When you consider what the glory-days Edmonton Oilers accomplished as players, you have to stand back in awe. Few teams were ever as ferocious. Fewer could boast of the stunning depth and breadth of their talent. From Wayne Gretzky to Mark Messier to Paul Coffey to Jari Kurri to Grant Fuhr and so many more, the franchise was like a Hockey Hall of Fame Factory that churned out legends the way potato chip companies now churn out preposterous flavors (coming soon: butterscotch pine blueberry guacamole mortadella cheese omelette), and their fans were treated to nightly exhibitions of the best the sport had to offer.
But since the Oilers won the last of their five Stanley Cups nearly a quarter-century ago, things rarely have gone the Oilers’ way. In fact, things have usually gone out of their way to avoid going the Oilers’ way. And if you look at the exploits of Edmonton’s key figures from those peak years after they left Edmonton – as coaches, as GMs – it becomes readily apparent that on-ice success doesn’t translate to the management suite.
In Phoenix, Gretzky had a slew of different titles (including alternate governor, managing partner, head of hockey operations and head coach), but he was unable to steer that team to any success before departing in 2009. In Manhattan, former Oilers coach and GM Glen Sather has been a success if you judge success by Eastern Conference championships (one in 13 seasons) and perpetual roster turnover, but not by any other metric. And of course, In Edmonton, Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish have been at or near the Oilers’ reins of power since Sather left the organization in 2000, yet they’ve proven utterly incapable of pushing the franchise back into relevance.
And quite frankly, it’s shocking owner Daryl Katz continues to operate as if they’ve got the answers.
It may have felt great for Katz to bank on Lowe and MacTavish when he bought the team in 2008, and it’s easy to see why: Katz is an Edmonton native who was in his early twenties when the duo were playing integral roles in the Oilers’ dynasty, and bringing them aboard was always going to play well in the press. Lowe and MacTavish are confident, intelligent men who could inspire many who count themselves as hardened cynics. These weren’t snake oil salesmen.
The only problem with hiring former stars as management figures to deliver you a Cup is this: it doesn’t work.
Take a look through the list of Cup champions, and you will find few, if any who were being led by former star players for the franchise.
Dean Lombardi didn’t play on the Triple Crown Line for the Kings. Stan Bowman didn’t sit beside Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios in the Blackhawks’ dressing room. Peter Chiarelli played for the Nottingham Panthers of the British League. Ken Holland played four NHL games. Ray Shero never played beyond the collegiate level. There have been exceptions to the rule – Serge Savard in Montreal, for instance – but the evidence is overwhelmingly against going the route Katz went.
But continuing to go this route, now that the Oilers are in full freefall? That’s the part that can’t be justified. Although Lowe hasn’t been the GM for years, his presence in his current role represents a connection to the losing that’s become commonplace, and that connection must be severed. A new voice at the top would more than likely move MacTavish (and head coach Dallas Eakins) out as well, and that’s the norm when regimes change.
If Katz does come to terms with the lack of production and makes Lowe fall on his sword, the Oilers can begin to move ahead. But if Katz hires, say, Messier to replace him – or even worse, stays the course – Oilers fans are best advised to hang on to their ulcer pills and invest in the stress reliever toy market, because the odds of history repeating are high.