At Random: Awkward

Awkward. That’s the first word that came to mind for me as the camera panned team representatives gathered at the NHL Draft Lottery Tuesday. In that group, looking like a bunch of guys waiting for the results of a paternity test on the Jerry Springer Show, sat Keith Gretzky, interim GM of the Edmonton Oilers. Awkward.

Of course, it was no more uncomfortable than Gretzky looked sitting beside Oilers’ CEO Bob Nicholson Monday in front of assembled media at Rogers Place to discuss what happens next in Nicholson’s “deep dive” into rebuilding his team’s hockey operations department from the general manager down. There was Gretzky, listening to Nicholson take questions and talk about filling the position he wants. Awkward.

Appearances aside, and having long ago separated what I think should happen from what I expect to happen during Daryl Katz’s failure-filled tenure as owner of the Oilers, I don’t think fans are going to get anywhere near the level of change in hockey-ops they should reasonably expect from a team that has missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons. For me, that conclusion goes straight to the owner’s suite. Nicholson is simply the yes-man uncomfortably thrust into the position of doing the bidding. Awkward.

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On the eve of NHL playoffs, with the Oilers having come away from the lottery with the eighth overall pick, I have absolutely no faith whatsoever fans will be satisfied with what unfolds in the coming months. There is no real pound of flesh to be had with the OBC and FOK. I simply don’t believe the owner will allow it to happen. Framed in that, I’ve got some thoughts on what I think will happen – not what should happen – this off-season. I’d love to be proven wrong.


For me, having Gretzky sitting beside Nicholson Monday was a big tell. I think the interim tag will be removed and he’ll be named the new GM by mid-May, well before the NHL Entry Draft. Why else would you subject Gretzky to listening to Nicholson answer questions about the due diligence he’s undertaking? Why would you subject him to questions about wanting the job? Of course he wants the job.

Unlike many, I don’t think Gretzky should be excluded as a candidate because of his last name, even if it is a hard-sell around here based on the history of how things have been done. Gretzky is, after all, familiar with those working in hockey ops now. He’s been overseeing amateur scouting, which has done a relatively good job on his watch – unlike the tire fire that is pro scouting. He could hit the ground running. Fine. Good.

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Based on how things are done around here, I think we’re well beyond short-list stage with Gretzky. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when Katz tells Wayne Gretzky his brother isn’t going to get the job. Could it happen? I suppose. Will it? I doubt it. The Oilers, as they almost always do, will stay in-house, keep it in the OBC and FOK family. My sense is any interviews of outside candidates will be mostly for appearance sake. I think the call has been made.

As cynical as that sounds, I just believe Nicholson is between a rock and a hard place. If Kelly McCrimmon or Bill Guerin or even a seasoned Ken Holland-type walk into an interview and say, “I want the job, but only if I have complete control to hire and fire who I see fit,” then what? If OBC or FOK members are on the hit list, then what? Can Katz bring himself to allow that? We haven’t seen it so far. Moving guys around on the payroll doesn’t qualify.


Nicholson conceded Monday he’s aware of frustration within the fan base and that the demand for change is growing. I suspect there will be casualties because of it. People will be offered up as proof things really have changed.

I can see Nicholson and Gretzky huddling and coming up with names like Duane Sutter, VP of player personnel, Bob Greene, director of player personnel, and pro scouts Chris Cichocki and Paul Messier as guys shown the door. Maybe Scott Howson. I’m not sure what happens with Ken Hitchcock, but chances are far greater he’ll return as a consultant than as the coach.

That would be a start — better than sacking trainers and support staff as was done in the past to appease fans — I suppose, but I can’t see it going beyond that to the names fans have long been calling for — Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe, who is no longer in hockey ops. That just isn’t going to happen on Katz’s watch. Changing out the rest without those two will be seen by many as nibbling around the edges.

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In the end, it’ll be Gretzky in the big chair as GM. I expect that Nicholson will be gone, likely to the IIHF, within a year. The way I see it, he simply isn’t in his element in the position he’s in or comfortable trying to do his job within the constraints I suspect he’s working under. Unless there is a fundamental shift in the way Katz runs his team, or a new owner, the house-cleaning from top to bottom fans want simply isn’t going to happen.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Gravis82

    I didnt think it was awkward at all. He is acting GM and is currently responsible for many things, and getting paid for it. It would have been odd to exclude him. If he can’t take that heat he does not deserve to be GM in this city anyway.

  • Beer

    Brownlee. The first thought in my head was when my grandfather started to have problems that start show up at an advanced age and I would take him to run errands.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    “Unless there is a fundamental shift in the way Katz runs his team, or a new owner…”

    Please please please tell me you have:

    – A Donald Sterling like conversation on tape.
    – Another actress from Jane the Virgin with a very damaging story.
    – Word from the inside Daryl Katz wants out and wants to leave this hockey thing to someone else.

    The choice between one of those things and the Oilers being gifted a 1st overall every year for the next ten regardless of where they finish is no choice at all.

  • hagar

    If nothing else is changing it might as well be kg at gm.

    I thought it was a dog and pony show having this big list of names, and was curious if the list names were people that were interested in the job, or just a random list regardless if the people on it, even wanted the job.
    Just more fluff. Doubt any legit gm would want to come here with the same old bosses not going anywhere.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    I’m okay – not thrilled but okay – with Gretzky as GM but I would appreciate a senior man as PoHO. All honesty, say what you will about him, I believe Mike Gillis would call the OBC out on their BS and keep them in line. Better yet, they may be so inclined to move on from the Oilers.

