Oilers look to avoid familiar road with addition of Paul Coffey

Gene Principe reports from Edmonton where the Oilers have hired former great Paul Coffey as their new skills development coach.

It is a shame for Paul Coffey that we even feel the need to ask the question. But the question is valid, because the Edmonton Oilers miserable recent history makes it so:

In announcing the hire of the Hall of Fame defenceman to the position of Skills Development Coach, is this just another “Old Boys Club” hire in Edmonton?

It says something that Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli was ready for that question on Sunday afternoon.

“I know, prior to me coming in here, there was talk about all the old Oilers,” Chiarelli said. “This is a collaborative decision by myself and Todd (head coach McLellan). We’re not old Oilers.”

The other question that this hire begs is, why now?

Why, on Jan. 21 of a lost season, with very real internal pressure to fix this team quickly, have the Oilers hired a Skills Coach, a long-term hire usually executed in July or August? Does it infer Coffey’s scope within this team is wider than simply working with the organization’s various levels of blue-liners, from junior through to the NHL?

Why now, with everyone’s routines set, and playoff drives beginning at every level of hockey?

“I’ve got some (family) responsibilities still, back in Toronto,” admitted Coffey. “I still coach my 14-year-old boy (Christian, with the Bantam AAA Toronto Marlboros), and we’re going into the playoffs, but the way Peter has structured it my schedule should be flexible.”

So far, Glory Years hires provided the management that presided over the longest futility streaks in 100 years of National Hockey League history: 10 playoff misses in a row. So let’s dive a little deeper into this hire.

If it truly is Coffey’s job description to help develop offensive instincts in young players like Darnell Nurse (22), Oscar Klefbom (24), and Matt Benning (23) — as well as a prospect roster skewed heavily towards the blue-line — then fine. He is absolutely qualified for that job, and one does not need previous NHL coaching experience for that position. Especially as one of the best offensive defencemen in the history of the game.

But if Coffey has a hand in player procurement, is making decisions on personnel, or if he was hired at the behest of owner Daryl Katz — whose devotion to the Old Boys Club runs deep — then the Oilers are going down an old, familiar road that has always led them to the basement.

So far, it is being billed as the former.

“It’s a position I’ve been looking at for a while,” began Chiarelli. “Looking at our prospect pool we have a lot of defencemen. Ranging from the junior leagues, college, three prime prospects in Bakersfield (Caleb Jones, Ryan Mantha, Ethan Bear), and young defencemen here (in Edmonton).

“If your question is, should a candidate need more coaching experience? I think Paul is an exception. The way he views the game is a real asset to us.”

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Can Coffey help as a consultant on the power play? Why not? He has reams of experience there.

The problem in Edmonton has always been, however, that former players like Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish and others quickly made their way into positions they were not qualified for. A record-breaking 10-year run out of the playoffs ensued, and finally Katz acquiesced, hiring Bob Nicholson, who hired Chiarelli who hired McLellan.

MacTavish was moved to a scouting role and Lowe to the business side. Kelly Buchberger moved on to the Islanders. Under Nicholson, a successful transition was being made away from a failing business plan.

So Coffey’s arrival raises red flags. In any other organization it would not. But here, and now, it surely does.

“Anyone with that much experience wrapped up inside of him is always a great resource to tap,” said head coach Todd McLellan. “We’re not going to put him on the bench, he won’t be changing lines or any of that. We’ll access his knowledge of the game — power play, penalty kill — what he sees. But more importantly, individually there are skill techniques, and how (players) are applying their skill sets, and how they can change that.”

Coffey, still fit as a fiddle at age 56, was adamant after spending his first practice on ice wit the Oilers:

“I’m not coming in to take anyone’s job.”

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