As the Edmonton Oilers face their first day without Peter Chiarelli at the helm, they should be classified as a tire fire, which they are. But they’re also three points out of a playoff spot, which says a lot more about how terrible the bottom half of the Western Conference than it does about the Oilers.
In reality, firing Peter Chiarelli after a 3-2 loss to the worst team in the NHL is going to do nothing for the Oilers in the short term, aside from assuage a fan base that has been calling for his job for weeks. The Oilers did look an awful lot like a team that was playing to get somebody fired, but it’s hard to imagine this is going to give the players the kind of jolt they need. And there is a sizeable segment that will believe owner Darryl Katz didn’t go near far enough and that the entire front office needs to be turned around and shaken up Etch-A-Sketch style with every vestige of the previous regime removed. They have a point, but that’s probably not terribly practical in the middle of a season.
One thing that will not be disputed is that Chiarelli’s body of work merited his dismissal. From the Taylor Hall trade to flipping two draft choices, including the pick used to take Mat Barzal, to acquire Griffin Reinhart No. 4 overall, to the Milan Lucic and Kris Russell signings and the signing Leon Draisaitl to an eight-year deal that will take up $8.5 million in cap space until 2024-25…should we continue? But the problem is that because of those moves, the Oilers are a mess in every sense of the word, stuck with a whole bunch of bad, untradeable contracts and a goalie who has just been handed a three-year deal at $4.5 million a year based on 31 career NHL games. (Although you’d have to think Chiarelli didn’t have the autonomy to make that signing on his own without the approval of upper management.)
So there is no quick fix in Edmonton. This will take years to repair and whoever does end up getting the Oilers job will have to have a long contract and the faith of management that he has the chops to steer this ship onto the right course in the long-term. But who is that person going to be? The Oilers seem to have tried everything since the Glen Sather days and nothing has worked. Do they go off the board and hire someone with no GM experience? Do they go back to the scrap heap located behind the Old Boys’ Club?
It appears it’s going to be Keith Gretzky’s job to decide whether the Oilers become buyers at the trade deadline in a desperate attempt to make the playoffs or punt and begin the much-needed process of tearing this mess down. The Oilers assistant GM has an extensive background in scouting with both the Arizona Coyotes and the Boston Bruins, but the optics of hiring Wayne Gretzky’s brother to run the hockey operations department would not look terribly good at this point. What the Oilers need is a fresh start, someone from the outside with a fresh set of eyes, a person who can dispassionately and methodically make the decisions that need to be made.
Connor McDavid may not have the patience for a complete rebuild, but he signed an eight-year deal and he’s in for the long haul whether he likes it or not. (To be clear, there is no indication that McDavid is not all in with the Oilers. Every shred of evidence suggests he desperately wants to be part of the solution in the long term.) Whether it’s Keith Gretzky, Ken Holland, Mike Futa, Ron Hextall, Kelly McCrimmon or Dean Lombardi, the new guy is going to have to be decisive and unafraid to make bold moves. And it will not be easy. Let’s take Milan Lucic, for example. He has four years remaining on his regrettable deal with an annual cap hit of $6 million. According to CapFriendly, if the Oilers were to buy out that contract, they would endure cap hits of $3.6 million, $5.6 million, $4.1 million and $5.6 million over the next four seasons, followed by four seasons at $625,000. From a cap-hit standpoint, it hardly seems worthwhile. But in order for the Oilers to truly move forward, that might be exactly what they have to do, assuming there is no way they can take on enough salary or give up enough assets to move him to another team. Even if they were able to convince him to waive his no-move clause to go to Seattle, that won’t happen for another two years.
Decisions, decisions. But it’s very clear that this rebuild is a teardown, much more than a tinker or even a reno. By the time McDavid is in the latter half of his current contract, the Oilers could be in a position to contend if the right person comes in and has the latitude to clear salary and players who have been synonymous with losing for most of their tenure in Edmonton. That is the only way this thing can go. Things may even get worse before they get better with the Oilers so the new guy is going to have to be equipped with some very, very thick skin and a clear vision for the future.