Off-season blueprint for Bob Nicholson and the Edmonton Oilers


Bob Nicholson speaks during a press conference in Edmonton, Alberta. (Jason Franson/CP)

Since the National Hockey League took control of the Stanley Cup, only two teams have missed the playoffs 12 times in a 13-season span: they are the Detroit Red Wings (1970-71 to 1982-83) and the New Jersey Devils (1974-75 to 1986-87).

The Edmonton Oilers will join that elite club when this season ends, as would the Carolina Hurricanes if they were to somehow blow a four-point bulge with 10 games to play and miss the playoffs in the East. But here’s the kicker:

No team has ever missed the playoffs 13 times in a 14-season span. Not in the history of the NHL. The Oilers would become the first club to do so if they fail to qualify again next season.

All of that while selecting first overall four times during their window of dysfunction.

Avoiding that dubious distinction falls on Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson, who has fired both a general manager (Peter Chiarelli) and a head coach (Todd McLellan) this season, after cleaning out his assistant coaching staff the previous summer.

Now that we are officially into garbage time, with nine Oilers games remaining this spring, let’s turn our focus to the summer. Here is our advice:

Interview people from as many organizations as you can

Ask people from as many organizations as possible, “What have we done wrong here?” Take copious notes, and don’t skip Chicago, which overcame cap issues every second season while winning three Cups, while fleecing the Oilers for Drake Caggiula.

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Spend where you can

Figure out what the Toronto Maple Leafs figured out years ago: There is no cap on spending for the front office.

The Oilers are a top-five revenue team in the league. We can list off the names of 15 hockey scouts whose names make hockey people nod their heads in respect. Guys whose pedigree for evaluating talent is proven, and deadly. Not one of those people work for the Edmonton Oilers.

They’re easy to find because everyone knows who they are. Guys like Craig Heisinger (Winnipeg), Vaughn Karpan (Vegas), David McNabb (Anaheim), Al Murray (Tampa), Pat Verbeek (Tampa). There are 10 more people we could name off the top of our head.

Find them. Pay them.

Hire the right GM

We’ve all heard the list. We’re not in the interviews, so we won’t pick a name. But hire a bird dog — a real personnel man like Kelly McCrimmon or Mark Hunter — who knows talent. Then hire people to do the contracts, etc.

Depth in talent is the issue for Edmonton. Player evaluation skills are first, second and third on my hiring list.

Who heads up the Oilers analytics department?

Well, it turns out it’s a team effort, which is kind of like closer by committee in baseball, or having two backup goalies.

This organization should be able to afford the best Director of Analytics, aided by four or five support staff. It’s 2019. Get after it.

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Take a hard look at pro scouts

You know how we always say it takes five years to know if your scout has been performing or not? Well, that is true for amateur scouts, and the Oilers amateur department — under Keith Gretzky — has been performing.

But the pro side? We’d take a long, hard look at the last five years of reports from anyone who said Ryan Spooner could help. From anyone who was on-side with acquiring Brandon Manning, Nikita Nikitin, Tobias Rieder, Anton Belov, Chris Wideman, Alex Petrovic…

Sure, some of those players go years back. But if that scout is still working for me, I want to see about two things: has he been making the same mistake all the way along, and if so, why is he still working for me?

The evaluation of pro players in this organization rates out at about D-minus. That means the pro scouting staff isn’t good enough.

Edmonton needs to acquire some right-now, step-into-the-lineup players. How on earth do we expect the same people who have made mistakes for a decade to have success this summer?

Bolster the blue line

Package Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and get a top pairing defenceman.

We use Nugent-Hopkins for two reasons: The Oilers already have two top-six centremen, and Nugent-Hopkins is a very good player who has excellent value. He is the Oilers’ best chip, below the two obvious ones.

Edmonton does not have a legitimate, no-doubt, top pairing defenceman on their roster. So package Nugent-Hopkins — a good second-line centre on many teams — with an Adam Larsson, or more preferably, a Kris Russell or Andrej Sekera, and make a deal.

If it’s Nugent-Hopkins and Larsson, you should get your defenceman and a serviceable winger. If it’s the Russell or Sekera model, you take the D-man, maybe a prospect, but gain in the salary that goes out the door.

Win the trade.


Buy out Milan Lucic?


We’d suggest a buy-out unconditionally, but there is very little to gain because of the way failed GM Chiarelli made the deal. It was Chiarelli’s first July 1 contract, and it is a disaster. Mikko Koskinen at $4.5 million per season was Chiarelli’s final contract.

Lucic asked for a trade last summer. If he asks for one again at the exit meetings, then buy him out and wave goodbye.

If he promises to spend the summer with a skills coach, shed as much weight as possible (he’s always been in great shape) and shows me that he wants to succeed in Edmonton, then give him the chance. Because a buy-out saves you about $1.4 million per season, which buys you a decent fourth-line winger.

Which Lucic already is.

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