Not Chia’s Pet

When it was announced Peter Chiarelli would be the new GM for the Edmonton Oilers, there was, more or less, a collective sigh of relief throughout Oiler nation. The old boys network that had guided our beloved Oilers from disastrous season to a seemingly never-ending downward spiral of futility, had finally been broken.

But could the old boy’s network be eliminated that easily? Based on Chiarelli’s bumbling explanation of his relationship with Craig MacTavish in his interview with TSN’s Bob Mackenzie, there are signs that some of the residue of that era still remains.

When Mckenzie asked about MacTavish, Chiarelli appeared more awkward than at any time in the interview.  He admitted that his inital meeting with MacTavish was awkward as he stumbled through a description of MacT’s qualifications and fumbled as he tried to compliment him.  At one point he seemed to utter a freudian slip when he said “if we can make it (working together) work,”followed quickly by, “and we will make it work.”  Clearly there is something going on that Chiarelli is not comfortable with.

When Chiarelli was hired, it was made clear that he answered to no one with respect to decisions regarding the Oilers.  But it seems clear from the interview, the decision to keep MacTavish on board was not solely his. I am guessing Nicholson suggested to Chiarelli that he offer MacTavish a high position internally and that Chiarelli would be his boss.  I’m sure that seemed easy enough at the time, but he may not have been as familiar with MacT’s character as the Oiler faithful, and what challenges it could pose.

MacT

In my observation MacTavish’s most obvious character flaw tandem is his stubborness and pride.  When he has a belief in his head, he doesn’t seem flexible, even when exposed to new information.  So, Nikita Nikitin, in MacT’s world, is a top 4 world-class defenceman, Dallas Eakins was a great coach, Justin Schultz in a future Norris trophy candidate, and, my favourite, Jeff Petry needed to be challenged right before becoming a UFA.

All these beliefs of MacT were not rooted in logic, but I don’t believe, even today, he feels he made one wrong move.  And this is the man Chiarelli has as his 2IC, someone who likely will push his opinions internally.  Now is that just me looking for grassy knolls, or is there any evidence that MacTavish is continues to have influence with respect to player decisions?

Well, if we look at some of the recent player movement, there is.  Martin Marincin had some ups and downs developing, and like Petry, had found himself chronically in MacTavish’s doghouse.  But was it time to give up on him?  Not really.  He had a lot of potential and I would not be surprised if he played steady on Toronto’s blueline this year.  But at the draft when the new GM was looking for an asset to trade, I believe MacT pointed the finger at Marincin and he was gone.  Gryba was a nice pick-up, but we didn’t need to trade Marincin to get him.

Another strong piece of evidence that MacTavish still has some influence on the roster is the fact that Nikita Nikitin is still an Oiler.  Late in the summer, Oilers positioned themselves for a buyout . . . but didn’t do it.  If they had, they could have easily put Cody Franson in Nikitin’s spot and be in a much better position going into the season.  The reason why I believe they didn’t follow though with a buyout is MacTavish stubbornly advocated keeping Nikitin as an Oiler, and Chiarelli relented. . . for now.  So when Chiarelli’s shows signs of frustration when discussing his relationship with MacT, I would hypothesize player decisions like Nikitin being a source of that agitation.

Now with Connor McDavid’s biggest pre-game so far, the annual Oiler’s Rookies vs. Golden Bears, the bulk of Craig MacTavish’s leverage for player personnel involvemment will be on display.  After McDavid, the core Oiler prospects are from MacTavish’s tenure:  Darnell Nurse, Bogdan Yakimov, Anton Shlepyshev, to name a few.  As GM, the future of these players as Oilers will be directed by Chiarelli, however, based on what I believe about MacTavish, would he not try to meddle in decisions regarding these players?  You would hope not, but it could be a further annoyance.

But at the end of the day, Chiarelli is the boss.  In theory he could quash MacTavish if he gets too uppity, but unfortunately, that’s just theory.  In reality, MacT is a respected member of the Oiler’s organization who, as a coach, took the Oiler’s to within one game of hockey’s holy grail.  And, there’s little doubt, he’s held in high regard by Daryl Katz, the man who allowed the old boys club to start and guide the club.

Chiarelli, however, is not a member of the old boys club, so he can’t be so direct in managing MacTavish.  Alterntatively, I imagine he will follow one of two strategies:

1) Give him enough rope to hang himself: The only reason I can see that Chiarelli did not buy out Nikitin is he wanted to rub a repeated failure in MacTavish’s face so he doesn’t push his opinion again.

Or

2) Isolate him, keep him in the field scouting, thereby limiting the damage he may do to club. Out of the two options, the second one is the most likely course Chiarelli will take to diplomatically subdue any distractions from the task of taking the Oilers to the playoffs and beyond.

Now maybe this is all a bit of stretch.  Maybe a Stanley cup winning executive and one of the more respected hockey minds in the NHL thought it was OK to trade away a prospect that the club had invested years in developing for very little return.  Maybe the architect of Boston Bruins D-corps that carried that franchise to the Stanley Cup also believes, like his predecessor, that Nikita Nikitin is a world-class talent and a top four defenceman.  Maybe.

Or it’s also likely, and maybe not surprising, that Chiarelli is still consolidating control in his position as moves forward in completing a stalled re-build.  But if I’m reading the body language, and interpreting the fumbled verbiage correctly, Chiarelli is inheriting some unwanted baggage in MacTavish, baggage he will take time in processing and managing.

Lindsay Ryall Written by:

Born in Edmonton, raised in the pumpkin capital of Canada in rural Ab. and an Oiler fan since their first season.

  • Dennis S

    Or maybe Chia had the forethought and patience to understand that the Oilers are not going to be a playoff team this year and instead of wasting money on buying out Nikitin, hamstringing the Oilers’ cap next year (which will not likely go up because of the weak Canadian dollar), he will just ride it out this season. Then next year he can unload Ference and Nikitin and Nurse and Reinhart will have another year to develop and then the Oilers can make a legitimate push for the playoffs. You shouldn’t make wild and unfounded accusations about non-existent personality conflicts within the Oilers’ organization without definitive proof. It’s just rumour mongering and creating fires when there aren’t any.

    • Lindsay Ryall

      Dennis S,

      Thanks for reading and especially for commenting. I think what you are suggesting is perfectly plausible, however, I don’t believe it is a better scenario than signing Franson for 3M (a relative bargain) and buying out Nikitin. There are no major UFA’s to deal with next year, and I don’t see the buyout expense going beyond next season. As for Ferrence, he’s under contract until 2016 – 17 and has a NTC so we can’t “unload” him as you have suggested until after next season. I honestly don’t believe that if Chiarelli was not influenced, he would have gotten rid of Nikitin. Why did the Oilers put themselves in a position to do a buyout if they weren’t going to?

      The way Chiarelli stumbled and squirmed in the interview, I don’t believe it is too much to suggest his relationship with Mactavish is a challenge. And if you want to see how a GM can be influenced, you should watch the episode of Behind the B where the Bruins decide to trade Tyler Seguin. I may not have direct proof that Mactavish influenced Chiarelli to keep Nikitin, but I do believe it is a logical assuption.