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Oilers Upper Hierarchy Needs to be Better

Daryl Katz purchased the Edmonton Oilers on June 18th, 2008. Under his watch, the Oilers have been the worst team in the NHL. They have missed the playoffs nine times, finishing in the bottom ten all nine years. Their success under Katz has been almost non-existent, except during the draft lottery.

Since Katz purchased the team, the Oilers have finished:

21st
30th
30th
29th
24th
28th
28th
29th
8th
23rd

At this point, the eighth place finish looks like the ultimate outlier. The Oilers organizational issues are many, and if they can’t rid themselves of their dysfunction, I don’t see how they will improve.

Katz is a brilliant businessman. The Oilers’ bottom line is very good, and the value of the organization since he purchased it has increased. From an investment and acquisition viewpoint, Katz has hit a home run, but from an on-ice standpoint it has been an unmitigated disaster.

Why?

There are many factors, but the main one is that they haven’t had any clear direction since he took over. The organization can’t let go of its past. It is interesting to see how easy they will discard players, but will repeatedly give management and coaching roles to people who were part of the glory years.

They’ve had six head coaches, and an interim one in Todd Nelson for 51 games, in ten seasons.

They have hired four general managers.

Katz purchased the team in June, 2008, and Kevin Lowe moved from GM to President of Hockey Operations six weeks later in July. Steve Tambellini became the GM, and that turned out to be a disaster. In five seasons as GM, Tambellini’s team never finished better than 24th. He was let go in April of 2013 and replaced by Craig MacTavish, who had quit as head coach in April of 2009, but was then hired back in the organization in June of 2012 as senior VP of hockey operations. MacTavish was the GM for two years, but was replaced by Peter Chiarelli in April of 2015 after the Oilers won the Connor McDavid draft lottery.

But MacTavish remained in the organization and was given the title of VP of hockey operations, where most of his duties would surround the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL as well as pro scouting.

Scott Howson had left the organization and returned as well.

You could make the argument the Oilers are “bad breaker uppers.” They can’t completely let go. They keep re-hiring people, despite the organization having no continual success for a decade.

COACHING

Nov 18, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Edmonton Oilers head coach Todd McLellan watches his team take on the Dallas Stars during the third period at American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Oilers 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Their hiring or retaining of coaches has also been unique.

MacTavish coached in 2009 before stepping down. I still believe MacTavish is a better coach than manager. His teams made the playoffs, and he did it when there was no salary cap and the Oilers were constantly near the bottom of league spending. When they gave him a superstar, Chris Pronger, MacTavish coached his team to the Stanley Cup Finals, and when they missed the playoffs in 2008 and 2009, they did so with 85 and 88 points. They were at least in the conversation.

In the nine years of missing the playoffs since, the Oilers haven’t managed more than 78 points. They were out of it by January virtually every year.

MacTavish left and Steve Tambellini hired Pat Quinn. They had Tom Renney, Kelly Buchberger, a former Oilers player, and Freddie Chabot as assistants and goalie coach. Quinn was a very good coach in his prime, but his best due-date had expired when Tambellini hired him. The Oilers finished in 30th place.

Quinn was let go and Renney became the head coach. Buchberger and Chabot stayed on while Ralph Krueger and Steve Smith, a former Oilers player,  joined the staff. Renney lasted two seasons, finishing 30th and 29th.

He was let go and Krueger was promoted to head coach. The rest of the staff remained intact. The Oilers had three different head coaches in four years, but only added one new assistant during that time. Was there any direction? Why was the head coach the only problem, but the assistants were all good at their jobs?

Krueger’s reign was short-lived. He lasted one year, 48 games of the lockout-shortened season, before he was let go. Krueger’s team finished 24th, but MacTavish felt it wasn’t good enough and hired Dallas Eakins. The entire process was odd considering MacTavish, not Kruger, had been interviewing potential assistant coaching candidates.

Eakins hired Keith Acton, but Smith, Buchberger and Chabot remained on the staff. The Oilers finished 28th in Eakins’ first season and that summer, Smith and Buchberger were replaced with Craig Ramsay and Rocky Thompson. Thompson had been an assistant in the AHL for four seasons and was considered a bright young coach.

