We are two weeks away from another “important off-season” in Edmonton Oilers history. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The Oilers should not be closer to the draft lottery than a playoff spot, but that’s their reality. A new GM will be hired, followed by a new coach. But what about other changes. Will there be actual change to the management core. They traded some core players away, Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle,  during Peter Chiarelli’s tenure and it was a massive failure.
It is time to change the core of the management team. Will it happen? I asked Chief Executive Officer and Vice Chair of the Oilers Entertainment Group Bob Nicholson.
You can listen to the entire interview here, but I want to focus on a few specific things we discussed. Mainly about the management team and overall direction of the club.
1. Nicholson spoke a few weeks ago about hiring a GM who would fit with the Oilers culture. So I asked: What does he see as the Oilers culture?
“I’m really taking my time over the last month to talk to a lot of NHL general managers, executives in the NHL, talked to a lot of people in Europe about the different structures of their hockey departments and also what are the key ingredients they feel make a real good general manager.
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“As you look at it today the hockey operations is a lot different than it was ten or fifteen years ago and things have adjusted. It’s been really worthwhile and when I looked back over the history of the Oilers, they haven’t really done a GM search, so this has been really good for me individually and I think that it’s going to be really beneficial for the organization. Not just when we name this General Manager, but hopefully long term.”
2. He didn’t really answer the question, so I followed up stating whatever the current culture is, it isn’t working. When I asked again what changes he wanted in regards to culture he mentioned leadership and supporting players. My concern with the use of the word culture, is that is you do not directly outline what it is then it won’t improve. The Oilers have a losing culture in every aspect of the organization: Management, pro scouting and on ice results. None have been good enough. How will it improve? I didn’t get a direct answer to that unfortunately.
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3. Is Nicholson set on just hiring a GM or will they look at hiring a President of Hockey Operations as well?
“Right now what we are looking at is the general manager, but the key is, and it’s a good question, how do we build this department out? And it’s not just about the general manager. As you go through the general manager search you look at all of the various components of what is involved in the hockey operations. There is the pro scouting, the amateur scouting, the European scouting, the free agents scouting and then there is the developing your prospects and the draft. So there is a lot of those departments that you have to look at, and it’s been good because I’ve gathered a lot of information right now and when I start to do the interviews, each person is going to come in and give me a proposal on how they want to run the Edmonton Oilers. And out of all of that you might get some information that you can even add to the general manager that you hire to help make us better,” said Nicholson.
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4. This response should give Oilersnation some hope considering Edmonton has never done an extensive GM search, and missed out on learning how those outside the organization view them. The biggest advantage the new GM will have is Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. He can build around those two, and early on he just needs to find complementary wingers, not elite ones. Ideally you want elite wingers, but the first step to being competitive should be to find consistent, solid vets. The biggest challenge will be altering how the organization reacts and adapts to the NHL. They have too many people currently in the organization who have shown an inability to assess what type of pro players succeed in today’s NHL. That must change.
5. I asked Nicholson if he is expecting more changes in management and that it just won’t be Peter Chiarelli paying the price for the failures of some trades, signings and pro player evaluations. Will the new GM have the freedom to make the changes he deems necessary, both on the ice, but also within the off-ice management group?
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“That certainly is something that we’re going to talk about with the new general manager. Let me make one thing very clear, the new GM will have the say in what he wants to do with the hockey operations. I’m going to make sure that there is some key components, and that I’m on the same page with him, but when he comes in, as Peter Chiarelli…to your listeners out there, there were questions and suggestions that, there were a lot of people pulling the various strings around Peter Chiarelli. That is not true. Peter Chiarelli had the final say and so will the new GM,” said Nicholson.
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6. It is hard to believe that is 100% accurate considering outside of Keith Gretzky, Chiarelli didn’t bring in a lot of people in upper management. Maybe he didn’t want to, but you do wonder why he didn’t. I realize you don’t have to toss out every individual, but this time around there needs to be some changes. The current regime hasn’t worked. Either they agreed with Chiarelli’s moves, or didn’t voice their opposition to the bad trades loud enough. Either way, that isn’t good in my eyes. I just don’t see how Duane Sutter, Scott Howson, Craig MacTavish and Bob Green can all remain with the organization. There has to be some changes. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the team, but it is clear that their collective decisions were not good enough. Results matter more than perception. The truth is this management group has not come close to having the success they should have had over the past four years.
7. Some will debate how much analytics can tell you, but I don’t think there is any debate that they should be a regular part of your NHL team. I asked Nicholson, “Why was your organization not as heavily invested as others on the analytics side?”
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“Yeah, excellent question and that is something that we talked about when he first came in. When Peter first came in we were probably ahead of the curve in that department. There was criticism that at that time maybe we were using too much of that or using it (analytics) in a way that we shouldn’t have. We had analytics here with Peter, but our usage of them go smaller and it certainly is something we are going to talk about with the new GM. I’ve already had a discussion with a lot of teams of how they use analytics and a lot of the teams are all different. So there are different models out there, but you need them and I really look forward to listening to the potential general managers talk about what their philosophy is, what they’re working in and what their ideas are.”
