The Edmonton Oilers are once again on a crash course to miss the playoffs. The Oilers sit third-last in the Western Conference and have the sixth-worst record in the NHL with 58 points through 61 games. It was only a short two seasons ago that the Oilers made the second round of the playoffs and were ready to become one of the dominant teams in the NHL. Unfortunately, that never came to pass.
After a disappointing start to the season, the Oilers fired head coach Todd McLellan and brought Ken Hitchcock out of retirement to take over the role of head coach. The team did have a good start under their new coach, but it was ultimately short-lived as they went 17-19-5 through 41 games for just 39 points.
And when firing the coach didn’t work, it meant that general manager Peter Chiarelli was next to be fired. So assistant general manager Keith Gretzky was made interim general manager while the organization looks for someone new to helm the franchise. When CEO Bob Nicholson held a press conference to explain and answer questions about Chiarelli’s firing, he mentioned that there was “something in the water” in that there was some reason why the team had done so poorly. And yet they don’t know what it is.
Bob Nicholson: “There’s something in the water here in Edmonton that we don’t have right. And we got to get that figured out.”
No truer words…
— John Shannon (@JShannonhl) January 23, 2019
The Oilers have only made the playoffs once in the 12 seasons since going to the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 and it’ll be up to 13 seasons if they miss out again this season. The thing that’s “in the water” in Edmonton that has long been clear to fans, and has continually eluded Oilers’ management, is that management and owner Daryl Katz reward failure.
The Disaster of Chiarelli
What hasn’t already been said about Chiarelli’s disastrous four years as the general manager of the Oilers?
There were numerous trades that were terrible from the moment they happened, like trading for Griffin Reinhart or trading Taylor Hall. Those two trades immediately hurt the Oilers as the first-round pick in the Reinhart trade became Mathew Barzal and Hall posted a career-high 93 points and dragged the New Jersey Devils into the playoffs.
Then there was the Jordan Eberle trade that slowly became worse and worse. Eberle was traded to the New York Islanders for Ryan Strome, who the Oilers later traded to the New York Rangers for Ryan Spooner. It was a move they immediately regretted, and then Spooner was traded to the Vancouver Canucks for ex-Oiler Sam Gagner.
To add to the terrible trades, there were also some awful contracts that were signed including Milan Lucic’s seven-year contract worth $6 million annually. Since then, Lucic had one good season before his point totals tanked.
There are dozens of other trades and signings that can be dissected to show how poor of a job Chiarelli did as the Oilers’ general manager and president of hockey operations, but this isn’t the article that breaks down why he was so bad. The Oilers’ problems go beyond having a bad general manager and into a systematic problem of rewarding failure.
The 80’s Oilers Need to Stay in the Past
From looking through the Oilers front office and also their management and coaching staff, it’s clear that the organization is more focused on rebuilding the Oilers of the 1980s rather than building towards the team’s future.
First off, let’s talk about all the former Oilers now involved in the team’s front office and management group. Kevin Lowe was a former Oilers draft pick and was also part of the team’s glory years in the 1980s. He was the Oilers’ head coach for the 1999-00 season, and the season after he became the team’s general manager. Lowe was the general manager until the 2008-09 season.
In those eight seasons, the Oilers only made the playoffs three times, including their Stanley Cup Final appearance in the 2005-06 season.
At the same time, Craig MacTavish, who also played for the Oilers in their glory days, became an assistant coach for the team in the 1999-00 season and the head coach the next season. MacTavish coached the Oilers for the next eight seasons until being fired at the end of the 2008-09 season.
Now, for perspective, Katz became the Oilers’ owner in the summer of 2008.
Lowe then moved up to being president of hockey operations for seven seasons and has since been promoted to being vice chair and alternate governor. MacTavish spent some time away from the Oilers organization before coming back as the senior vice-president of hockey operations for the 2012-13 season. He then spent two seasons as the Oilers’ general manager before going back to his previous role, which he has held for four seasons.
Why on earth are these two in any way involved in the Oilers organization? They had three playoff appearances in eight seasons. Yet somehow they were brought back into the fold and promoted.
And there’s still more besides these two. Scott Howson has been with the organization for a total of 18 seasons. In his split tenure with the team, he was the assistant to the general manager during Lowe’s tenure, a pro scout and is currently the vice-president of player development.
Now, scouting and player development has been a long-running issue for the Oilers, with the poster boy for that being their handling of Jesse Puljujarvi. It’s amazing that, despite the continued lack of success, so many within the organization can keep their jobs. Most management groups in the NHL are eventually shaken up and changed when there’s a long period without success, but the Oilers continually bring back the past.
The Oilers’ Museum of the Past
To top it all off, Katz brought “the Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, into the organization for the 2016-17 season to serve the same role as Lowe. The Oilers also hired Paul Coffey as a skills development coach to finally complete their collection of past Oilers.
The Oilers’ problem isn’t Gretzky and Coffey, but they are symbolic of the systematic issues that surround the team. Past players can still be involved with the team through events and promotions, but if Gretzky’s time as a head coach has taught us anything it’s that being great on the ice doesn’t always translate off the ice.
In the now 18 seasons since Lowe became general manager and MacTavish the head coach, the Oilers have only made the playoffs four times. Lowe was promoted up from being the general manager despite having a poor track record and MacTavish was somehow brought back into the organization with an even high role than head coach.
Chiarelli may have been the one signing off on the terrible trades he made, but the rest are just as responsible. From poor scouting to not properly developing players, with many only realizing their potential once they left the team.
And many were excited when Keith Gretzky became the Oilers’ interim general manager. He has made a few moves that look to undo some of Chiarelli’s mistakes, but remember that he was right next to Chiarelli when the latter made the initial moves. He had been with Chiarelli since they were both with the Boston Bruins when management decided that trading Tyler Seguin was the right decision.
This team rewards failure again and again so that Katz can build his museum of the 80’s Oilers and spend time with his hockey idols instead of clearing out the past and bringing in new personnel who don’t rely on their time as an Oiler to get hired.
‘Old Boys Club’ Needs to End
As an outsider looking in on the Oilers, their whole situation is reminiscent of the Toronto Maple Leafs’ decade of failure with one difference. Team president Brendan Shanahan fired everyone at the end of the 2014-15 season, from the general manager to the coaching staff and also many involved in scouting and player development. The Maple Leafs needed a good base before they could build their team through the draft.
The Oilers have a culture of zero accountability and it’s evident by Lowe and MacTavish’s continued employment. Imagine what being a player for the Oilers is like where players are immediately traded, waived or given up on when they don’t meet expectations, but management isn’t held to the same standard.
Unfortunately, the Oilers never purged the organization before drafting Connor McDavid and are now stuck having to work backwards to get the team on the right path. Ultimately it comes down to Katz and Nicholson to make the decision to give the team a clean slate, but with how they’ve run things up until now, it looks like a daydream that’ll never become reality.
Toronto Maple Leafs contributor for The Hockey Writers.
I’ve been a fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs since I was a kid and have always had an interest in writing. At The Hockey Writers, I get to enjoy both of my passions as well as writing about small convoluted details in player contracts and stats.