Eakins was fired 31 games into his second season, and Todd Nelson was hired as the Interim head coach, but all the assistants remained in place. Craig MacTavish actually stepped behind the bench for five games as the main coach, before letting Nelson finish the season. Another unorthodox, and odd decision.

The season ended, the Oilers finished 28th, but won the McDavid lottery, and days after winning Peter Chiarelli was hired as GM. A month later he hired Todd McLellan as head coach.

Nelson had spent five years honing his head coaching skills, while Thompson had worked four years as an assistant for both the Edmonton Oil Kings and then in Oklahoma City. He had earned a reputation in coaching circles as a really bright young coach.

When Chiarelli hired McLellan, Nelson went to a different organization and signed with the Detroit Red Wings to coach their AHL team.

The odd decision for me was the Oilers, after developing Thompson, opted to hire Gerry Fleming as their head coach in the AHL instead of Thompson.

The day before the 2015 draft, the National Hockey League Coaches Assocation held their annual coaches’ clinic in Florida and Thompson was one of the presenters.

He was the first coach to speak in front of almost 400 coaches. His presentation was on offence, not something he was known for when he played, but when he started speaking all the coaches paid attention. I remember speaking to Scotty Bowman the next day and all he could talk about was how impressed he was by Thompson. He wasn’t the only one.

Current NHL head coach, Bob Boughner, was the majority owner and GM of the Windsor Spitfires in the OHL at the time. He had never met Thompson prior to his presentation, but Thompson’s words caught his attention and he hired him ten days later. Boughner said this on my radio show after hiring Thompson.

“He threw a presentation out before 400 coaches and I saw NHL coaches pulling out pads to take notes. His ideas on how to create offence were excellent. It was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. It was just him with a computer and a microphone and it was unbelievable,” Boughner said.

Thompson coached two years in Windsor, winning 81 of 136 games. The expansion Vegas Golden Knight hired him this summer to coach their AHL team in Chicago. The Wolves finished first in their division and start their playoffs this weekend.

The best young coach the organization has had was let go and instead promoted Gerry Fleming. In the summer of 2014, they promoted Thompson to the NHL over Fleming, but when they needed a head coach in the AHL the following summer, they opted for Fleming instead of Thompson.

MIXED MESSAGES

The Oilers organization has had too many mixed messages the past decade. They have been fiercely loyal to assistant coaches, forcing the head coach to keep them, as well as bringing back MacTavish and Howson and retaining Kevin Lowe the entire time. Loyalty can be a good quality, but you shouldn’t be blinded by it.

Forcing head coaches to keep the same assistants has led to consistent losing. The organization has had many of the same voices in management, whatever title they have, and there haven’t been any changes in success on the ice.

When Chiarelli was hired many expected that would change. He would make the decisions. He hired McLellan and an entirely new coaching staff. Smart move, but after three years it is clear the entire staff hasn’t been good enough.

Over the past three years, the Oilers have picked up a total of 251 points, 24th most in the NHL. Only Vancouver (217), Arizona (218), Buffalo (221), Colorado (225), Detroit (245) and Ottawa (250) have fewer points than the Oilers.

Their powerplay has been 21st (18.8%) over the past three combined seasons, while the PK has been 22nd (79.5%). Many coaches and players will agree coaching is a major factor of special teams.

The Oilers staff, like management and the players, isn’t good enough, and they should make changes.

But has the organization learned they can’t meddle with these decisions? The head coach should choose his assistants.

If Todd McLellan is the head coach, and I expect he will be, then he should be the one who chooses them. Adding Paul Coffey to the staff in January, only to have him on the ice twice in 66 days, and once in the American league, made no sense. We don’t know if Coffey could have helped, because he wasn’t around enough, and from what I’m told some of the things he recommended weren’t put in place anyways. So what was the point of hiring him?

The Oilers have many areas to improve, but their dysfunction in hiring, or firing, coaches must improve. Are any teams rumoured to be wanting to add Jay Woodcroft, Jim Johnson, Fleming of any of the other coaches in the organization? I haven’t read one article claiming they are potential candidates for a job opening. Of course, just because a coach is mentioned as a possible replacement, doesn’t mean he will be a good candidate, but the Oilers need to look at who they hire and if they are open to hiring people who think differently than them.

If Chiarelli decides McLellan is returning, then he has to let the head coach fill out his staff, and I hope McLellan is open-minded enough to realize that his current staff wasn’t doing a good enough job.

