Who is calling the shots?

What I wanted going into Thursday’s media availability with Edmonton Oilers’ CEO Bob Nicholson was a clear indication of what the plan was moving forward in terms of personnel in the hockey operations department. I didn’t necessarily expect it, but I hoped for some details about who’d be staying and who’d be on the way out the door after an unquestionably disappointing season.

Aside from Nicholson’s off-the-top announcement that GM and president of hockey operations Peter Chiarelli will be back next season, he provided precious little else – no word about the status of head coach Todd McLellan or his coaching staff, the rest of the front office, the scouting department and on and on. Those are the issues fans want to know about after watching this season unfold as it did. We got no details, none of the small picture stuff that’ll eventually trickle out.

By the end of the day, tweaked by an item written by Mark Spector of Sportsnet, the question for me, and maybe for you as well, was the bigger picture. I wasn’t focused in on who in hockey-ops will get the blindfolds and cigarettes. We know that’s going to happen. What I’m wondering, regardless of who publicly pulls the trigger, is who is actually calling the shots? Specifically, how much influence do some members of the Oilers’ alumni have by way of what Spector dubbed the “The Red Wine Summits” with fan-turned-owner Daryl Katz and in the decision-making process?

The part that stuck with me from Spec’s piece was: “If Katz is listening to Chiarelli and Nicholson — like them or not — then he’s listening to the right people. If the hires are coming out of The Red Wine Summits, then Lord help the Oilers, because it won’t end well.” That took me back to the out-of-the-blue hiring of Paul Coffey as a skills development coach in January. Who made that call? Not who announced it, but who made it?

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Jun 5, 2017; Nashville, TN, USA; NHL Centennial Ambassador Wayne Gretzky speaks during a press conference prior to game four of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final at Bridgestone Arena between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Nashville Predators. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

With all the losing the Oilers have done since that last Stanley Cup in 1990, particularly in the Decade of Darkness the team spent out of the playoffs, we’ve long heard grumbling about the Boys on the Bus and the Old Boys Club from fans in Edmonton as players from glory days past, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish, took the wheel of the franchise as coaches and then general managers.

The consternation that started during the watch of the Edmonton Investors Group has continued under the ownership of Katz. It was muted last season, as the Oilers had 103 points and returned to the playoffs, but seems to be growing again. Lowe and MacTavish are still in the fold. Now, Wayne Gretzky is back with the title of partner and vice-chair within the OEG. I’m guessing that the Great One, like Lowe and MacT, has Katz’s ear, even without a direct connection to hockey operations by job title.

We can speculate to what degree that is, about how much sway it has in hockey-ops decisions. That’s been fodder for years and years now. Spector’s piece, though, made a specific reference that impacts here and now. “There are voices in Edmonton. Voices who bear Stanley Cup rings from the Oilers glory years, many of them don’t believe McLellan should be the Oilers head coach. Others would have him remain as a coach, but want to install at least one of their own to help him out.”

Say it isn’t so. Having an owner who wants his fingerprints directly on hockey-ops decisions is problematic at the best of times. If that’s the case, as it appears to be, and you can’t fire the guy who signs the cheques, then what? Well, if Katz insists on having input about hockey hiring and firing, fine, but he needs to let Nicholson, first, and Chiarelli, second, make the final call. If Katz is taking advice from outside that tight circle and putting it into play regardless of what Nicholson and Chiarelli say, what’s the point of having either of them around?

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If Nicholson is on the payroll simply to make announcements rather than decisions while somebody else pulls the strings, there’s a big problem. If Chiarelli doesn’t have the authority to decide what happens with McLellan and his coaching staff, there’s a big problem. If McLellan is Chiarelli’s man, he needs to be allowed to make that decision and live with the result. On down the pecking order it goes. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

If that’s not the case with the Oilers, if there’s any significant influence about hockey-ops decisions coming from outside that pecking order — no matter how many Stanley Cup rings are attached to those voices who have Katz’s ear — then we’ve got a mess that won’t be cleaned up anytime soon. It cannot work that way.


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