The virus is real and Bob Nicholson has been infected.
The esteemed CEO of the Edmonton Oilers had some apologizing to do this week after he napalmed right winger Tobias Rieder at a season ticket-holders meeting, essentially blaming the speedy German’s bad puck luck for Edmonton’s futility this season.
As reported by Bruce McCurdy of the Edmonton Journal, Nicholson claimed that “if Toby Rieder would have scored 10 or 12 goals, we’d probably be in the playoffs,” while also pointing out that Rieder has missed “so many breakaways.”
Now, Nicholson did some damage control through TSN’s Darren Dreger later on, admitting that he “stepped out of bounds,” but how did it even come to this? True, Rieder has not scored a goal this season and that’s pretty incredible, but the right winger has also been very unlucky.
Sure, the Oilers might have won a few more games if he scored, but he also might have found the back of the net when Edmonton was in the midst of losing a game 5-2 with a minute to go. The fact is, Rieder isn’t the one who signed five-goal scorer Milan Lucic to a cap-crushing long-term contract, nor did he trade Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome (one goal in 18 games this season), who was then traded for Ryan Spooner (two goals in 25 games this season), who was then sent to the minors and traded for Sam Gagner (four goals in 17 games, but the Oilers’ season was already toast by then).
Rieder didn’t trade a useful youngster in Drake Caggiula for defenseman Brandon Manning, who injured McDavid in his rookie year and then got himself sent to AHL Bakersfield before being healthy scratched by the Condors.
And Rieder certainly didn’t sign goalie Mikko Koskinen to a three-year extension worth $4.5 million per season with a no-move clause before the big Finn had even played a year’s worth of hockey with the team. Koskinen, who has a .909 save percentage, will make more than either New York Islanders goalies next year and Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss are rocking matching .926 save percentages (they will each earn $3.3 million next season).
No, this was all done by recently-fired GM Peter Chiarelli - the Koskinen deal done right before he got the axe. And Nicholson was Chiarelli’s boss.
Nicholson had always been Chiarelli’s boss with the Oilers, in fact, and allowing the GM to make bad move after bad move is on him. The trigger should have been pulled much earlier.
And the amazing thing is, Nicholson was a tremendously successful leader with Hockey Canada before he got to Edmonton. He oversaw a program that won multiple Olympic gold medals on the men’s and women’s side, plus world junior and world championship gold. Heck, Chiarelli won a Stanley Cup in Boston.
But there is something wrong with Edmonton’s culture and it has been wrong for a long time. My modest proposal? Take down all the banners.
We all remember the Oilers of the 1980s as one of the most fun and dominant NHL dynasties there ever was and the fans in Edmonton can always gaze up wistfully at the rafters to see those Cup titles. But all the old boys in the executive suite can also see the banners and I wonder if they need to remember that none of those titles came from their collective brainpower.
Sure, on the ice, guys like Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and Wayne Gretzky were integral...but once they put on a suit and tie for the Oilers, it was game over.
So pack all the title banners away - nicely, of course - and live in the now. This team needs a new philosophy and an obvious upgrade in talent at multiple positions. Right now, Keith Gretzky is the interim GM. Nicholson’s job is to find a permanent replacement for Chiarelli and he should cast the net wide.
For all the flak that young GM John Chayka takes in Arizona, let’s not forget that his Coyotes might make the playoffs and have done so on a budget. In Toronto, GM Kyle Dubas has already proven himself to be a deft operator in luring John Tavares to town, while getting Auston Matthews and William Nylander under contract for very reasonable amounts.
The next Oilers GM doesn’t have to be some young iconoclast, but the candidate should be someone with new ideas and no baggage - particularly Edmonton baggage.
I won’t pretend to know the solution to all of the Oilers’ woes, but it’s pretty clear that in the past decade-plus, there has been a failure at the very top to build a culture around the team. Maybe if the current braintrust realized that they haven’t won anything in recent years, they could make a change, like the New York Rangers have done (and the Rangers had been pretty successful in recent years). Hide the banners. Then the higher-ups can keep their heads down and get to work, instead of looking up at the ceiling at past glories.