Changes are needed in many areas of the Oilers organization, but the biggest one should be eliminating the dysfunction that has plagued this organization for a decade.

Leadership starts at the top, and Katz needs to realize how the team has been operated since he took over isn’t working.

It is time for change, but it must be in the form of more than just a few assistant coaches.

They can’t afford to make more mistakes with future hires. They must learn from their mistakes of the past, or this organization will continue down their path of losing.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • CMG30

    YES! It’s so frustrating to watch the oilers keep doing the same things and expecting different results! The boys from the glory days knew how to play hockey in the 80s but time has passed them by.

    This organization keeps hiring ‘new voices’ except they only bring in voices who agree with what they already agree with. This talk of ‘Red Wine Summits’ is hugely concerning since it shows that the people tasked with driving the bus are only allowed one hand on the wheel while the good old boys keep steering us into the ditch. Wake up Katz, pay your buddies to stay home where they can’t do so much damage!

  • toprightcorner

    10 moves the Oilers need to make

    1) Keep McLellan and the video coach and trainers

    2) Fire all assistants, goalie coach and player development personel

    3) PC do interviews with McLellan but let McLellan make the final decision

    4) Talbots old and “favorite” goaltending coach, Benoit Allaire, was recently fired from the Rangers. If Talbot wants him, do whatever it takes to hire him. He was goaltending and assistant coach for the Rangers, if you need to make him a 3rd or even 4th assistant coach, then do it.

    5) Buy Adam Oates skills company and give him a big raise and dedicate them to the NHL, AHL and all drafted prospects. Work and over spend to increase skill during the season and also during the off season. The players will not only learn skill but they will all start thinking the same way while on the ice. THIS SHOULD BE PRIORITY

    6) Replace all coaching and development staff in the AHL. Add someone with success in Junior or college, but has experience with younger players. Make sure they focus on developing high level prospects instead of having the top 6 full of veteran AHLers.

    7) Interview as many people as possible and try to learn something from each one. That is how you learn what outsiders see in your hockey team. I would make sure to interview Rocky Thompson for assistant coach. I doubt he is interested in a lateral move to coach the Condors.

    8) Nicholdon needs to fire MacT, Howson, Coffee and any other old time Oilers connection not named Gretzky and tell Katz if he likes the Boys on the Bus, to set up a completely separate division where they can do public appearances and not be allowed to talk to any hockey ops managers.

    9) make severe changes to pro scouting staff and add to the staff. They have produced crap and are directly responsible for every trade PC made by overselling that player. CP made the trades but based on advice from his scouts.

    10) All of these changes should stop the “multiple cooks” issue and bring continuity to the organization on and off the ice, all working for the same goal instead of against each other.

  • lee

    Obviously the owner is a smart man, makes you wonder how he has driven this once proud franchise into the ground, without McDavid this team is still a 28th-31st place team. Most teams take 3-5 years to build a contender, teams like Tampa, Boston, Toronto have shown it can be done while teams like Edmonton, Arizona and Buffalo seem to repeat the same mistakes year after year.
    Leadership or lack of makes all the difference.

  • Danoilerfanincalgary

    Not too sure how involved Katz is with the current day to day ops that is why he hired Nicholson to run the show. The past decade does stink but this now all lays at Nicholsons feet and he should decide how much influence all the old Oilers have. No sense looking at the past too much it is and can be very depressing hopefully Nicholson is the right man to lead us out of pergatory not much other choice.

    • Serious Gord

      Is Nicholson even doing his job fulltime? Or is he in AZ much of the winter and golfing in the okanagan in the summer? This job was a retirement plum for him.

      In the clean house that needs to happen he is th first one to be put out on the curb. To be replaced by a guy with an actual sports and entertainment resume and a birth year later than 1978.

  • justDOit

    When they were searching for Ralph’s assistant, they passed over Nelson in favor of Mr Hair. MacT made that decision and is still employed.

    This team is farked.

  • Abootzky

    What is going on with Ian Herbers? He seemed like a bright coaching prospect when the Oilers hired him. If not for an occasional mention by Bob Stauffer (obvious reasons), you’d almost never know Herbers is still part of the organization. Will he be back, get a shot in Bakersfield or just slip through their fingers like Rocky Thompson did?

