Oilers can’t let effects of Old Boys Club dictate new GM search

NHL insider Mark Spector joins Gene Principe to discuss what was learned from Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson and interim GM Keith Gretzky’s year-end press conference, and what they maybe should have elaborated on a bit more.

EDMONTON — As interim general manager Keith Gretzky sat next to CEO Bob Nicholson at another nervous year-end Edmonton Oilers press conference, a video of Wayne Gretzky’s Top 100 goals ran on a loop on a giant screen high on the wall of the Oilers Hall of Fame room.

Back near the dressing room, the eventual new coaching hire will inherit a “war room” with a 15-foot picture of Mark Messier hoisting a Stanley Cup. Again, high up on the wall, looking down from the past on the here and now.

The physical symbolism runs thick here, to the point where Nicholson — in charge of the year 2019 and the immediate thereafter — still fields questions that either directly or indirectly reference the “Old Boys Club” at availability some 29 years after the last Stanley Cup parade was held in Edmonton.

As for the less tangible effects, we bring you Keith Gretzky — the acting GM who is a genuine candidate for the vacant GM job that Nicholson is actively seeking to fill.

Only in Edmonton does it matter who a candidate’s brother is — but to this fan base is matters acutely. Including the acting GM in his press conference was, we would surmise, Nicholson’s way of gauging public reaction to the notion of taking the interim tag off of Keith Gretzky’s GM status.

“Keith has built his own resume,” Nicholson said. “Anyone who has been around hockey has seen Keith’s (work). I will say, I’ve really liked the job Keith has done in the interim. But there is Wayne Gretzky and there’s Keith Gretzky, and Keith has built his own resume.”

I will say, I quite like Keith Gretzky as well. He comes from amateur scouting roots, the way a Jim Benning does in Vancouver, and in my conversations with him I find a realistic evaluator who neither over-values a player just because he’s Edmonton property, nor is he unrealistic on possible acquisitions who may or may not see Edmonton as a plausible destination.

Where his brother soared above his peers, Keith is a grinder. In a time when the single most important skill of a GM is talent evaluation — you can hire cap guys, contract guys, analytics people — in Gretzky we see a true bird dog who would turn around this organization’s decidedly losing record in the trade market.

Nicholson is embarking on a GM search that will carry him to the four corners of the hockey world. Will Gretzky ultimately prove out to be the most qualified choice? That we don’t know.

But, is there a person more in tune with the players Edmonton has under contract? Likely not.

Either way, if Gretzky gets hired because of his last name, it’s a mistake. If he is deemed the best man for the job, but doesn’t get hired because of his last name, then the Oilers are compounding their mistakes.

And what about Bill Guerin?

Seven years working in the Pittsburgh front office. Four years as the Pens assistant GM. Runs the farm team in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. Worked under GM Jim Rutherford, one of the league’s wiliest GMs.

Guerin is highly qualified and has every skill required to do the job. And he knows the ill effects the Old Boys Club had in this franchise from his time here — because he was an Oiler from 1997-2000.

Does that disqualify Guerin? It had better not.

These are the issues that are more complicated in Edmonton than they are elsewhere, due only to the Oilers mismanagement over the last two decades.

Here were some other highlights of Nicholson’s address on Tuesday:

• Nicholson all but dismissed Ken Hitchcock from returning as head coach next year:
“When we signed Ken it was to be the head coach to the end of the year. That is up at this time. Ken will be with this organization in some fashion. Will he be the head coach? That will be determined as we name the general manager.”

• On accessing GM candidates who currently work for other teams: “I’ve got a lot more leeway than I thought I would. Most of the general managers have been very good, and I’ll get to have those discussions right away.”

• On the (mostly) Eastern-based talk of Connor McDavid wanting out soon: “It’s not the time to be deflecting those (comments). It’s the time for us to put our work boots on and get it right. There’s a lot to do.”

• On firing any current scouts or front office personnel before the new GM hire: “I’ve made the decision that I won’t. I want to do this in conjunction with the new general manager.”

• On hurrying, before all the good head coaches get snapped up: “There is always going to be the reason you should hurry. I’m going to take the patient route. I’m not here to delay the process … but I really want to make sure we’re comfortable with that first step.”

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