With today’s hiring of Peter Chiarelli as president of hockey operations and GM of the Edmonton Oilers, it’s clear that new boss Bob Nicholson is quickly setting about to make his mark on the franchise. It’s also clear that after a year on the job, Nicholson has prevailed in setting his agenda for the Oilers, one year after being hired to do just that.
With the addition of Chiarelli to the group, the Oilers still have four men who are either current or former GMs – Chiarelli, Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Scott Howson – which is about three too many. But the voices of the other three have been muffled, thereby diffusing what had become an untenable, dysfunctional situation.
There will likely not be a lot of gnashing of teeth as both Lowe and MacTavish have been effectively shown the exit door to the hockey operations office and stand a good chance of finding their way out of the building completely in the near future. They almost certainly won’t still be around when the Oilers move into Rogers Place for the 2016-17 season. The good people of Edmonton have put up with an awful lot of bad hockey for an awfully long time and the blame for a good part of that has to fall at the feet of Lowe and MacTavish. Based on their bodies of work, it does not come as a shock to see both have their roles and titles reduced.
But the Boys on the Bus still have quite an emotional pull in Edmonton. Their play brought the Oilers five Stanley Cups in seven years, something owner Darryl Katz, who is basically an Oilers fan with an enormous stock portfolio, recognized. Katz, who has had countless opportunities to change the complexion of the front office without having to explain himself to anyone, had remained loyal to the old charge that was great on the ice, less than stellar in the boardroom and the draft table.
But to say that Lowe and MacTavish were not exactly on the same page as Nicholson when it comes to hockey matters would not be a stretch. When Nicholson was hired by Katz a year ago, he came to the Oilers expecting to have more say over hockey matters, but was apparently overruled by Lowe. That all changed last week, however, when Katz named Nicholson president of the Oilers Sports Group and gave him carte blanche to run the hockey department as he sees fit. And Nicholson wasted no time, acting immediately to both reach out to San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan and hire Chiarelli.
Had Katz not truly thrown his support behind Nicholson’s efforts, he would have not only undermined him, but he would have been guilty of continuing to muddle in the morass of ineptitude that the Oilers have been for the better part of the past decade. What this hockey department needed more than anything, if for public perception if nothing else, was to distance itself from its recent past. And the only way to do that was to bring in new people from the outside and give them a chance to bring a different vision to the hockey department.
Wow, we got more than 600 words into this blog with nary a mention of Connor McDavid, who will be selected first overall unless he suddenly decides to retire from hockey. But with McDavid on the way and a new arena on the horizon, there is no better time to act than now for Nicholson and Chiarelli. The next couple of months will be crucial to the future of the Oilers as they put into place hockey people with a track record for success to form the blueprint.
That success, though, comes with some red flags. Nicholson ran Hockey Canada, made it into a corporate powerhouse and won a ton of gold medals. But that’s the way it should have been. Any country with the resources and talent pool Canada has should be a serious contender to win a gold medal each and every time it steps on the ice at every level of the game. And while Chiarelli won a Stanley Cup with the Bruins, he also has a good number of minuses on his resume.
Nicholson finally finds himself in the middle of a game where he doesn’t have the advantages he had with Hockey Canada and Chiarelli finds himself at the helm of what is almost an expansion team in the NHL. As Hockey Canada president, Nicholson was accustomed to having his pick of the best hockey executives and the best players in the world. Now he’ll be competing against 29 other teams, many of which can match his resources and almost all of which are more desired destinations for players. McDavid, of course, could change all that. Perhaps the kinds of players the Oilers need most, very good players in the prime years of their career, will put aside their reservations of playing in Edmonton for the chance to skate alongside a generational talent in McDavid.
The Nicholson/Chiarelli tandem is hardly an iron-clad guarantee for success, but both men have earned the opportunity to see what they can do with this team. It is time for the Oilers to take a bold step into their future unimpeded by their past. They did that today, finally, and will be the better for it.
Now, the real work begins. Before being demoted, MacTavish said he would steadfastly refuse to deal any of the organization’s glut of talented young forwards. Chiarelli, who made a dizzying number of moves as GM of the Bruins, will likely have a different vision. This is a man, after all, who traded Phil Kessel and the man he got for him, Tyler Seguin. Discuss amongst yourselves whether the Bruins are better off for that, but Chiarelli will not be reticent to make earth-shaking moves.
“My to-do list is pretty big right now,” Chiarelli said at his introductory news conference.
And what’s important for both Nicholson and Chiarelli, they’ll be able to do so with a honeymoon period. As long as Oilers fans are convinced there is a rebuilding plan in place that has a chance to succeed, they’ll be patient. And barring a round of expansion, the Oilers really have nowhere to go but up.