Oilers in Disarray

Sunil Agnihotri
6 months ago
Within such an important period of their franchise’s history, the Edmonton Oilers need to ensure that any changes they make are decisive, complete, and as seamless as possible. Whether it’s for the roster construction, the coaching staff or the front office, personnel decisions especially must be based on sound business practices to ensure stability and consumer confidence. And these decisions need to be geared towards winning games and championships.
The Oilers had the opportunity to really set their course for the next few seasons when they recently made a coaching change – a critical component of building a long-term, sustainable contender. But what this latest change really did was demonstrate the disarray of the organization and the panic that appears to be setting in for the owner and his management team. The pressure is obviously immense with their two star players on the tail-end of their contracts and the team starting this season so poorly. It doesn’t appear that the organization is handling this pressure well, creating a lot of unnecessary speculation around their stability and future state.
Firstly, the actual dismissal of Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson was somewhat premature, considering the goaltending had been the team’s biggest issue — an area that management has more of an influence on. The areas that the coach does influence, including the team’s ability to control the flow of play and to out-shoot and out-chance opponents, were solid under Woodcroft. The team’s Corsi for percentage and expected goal shares at even-strength were consistently one of the best in the league and were part of why the Oilers posted a 0.643 points percentage with Woodcroft behind the bench.
Again, these areas are impacted by the coaching staff through their tactical work, deployment, and knowledge of the players on the roster. Making a coaching change based on 13 games instead of 133 regular season games and 28 playoff games seems a little rash, and it’s pretty clear that the Oilers didn’t have any risk-mitigation plan for a scenario involving a poor start and a coaching change.

Nov 13, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers Head Coach Kris Knoblauch looks on against the New York Islanders at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 13, 2023; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers Assistant Coach Paul Coffey looks on from the bench against the New York Islanders at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

While hiring a young coach whose highest level of experience is at the American Hockey League level is fine, it remains unclear who made the hire and if Kris Knoblauch is part of the long-term plan for the Oilers. It’s typically assumed that the general manager is the ultimate decision-maker, as they have a close working relationship with the coach and are familiar with the players in the system. But because Ken Holland’s contract with the Oilers ends in six months, this decision was likely from someone higher up in the organization. This would include CEO Jeff Jackson but could have also been made by somebody like Paul Coffey, who was hired by the Oilers in 2022 to serve as a special advisor to the owner. Perhaps the next general manager is already within the organization or was consulted. Either way, it doesn’t build much confidence in the front office’s decision-making process and future planning. The lack of transparency also put captain Connor McDavid in an awkward spot as it was assumed by the public, based on his involvement with the hiring of Jackson and other roster decisions (i.e., Foegele, Brown), that he also had a say in the new coach.
The coaching change also draws attention to the Oilers’ organizational structure and their chain of command, specifically with the appointment of Paul Coffey as the assistant coach. It doesn’t make sense that the man who played a major role in hiring Jeff Jackson as CEO and who will have a major influence on selecting the next general manager for the Oilers is now reporting to the new coach behind the bench. Coffey has zero professional coaching experience and has no desire to be in this role. But again, because of the lack of risk-mitigation planning by upper management (which includes himself), Coffey is now guiding the defensive players for at least the remainder of the year. Or until Knoblauch is able or allowed to bring in his own assistant coaches, a decision that Coffey will also have an influence on.
Without demonstrating a commitment to stability and long-term planning, the Oilers will have trouble building a championship roster. But while this latest personnel change showed some cracks in the organizational structure, there’s still time to make things right. This would include removing Ken Holland as general manager, who has been the main culprit for their roster construction issues, the shallow prospect pool and the inability to solidify the team’s goaltending. And before naming his replacement, the Oilers need to clearly define the roles and accountability among upper management to clarify who has authority over what.
The margins for error are very thin in professional sports, on and off the ice, making it even more important that the Edmonton Oilers function more like a business instead of the owner’s vanity project.

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