  • OilCan2

    Keep a steady hand on the tiller lads. We have two of the best forwards in the WHOLE LEAGUE for the next several seasons. Let the NMCs and TOO LONG contracts run out, including Bob N. (as correctly noted in the article) Make good draft picks and stock the Condors with young up and coming talent getting lots of minutes and good coaching. Forget the “swing for the fences” trade deal and UFAs; MAYBE make a (one for one) hockey trade if some other GM comes calling. We are not trying to engineer the USS Enterprise to warp 5 but rather getting the good ship Oilers into uncharted waters: the playoffs next year.

  • Dapper Dan 3099

    IF KG can trade Lucic’s contract and not have to give up something great along with it, manage to dump Chia’s blunder in Manning without taking on some dumb contract back, and pulls of whatever other miracles are required to fix this team, then by all means he deserves to be named GM….. otherwise, you better hire someone who wasn’t linked in any way to this mess right now, or the pitchforks will be coming out

  • My Water Tastes Funny

    Robin, that Jerry Springer reference was hilarious, still laughing. The whole draft lottery show is ridiculous. Let’s get together and celebrate the fact we have the crappiest teams in the NHL.

    KG will be the next GM. The Oilers are like the ugly guy trying to get a date on Friday night. Every girl he asks happens to be washing her then.

  • Oiler Al

    Accurate write up Mr.Brownlee.I thinki Katz is aware of the fanbase and media feelings,He should have made a statement!
    The only thing left to do is have someone write up a sketch for SNL,thats how big of a joke this operation has become.Talk of the town and not in a nice way.

    • Well, if sources Dustin Nielson has are accurate, Gretzky has already been told he’s not getting the job, as his Tweets and the accompanying story that’s been dropped on top of mine points out. If that’s true, and Gretzky was trotted out beside Nicholson and talked about how he wants the job knowing he wasn’t going to get it, then Monday really was a charade and a farce worthy of a sketch. Interesting juxtaposition of items.

      • Just facts

        As others have pointed out he is the acting GM so what would you expect them to do at the year end presser, have him not be there and then have everyone know he isn’t going to be considered? Having been in acting senior leadership roles I know that there will always be somethings you deal with that will be awkward.

  • Oil Is My Blood

    Robin. Two comments. First Katz’ tenure is not failure-filled, it’s losing-filled. I’m sure he’s made/making a LOT of money. Second I will NEVER believe that Lowe does not get involved in hockey ops

    • hagar

      Katz made billions in real estate futures before even getting the city to finally agree to the rink location. He already owned all the land around the rink before he and his team went to Seattle to play on our emotions and get the deal done.
      We are peons. He doesn’t care that the team sucks. He is rolling in it thanks to our city council bowing.
      What does he have into that rink now? Like 50 million?
      And what? Like 2 billion gained in property value?
      A joke owner empowered by a joke city council.
      Let’s build a few more billion dollar trains nobody uses since the first one doesn’t work. A match made in heaven.

  • CMG30

    Sadly I believe you’re right. We’ll get some minor names offered up in sacrifice but the incompetent core will remain as entrenched as ever. They will continue to drip poision into the ear of whoever is dumb enough to take the reins this summer.

  • Oilers70

    I don’t believe Nielson… Sorry… Smokescreen.

    If Nicholson had ruled out Keith G., then why parade him around. There has been too many articles in favor of Gretzky by Jones and Matheson who only print what the Oilers want for it not to be Gretsky. Another reason I am not renewing my tickets.

    Poor Connor.

  • Datsyukian

    Maybe I am completely off but I just thought that for many, if not most, young Oilers fans names like Kevin Lowe, Craig McTavish or Paul Coffey don’t and shouldn’t mean a lot. I mean, for them these guys are “dynosaurs”, remotely associated with some distant parents’ and grandparents’ memories of Oilers success in a different era and century. So it boggles my mind that Katz would cling so much to these half-forgotten individuals, whose accomplishments – think about it – go back almost 40 years, which is more than one generation.

  • Axe

    Katz would do well to learn from the owner of the Lakers, Jeannie Buss. Especially since Mr. Katz seems to spend a lot of time in LA. Magic Johnson was ousted when his team failed to make the playoffs two years in a row, the latter of which included Lebron. Despite signing Lebron, magic failed to surround him with the talent he needed to win and now Magic is gone. Also when Lebron’s agent leaked that the Lakers were willing to trade all of the other starters for Anthony Davis, she instructed the GM to trade Lebron until his agent came apologizing. I know it’s a different sport and different league but I wish we had an owner like that.. Definitely has bigger stones than katz

    • hagar

      It is a different situation because lebron is ruining the franchise while McDavid is doing his best in the opposite.
      Lebron is a tool bag. Its hard to make a comparison to McDavid in any way.

  • slapshot444

    Just a comment as we watch this unfortunate tire fire. When Shananhan went to Toronto to re build he cleaned house to extent he fired every one all the way down to and including the video guys, he let absolutely everyone go in order to clear the existing culture. He said it was rotten to the bone. The ownership was told they would have no say in any of his moves if they wanted to have his set things up. Complete carte blanche. There are some good articles online about it. I can’t help but think a similar scenario needs to happen in Edmonton.