Poor player evaluation at the core of Oilers shakeup

Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli. (Codie McLachlan/CP)

EDMONTON — Player evaluation. It is the answer to everything.

Why have the Edmonton Oilers failed so miserably over the past decade in Rounds 2-6 at the National Hockey League Draft? Player evaluation: Amateur.

Why have they shored up their defence with professional acquisitions like Anton Belov, Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference and Mark Fayne? Player evaluation: Pro.

Why did the front office overrule its scouts and draft Nail Yakupov first overall in 2012? Well, the GM and his pals didn’t trust the scouts’ collective player evaluation skills, and showed that their own were highly questionable as well.

Finally, how do you end up tied for the longest run of playoff misses in the history of the NHL? Play… Well, you get the picture.

When he became the Edmonton Oilers GM in April of 2015, Peter Chiarelli knew he had to get to work on the current Oilers roster. But he also knew the obvious: That the men who built that mess had to be replaced — ownership had already begun by replacing former GM Craig MacTavish with Chiarelli — and after moving out some scouts last summer he continued his assault on MacTavish’s group on Tuesday.

Keith Gretzky, a former director of amateur scouting for both the Arizona Coyotes and Boston Bruins — and a hire of Chiarelli’s in Boston — becomes Chiarelli’s right hand man in Edmonton, given the title of assistant general manager. On the same day Scott Howson, widely believed to be responsible for the Nikitin contract and a key decision-maker in a lost Oilers era, leaves the organization.

Meanwhile the analytics guy, as we reported a couple of weeks ago, is gone. Tyler Dellow did not have his contract renewed.

Between the hiring of the younger brother of former Oilers great Wayne Gretzky (Keith is 49), and the jettisoning of one of the analytics movement’s most vocal pioneers, two themes might arise here.

One, the Old Boys Club is at work again in Edmonton, furthering the nepotism that has helped to sink the Oilers organization to an all-time low. And, Chiarelli has no taste for advanced metrics in hockey. No use for Dellow means no use for numbers.

Let us dispel both of those platitudes immediately.

Gretzky has earned his chops in two organizations that have produced at an above average pace at the NHL Draft. If owner Daryl Katz would have hired Jari Kurri’s little brother, with no scouting experience, then you could laugh. Keith Gretzky is a well-respected hockey man with whom Chiarelli built a Cup winner in Boston.

Not the same thing.

“I’ll do everything,” said Gretzky, who has spent the past decade on the amateur side of the game. “Get to know what we have in the system, spend some time in (AHL) Bakersfield. Get to know the team that we have in Edmonton, and overlook both the amateur and pro scouting departments.”

Gretzky had many a trip to Edmonton as a boy to watch Wayne, five years his senior, play for the Oilers. “I remember Ace Bailey would be the one who looked after us in the playoffs,” he joked.

“New arena, knowing Pete, the team’s on the rise. It’s extra special to be a part of,” he said. “And to get to spend more time with the NHL team, that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

As for the analytics department, it flatters Dellow to say that parting with him means parting ways with analytics, yet it is inaccurate. By my understanding, this is more of a deliveryman issue. Chiarelli has already made arrangements to have others do his statistical research, leaving us to assume that the message was perhaps lost in the messenger.

Love him or not, Dellow has earned a reputation as a smart, yet brash and opinionated hockey man. That package may yet work in another organization. It didn’t work in Edmonton.

Also Tuesday, Chiarelli promoted Duane Sutter to vice president of player personnel, Kelly Buchberger to vice president of player development, and brought in Frank Jay and P.J. Fenton as new amateur scouts. This, after making a bunch of organizational changes last summer as well.

When you take over a ship that has listed the way the Good Ship Oiler has, moves like this are to be expected. They are to be applauded, really.

Because when you’ve missed the playoffs for a decade, the true sin would be to stand pat on a losing hand.

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