  • IceMan11

    You nailed it, Jason!
    Daryl Katz’s “Boys on the bus” experiment has failed.
    Time to move on!
    Let’s bring in a President, GM, Scouting Staff & Coaching staff that have a sustained & excellent winning record and then keep them here!

  • #97TRAIN

    When we hired Nicholson I really thought he was the guy that would turn this ship around since he was a well respected guy with Hockey Canada.
    Prove me wrong Bob.

  • GK1980

    Just thinking how difficult it was losing Hall and Eberle but not seeing results after the trades is devastating. What has the GM done? Next season is a big season, for the team and for me personally. This team has a short leash next year.

    Results or bust!

  • Oiler Al

    Its curious, that within days of Oilers winning the McDavid lotto,Chairelli and McLellan are on board and Lowe and MacTavish are given the shuffle.
    My guess is that Bobby Orr, makes trhe call to Katz, telling him that as long as Lowe and McT are running hockey for the Oilers, forget abut McDavid showng up in Edmonton.Pete and Todd were both standing on the corner looking for a gig. The rest is history.

    • Serious Gord

      I wondered that too. But I also think pressure fame from sportsnet/rogers. And maybe even the league to make this team better as they saw McDavid as a league asset not just and oilers asset that had to be maximized.

  • DXB

    True story: Had dinner with a member of the OBC a couple months ago. He had just returned from the best team in history ceremony in YEG. I asked him point blank if 99 is calling any shots for the Oil. His response was “Oh yeah way more than anyone knows, and I just gave him his next goalie”…he seems to think its 99’s team, and lets see about the goalie??

  • DannyGallivan

    With Cammallari gone the Oil will be at or near the youngest team in the league. I don’t expect them to challenge for the playoffs when key players like Hall, Ebs, Letestu and Maroon are replaced by Aberg, Caggiula, Khaira, Puljujarvi, Pakarinen, Rattie, Slep, Auvitu and Bear. I am not saying the latter 9 players will not be very good one day, but not without seasoning and an experienced mentor – which we lack

    They have a generational two time Art Ross winner in McJesus and can’t score on the PP – how is that even possible? I agree that Coaching continuity (not GM) is important i.e. keep TM but most of the support coaches (Woody, Johnson, etc, should be gone).

    Chia pet has done a terrible job. Bad trades, counting on inexperienced players to fill the void, too much salary cap and not enough talent. He traded Tyler Seguin (40 G 78 Pts this year) for nothing. Then he comes to the Oil and follows it up with Hall (39 G 93 Pts this year). Tell me you have confidence in this guy. Pathetic.

  • Dirtbag Daddy

    Jason, Great summary of the Oiler’s organization. I’ve stated for a long time that upper management has been needing replacement due to their interference from the draft to the actual who plays where and when. They have not developed anyone with the exception of a few players because the coach in the AHL wants to only play veterans because he doesn’t like winning. He has to go. Lowe, MacTavish and their entourage has got to go as you can see by their record, they know how to build losers and meddle too much. Maybe all the coaches and GMs that they have hired to take all their blame when things don’t work out didn’t need to be fired. They fired the wrong management. In any event, I hope thatKatz reads the article you wrote and can draw his own conclusion. If Nicholson is truly in charge of this team, then he should step forward, make the necessary changes and get rid of the old meddlesome managers and put in place “someone who knows how to build winners”.

    • Dirtbag Daddy

      A couple of errors. after ‘actual’ it should have ‘player’. Where I discuss the AHL coach only plays veterans is because he doesn’t like losing. Sorry for the errors.

  • Fire Woodcroft!

    Considering how loyal McLellan is to obvious failures like Jay Woodcroft I’d suggest his judgement is suspect. I wouldn’t trust him to pick coaches for a game of dodgeball with a bunch of eight year olds.

    If Todd’s choosing new assistant coaches then some adult supervision is required.

  • Charlie16

    It is so frustrating to see the bloated front office. Lowe , Mc Ravish, Coffey and even Gretzky shoul all be gone. Does Katz really believe they offer anything now.
    I bet he did not build his businesses like this. This group all so full of themselves, particularly Kevin Lowe!

  • Hockeysense9393

    If things keep failing…just bring in yet another Oiler Alum. When the Oilers suck again next year…Messier should be in by November!! That should cover the fan base for another season lol.