EDMONTON — The fact the Edmonton Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the last 13 seasons isn't all CEO Bob Nicholson's fault, but it certainly is his problem as he begins an overhaul of the team's hockey operations department this off-season.
With Nicholson at the end of his fourth season with the Oilers, he needs a general manager to replace Peter Chiarelli. Nicholson — in his first week on the job — hired Chiarelli in April 2015. He was fired in January.
Chiarelli's first hire was coach Todd McLellan. He was fired in November and replaced by Ken Hitchcock. With the Oilers having missed the post-season in three of Nicholson's four seasons and a restless fan base demanding changes, the pressure to get it right this time is considerable.
"We have to give the fans a plan and we have to make sure the fans understand the plan," Nicholson said at a news conference on Monday. "It starts right away, as soon as the general manager is in place. We have to make sure we're getting that out in front of everyone.
“The one thing I can tell you, we're going to be a much more open organization in communication, in all different ways. That includes internally . . . we've had real good discussions with players, how we're going to buy them in to decision-making processes. We've got to clarify what that is. We want the fans to feel more a part of day-today operations of OEG in all areas, and that includes hockey."
Nicholson, criticized for offering Chiarelli the job without interviewing anybody else for the position, has pledged to do due diligence this time and has been compiling a list of candidates for weeks. Nicholson named assistant GM Keith Gretzky his interim-GM when Chiarelli was dismissed Jan. 23.
"I'd like to hire the general manager tomorrow, but that's not going to happen," Nicholson said. "As I've said before, I'm not going to rush the process. We're going to do a deep dive . . . I’d like to have the person as soon as possible, but I'm not sure how long that’s going to take.
"Right now, I have a lot of individuals that I'll be able to get together with. As soon as I feel we have the right GM, we'll make that decision.”
Kelly McCrimmon, assistant GM with the Vegas Golden Knights, Mark Hunter, GM of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights, and former Canucks GM Mike Gillis. While Nicholson won't say who he's interviewed or plans to interview, he confirmed Gretzky is in the running for the position.
"Keith has built his own resume," Nicholson said. "I will also say I really like the job Keith has done in the interim. It certainly doesn't mean that puts him up at the front of the list. I can tell you that there's no priority right now from everyone that we're interviewing and I want to keep it that way."
Gretzky plans to continue performing his normal duties while waiting for a decision.
"Well, first of all, I do want to be the GM and there's lots of candidates," said Gretzky, who sat alongside Nicholson Monday. "As Bob mentioned, there's his work he has to do and you have to accept the process and move forward.
"Right now, it's about the team. We have to get ready for the draft and, you know, then we'll discuss it after the draft."
While Gretzky doesn't have experience as a GM, he does have three years in hockey ops with the Oilers and the familiarity that comes with it.
"Everybody has their assets that, you know, make them the guy," Gretzky said. "With me, I have the knowledge of being around for three years. I know what's in our system. I know what we have coming up.
"I think being around for two-and-half months every day watching practice and the games, you have a better handle of, you know, the players themselves as not just a hockey player, but off the ice. I think it's very important to have a rapport with them. I think I've done that. Or course, I have a plan. You have to be ready, I'm confident enough (to know) what we need to improve this club, but you’re not going to get it today.”
One criticism of the Oilers is that several long-serving members of the front office remain despite the failures of recent seasons.
Nicholson said any other changes to hockey operations will be made after a new GM is hired. That includes Hitchcock, although Nicholson said he will stay with the team in some capacity.
"I was looking at if I should make some changes now. I made the decision that I won't," Nicholson said. "I'm going to have those discussions as we go forward with all the potential candidates, but I thought, 'Why go two steps or halfway?' No, I want to do this in conjunction with the general manager, who will take the lead in that area."