back to where he was so we aren’t too far off with the key pieces.

The last Oilers-related thing comes in the form of Doug MacLean asking about salary cap implications of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Nicholson brushed it off largely by saying that the salary cap was going to go up, but then, sort of unprompted, he goes on and says Cam Talbot hasn’t been good, which is true, and that they expect him to be better. Ultimately, Nicholson appeared confident in the team’s core of two good centres and Talbot in goal.

In summary…

Sooooo… all in all that was kind of your standard intermission, national television interview. You aren’t going to get much out of Nicholson in something like this but I feel like he unintentionally dropped a couple of hints in-between his non-committal, public relations non-answers.

The biggest one, like I said, was the “We’re not to that point to make the change but we will be here at some time” line that really hints that there’s something brewing here. It seemed that he was suggesting they’re comfortable giving Peter Chiarelli time to address the issue, there’s faith in the core, and the step back this year is partially due to the team exceeding expectations last year, but this line about getting to a point to make the change is very ominous. The fact Nicholson mentions coaching specifically in that answer when talking about the absurd amount of turnover the organization has seen is somewhat telling, I find.

What say you, Nation? Is there anything interesting here? Am I looking too far into it? Or am I missing something?

  • Connor McFly

    So what is Nickleson’s idea of the “right” culture? Playing Motzart in the urinal queue. That gutless, indecisive, handwringing wimp. There are too many spoons stirring this soup!

  • Spaceman9899

    I have all the confidence in bob Nicholson he brought team Canada from nothing to several gold medals They over achieved last year but he did hint there’s goin be little change like assistant coaches

    • Serious Gord

      See this is rubbish.

      Let’s replay the tape:

      In Nagano bobby Clarke got the job of picking the team and did an abysmal job.

      Because of that there was a hockey summit where Nicholson was given the job of hiring the GM. That fell by default to Wayne Gretzky.

      WG did an okay job picking the team – a lot more attention was paid to picking players and even so it was nil and tuck in the preliminary round.

      The next Olympics has been put down a memory hole – Turin. WG did an awful job of picking a team that was completely ill-suited to the big ice.

      Then Vancouver where Canada had its struggles and only won the gold in overtime. WG was moved out to pasture.

      And in game a new guy – yzerman. Who proceeded to pick the greatest team in the history of hockey.

      How much of any of that did Nicholson have to do with on ice? Very little.

      • Joy S. Lee

        You’re right, Nicholson was in charge of Hockey Canada, the big part of the picture. That’s important in the overall scheme of things.

        What you might have noticed, during his tenure at HC, was how Canadian hockey was under siege from rapidly improving nations that weren’t Canada (a lot of that thanks to good old Canadian input in the foreign product as well as natural evolution), as we had been looking rather average at times in international competitions at all levels. Our lock as being the epicenter of elite hockey was not only embedded and restored as the core culture of all Canada’s international teams, winning at all levels once again, but with Nicholson’s influence they started maximizing their organizational and business potential. As they began generating boatloads of cash, they invested a good chunk of it back into the program across ALL levels. He turned it into a perpetual machine on multiple levels, and made it benefit Canadians everywhere in the sport they hold closest to their hearts. Sounds smart to me.

        And furthermore, the man certainly appears to have the respect of almost everyone in elite hockey circles, local or foreign. Those are good contacts to have. But above all, he sets the tone for the entire organization. He’s not prone to acting rash, he has a clear vision of what he expects, and the big picture always affects the final product. Building a culture IS HIS responsibility, contrary to some suggestions in this section, and cultures typically aren’t fully developed in three years. Turning around an organization where the kids had run the candy shop for well over a decade… I’d suggest three years isn’t really enough, to be fair. I suspect it’s not as easy as it looks. But if we really want long-term vision… and we do… then I would suggest his role is vitally important to the end product, and I think he knows that and takes personal responsibility for it, too, based on his history with Hockey Canada.

  • TKB2677

    I don’t expect any player, coach, GM or hockey team exec to come on national TV, carve up his team and go into detail the teams plays. I am actually surprised he said as much as he did.

    It was interesting what he said about Coffey. Coffey downplayed his role saying he was just here to help. I liked that Nicholson elaborated and said he was going to be looking at special teams, especially the PP. Seems like a no brainer to me. One of the greatest offensive dmen of all time and a hell of a PP guy might be able to have the odd idea about what ails the Oilers PP because clearly the coaches don’t have a clue. When you have McDavid and Leon on your team, your PP should be decent automatically but somehow the coaches make it not. I didn’t get Coffey’s role to be huge right off the start but I thought it would expand as the season went along and definitely get bigger in the offseason.

    I liked the fact he touched on culture. To me there has been something up with the overall feel and attitude of the team/ That includes the room but also the coaches and GM. Early on, I think the players read all off the preseason hype of them being cup contenders. So I think early, they thought they could just show up and win. So I think there was an attitude problem and like McLellan has said, they forgot what it takes to win. I also think there is a disconnect between the coach and GM. GM goes out and pays big time for Leon saying he sees him as a center and you pay more for centers. McLellan has played Leon on the wing for at least half the year. Then you factor in that the GM made bets on some guys taking steps to become cheap, productive players. He took bets on Caggulia,Puljujarvi and Slep as examples. I agree that players need to earn their chances but at the same time, how does a young player improve and show what he can, getting scratched or less mins a night behind guys like say Cammalleri. Thankfully Cammalleri’s mins are down again but he played 13:15 last game. Slep played 12:30. Caggulia didn’t play at all. Why is Cammalleri playing over Caggulia or getting more mins than ANYONE on the team. Cammalleri is a 35 yr old who has no future with the Oilers.

    I liked the fact he called a spade a spade and said Talbot hasn’t been great because he hasn’t. I believe in Talbot, I think he will bounce back next year but he has been lousy all year. The roster of this team has holes but it doesn’t matter how good your roster is, if you don’t get goaltending, you won’t win. I think Talbot might be deadlast in numbers for starters. He was 4th in vezina voting last year. IF Talbot is even middle of the pack for starters, the Oilers are right in the playoff mix.

    From what I gathered, changes will come. It doesn’t sound like they will blow up the team and I agree with that. Sounds like the GM will survive. He was up for GM of the year last year so I can sort of see why you maybe don’t fire him barely a year later. If he does go, I won’t be upset. I see the entire assistant staff save maybe the goalie coach being gone. I don’t know how you can bring any of them back. McLellan might be back, I’m 50-50 on if that happens. What I could easily see happening is part of the new assistants would be a former HC who IF the team starts off slow, you can gas McLellan and have someone step in. Which maybe makes sense. If the Oilers would have fired McLellan earlier, none of the assistants are qualified to take over even on an interm basis and I didn’t see a ton of qualified guys sitting at home waiting for a job.

    • I’m not sure what Bob Nicholson does for the Oilers other than have a $14 burger named after him. I don’t have faith he is able to do anything with the Management culture. Being gifted to be in charge of a sport that Canada should dominate is no great achievement in my eyes; I think a lot of Canadian fans could pick a team to compete successfully with the number of talented players born here. I’m getting tired of Katz living hockey card collection here…

  • toprightcorner

    Having Wayne Gretzky around just to mentor Connor and the other players is huge. Look what he did with his son in law, Dustin Johnson, he was a guy with a drug problem and now he is clean and the #1 player in the world. It wouldn’t supriseme one bit if it was Wayne that explained to Connor that he has to use his shot more to keep the goalie guessing. He is now averaging almost 3 more shots a game and has 14 goals in 16 games.

    I don’t think Wayne wants to get too much into the business side and likely doesn’t want to move to Edmonton and be away from his grandkids.