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.
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.
THE BIG CHAIR
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.
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.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
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.
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.