The Edmonton Oilers hit rock bottom yesterday, which is something they do in the same way you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock: sleepily, out of force of habit, and at least once every day.
The latest chapter came yesterday, when the team fired coach Dallas Eakins. The move comes just days after general manager Craig MacTavish gave Eakins a public vote of confidence, and with the team in the midst of a miserable stretch of 15 losses in 16 games. MacTavish himself will take over behind the bench for now, with the plan calling for AHL coach Todd Nelson to join the team before eventually sliding into the job for the rest of the season.
That’s the plan, so this being Edmonton, we should probably expect it to derail somewhere along the way. No franchise has had less success in recent years than the Oilers, who currently sit in a tie for last overall and are headed for their ninth straight year without a playoff berth.
But if the Oilers can’t be a contender, they can at least serve as a cautionary example. Here are 10 lessons the rest of the league can take from this latest chapter in the Oilers’ never-ending misery.
1. Don’t fall in love with the past
There aren’t many teams in my lifetime that can boast as many Stanley Cups as the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Those were some the best teams to ever take the ice, and it’s understandable that fans look back on them fondly.
Fans have that luxury. A franchise’s ownership and front office should not. And yet the Oilers have built their power structure around popular members of those teams, with team president Kevin Lowe and MacTavish the most prominent among them. During a combative press conference last year, Lowe famously invoked the memory of those Stanley Cup rings in an attempt to deflect criticism.
That sound bite didn’t play well with the fans, and rightly so. It’s one thing to be a great player, or at least a useful player on a great team. It’s another entirely to transition into a career in coaching, scouting, or management. Many players have done it, and there’s something to be said for bringing in guys who are familiar with a market. But at some point, if the very best candidate for the job always just happens to be a former player, there may be something wrong with your hiring process.
The Oilers certainly aren’t alone in this. If anything, handing key front-office jobs to stars from the past has become a trend around the league. Ron Hextall in Philadelphia, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy in Colorado, Trevor Linden in Vancouver, Ron Francis in Carolina and Pat LaFontaine in Buffalo were all recently given key jobs by the teams they once starred for. Sometimes it works: Roy was named coach of the year last season. Sometimes it doesn’t: LaFontaine lasted just a few weeks before heading for the exit.
Some would argue that a little bit of nostalgia has a place in the sports world. A cynic might wonder if these guys are being hired at least partly to provide PR cover while teams rebuild. But when a team has been as bad for as long as the Oilers have, you have to look hard at every candidate, not just the alumni section of the team yearbook.
Will they? We’ll find out. The club recently brought Mark Messier back in a temporary consulting role, and there are constant rumors that he could be in the mix for a bigger role.