Something in the water: Oilers’ issues go beyond Chiarelli

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The Edmonton Oilers have been sending a lot of mixed signals before and after the firing of Peter Chiarelli, but it’s difficult not to make this read from Bob Nicholson’s press conference on Wednesday: “We still don’t get it. We still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Of course, that’s not what Nicholson said while addressing the media.

No quick fix

On one hand, it’s promising that Nicholson emphasized that the team doesn’t want to make the type of panic moves that many (PHT included) feared that Chiarelli might make at the trade deadline with his job on the line.

“We’re not going to trade away any of our assets for a quick fix,” Nicholson said. “We’ll make some trades at the deadline, if they’re the right trades to get us in the playoffs, but not giving away the future.”

Hey, that’s good. Nicholson later stated that he wants prospects to be developed until they’re “over-ripe.” There are pitfalls to waiting too long to develop young players, yet when you realize how many times Edmonton’s bungled rookie contracts and otherwise struggled to bring talent along, the slow-and-steady approach sure beats one step forward, two steps back.

But, again, there’s this tug-of-war between acknowledging reality, while also emphasizing that this front office sees things differently than many others in the hockey world.

While high-end organizations tend to weather storms and stick with plans, the Oilers often feel all over the place. After all, Nicholson himself indicated that the Oilers would allow Chiarelli to sink or swim based on whether or not Edmonton made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then he reversed course and fired Chiarelli soon after stating his preferences.

While Nicholson doesn’t seem to have his finger on the pulse of the actual problem, it’s at least a small victory that he recognizes that something’s wrong.

” … There’s something in the water here that’s not right,” Nicholson said. “And we got to get that figured out …”

Yet, moments later, Nicholson railed on about finding “chemistry” and “character” in the locker room, not exactly taking a much more scientific approach than Chiarelli, who hammered the old-school hockey term “heavy” 23 times during his introductory news conference.

Look, it’s great to have strong chemistry and hearty, gregarious folks in your locker room, but it would have been far more promising if Nicholson lamented, say, the lack of skill around Connor McDavid and a select few other useful players.

Don’t ask the old boys’ club about the old boys’ club

Then again, how much can anyone cope when exact problems are placed under a magnifying glass?

Nicholson bristled at the (very reasonable) criticisms of the Oilers organization being an “old boys’ club,” one that’s still dominated by relics from their past glories in the ’80s. While Nicholson said that such talk is “not true at all,” the bottom line is that Keith and Wayne Gretzky are both prominent in the organization – with Keith serving as interim GM – and maybe most troublingly, Kevin Lowe remains a high-ranking figure. Lowe’s titles have changed over the years since becoming GM in 2000, but either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message of front office accountability when failed executives merely seem to be shuffled off to different positions.

It says a lot that Craig MacTavish remains with the Oilers, while they also employ Scott Howson, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Blue Jackets GM.

Chiarelli’s history shows that he’s had a terrible knack for trading away high-end talent for dubious returns, with mistakes stretching back to giving up the likes of Tyler Seguin and Blake Wheeler during his Bruins days. So Chiarelli wasn’t just a scapegoat; he made some big, forehead-slapping blunders. The punchlines were justified over the years.

Yet he’s not the only problem in Edmonton, and what evidence is there that this team is really learning from its mistakes? Do they even think they’re making any mistakes?

On one hand, it was nice that Nicholson said:

  • This isn’t a rebuild. (Oilers fans can’t be expected to endure another stitled reboot.)
  • That there are some good elements to this team. That’s not untrue.

But it would have been nice if Nicholson mixed in:

  • That the Oilers fundamentally failed to embrace both Connor McDavid and the larger trends in the NHL by emphasizing speed and skill. It was frustrating not to hear much of that, but a lot about the “real good” elements of the team and front office. (Warning: do not take a shot every time Nicholson says “real good.” If you do, you will not feel real good.)
  • At this point, it would be refreshing for the Oilers to explicitly state a greater interest in analytics, rather than merely saying that this isn’t an old boys’ club, and that they’ll listen to other voices. Maybe there’s a soft subtext there, but in desperate times, sometime you want people like Nicholson to flat-out state “we’re going to get fancy with our stats.”

Nicholson’s press conference wasn’t all doom and gloom, but only a few comments inspire confidence that this organization is learning from its mistakes. After all, things were messy long before Chiarelli became GM, and there’s an unsightly mess to clean up now that he’s gone.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, people are running with that “something’s in the water” line.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.