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8. Using too much of it? That must have been coming from within, not externally, because I’ve never read that anywhere, so to me that is another reason why there needs to be more change within the management team. Their belief systems are not conducive to winning in today’s NHL.
9. At the end of the interview I circled back to management and future changes. Here is the interaction.
Gregor: The biggest frustration  I sense from all of the fans who I interact with on my show, at the arena or online is they feel there needs to be more change in the management group. Are you confident there will be a significant, and I don’t know that that number will be, but changes other than just the GM? That there will be other changes in the management and the pro scouting by the time this (GM hiring) process is over?
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Nicholson: I’d be very surprised if there isn’t, and as I’ve stated a couple of times that will be the new general manager’s responsibilities, but he’s going to have to get an overview on where I see the organization today. Whether he takes immediate action on a lot or comes in and does that over a time period… I think that we will get through that as we get through the interview process and the type of person that we would hire.
Gregor: You’ve seen the inner workings of the pro scouts much more than I have, so isn’t it safe to say that they haven’t done a good enough job, and there has to be some other people held accountable?
Nicholson: Yeah, there are two sides, there may be even three sides to that. You have to evaluate Peter Chiarelli, did Peter Chiarelli do some of those trades in isolation, how much did he use those pro scouts? Did the pro scouts bring players to the team and into the roster and the coach didn’t use them the way that they thought he would. Certainly it’s an area that has a huge red flag on it. But that’s as deep as I’m going to go now until we get further along the way.
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Gregor: When you watched the last 18 months, or two years unfold, and you look at some of those trades, and there were a lot of them that right away people were like, ‘what, that was the trade?’ So how was that able to happen? Because ultimately, I know that you said you hire people and let them do their job, but it’s still under your watch. How much responsibility do you take for that and what do you say to the fans who are thinking,  ‘how can we be certain that won’t happen again?’
Nicholson: I can tell you that I’ll take responsibility for that. I can tell you that this isn’t an excuse, I think that I have nine executives who report to myself and I have to spend much more time on the hockey side.
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10. I realize the executives report to Nicholson, but that is why I suspect in the future we they will hire a POHO, someone who has more of a hockey background. Nicholson has an extensive background in the business of hockey, but not in the evaluation aspect of it. That is fine. The business side is massively important, but it requires a different skill set. I won’t be surprised if we see a POHO in Edmonton within a few years. You could make a case they should have one now, but many teams have hired a GM successfully without having a POHO. Also the nine executives include the hockey side and the business side in case you are wondering.
11. Without question this is the most important hire of Nicholson’s tenure in Edmonton. The Oilers can’t afford to make a mistake, and I really hope the new GM changes the direction and thought process of the entire hockey operations department. Change is needed.
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12. The Los Angeles Kings hired Luc Robitaille as President and Rob Blake as GM and Assistant President on April 10th, 2017. The Kings made the playoffs last season, but were swept four straight by Vegas and currently sit in 30th place in the NHL. The difference between the Kings and the Oilers is right now the Oilers’ best players are under 25. They are just hitting their prime, while the Kings won two Cups in 2012 and 2014 and their best players are now older. They will have to re-tool around Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar.
13. The Kings have a lot of money tied up in older players.
Player                 Age (next year)     Term        Cap hit        Totals this year
Dustin Brown               35               3years      $5.875m       20-25-45 in 64GP
Jeff Carter                    34               3years      $5.272m        12-18-30 in 68GP
Ilya Kovalchuk             36               2years       $6.25m         14-17-31 in 60GP
Dion Phaneuf              34               2years       $5.25m          1-4-5 in 62GP
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Brown has had a solid season, but the rest have really under performed. Blake signed Kovalchuk, which was a big head-scratcher at the time. He traded Phaneuf for Marian Gaborik last season and inherited Brown and Carter. Carter might be tradeable because he can still skate, but he was injured last season and doesn’t look nearly as good this year. It is tough to re-tool your team when you have over $22 million in aging players. The Oilers have 15 million in Lucic, Sekera and Russell. I do believe Russell is tradeable with his contract and his skating ability. Starting in June there will be ten teams the Oilers can trade him to without his consent, and I suspect there are some other teams he’d agree to go to as well.
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14. Would Milan Lucic waive his NMC to go back to LA. Would the Kings entertain a deal for Kovalchuk? Lucic only had 5-13-18 and he has four years remaining on his $6million cap hit. Kovalchuk isn’t on this road trip with the Kings, instead he is in LA working with their skills coach. Kings head coach Willie Desjardins hasn’t be enamoured with Kovalchuk’s play. Now, Desjardins might not be back next season, so it might be a moot point, but maybe Rob Blake is looking to fix a signing. Lucic has two more seasons in his deal, so Edmonton might have to sweeten the pot for LA to consider it. But I do wonder if the framework for a deal is there. Lucic has to waive his NMC in order to make a deal and LA is a place he’d waive it to.
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Source: NHL, Official Game Page, 3/26/2019 – 7:00 am MT

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