The Wysh List publishes every Friday.
The most surprising aspect of Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli’s decision to fire Todd McLellan and hire Ken Hitchcock was that Chiarelli was allowed to make that decision.
I thought there was a better-than-good chance that the Oilers would keep McLellan after they fired Chiarelli. Very few executives in professional sports have as much red on their ledgers as Chiarelli. Look at these trades. Look at them. When completing a transaction that essentially flipped Jordan Eberle for Ryan Spooner isn’t even in the top five worst moves a general manager makes, it’s astonishing he still has the gig. Especially when the subtitle to his futility is “squandering years of Connor McDavid‘s career.”
The prevailing wisdom about this desperation move is that it was handed down from his boss, former Hockey Canada chief Bob Nicholson, who has a long history with Hitchcock. Or that it was a Kevin Lowe hire. Or something Wayne Gretzky wanted. The notion that Chiarelli, watching the sands in the hourglass trickling down until his inevitable end in Edmonton, could be the guy to solely make this move was incomprehensible, given his occupational context and his recent track record.
So while everyone in Chiarelli’s press availability was asking questions about Hitchcock they already knew the answers to — say, were you aware he has an encouraging effect on team defense? — I had to ask the general manager: Who the heck made this decision? You? Did you consult the brain trust? They let you do it? Seriously?
“I discussed it with the quote/unquote brain trust. But I made the decision,” Chiarelli told me.
That phrase struck me: “The quote/unquote brain trust.” It struck others as weird as well. I wish he was sub-tweeting the Oilers managerial team as brains he can’t trust, but more than likely he was admitting what this move already tells us: that even in this late hour in his tenure, Peter Chiarelli has a startling amount of autonomy.
This is part of the truly strange deification of general managers in the National Hockey League by ownership and upper management. The job security of an NHL general manager makes that of U.S. Supreme Court justices look like that of a quality-control tester in a romaine lettuce processing plant. That’s what happens when you’re the guy who can trade as many players as necessary in search of success, and the guy who can scapegoat other employees (re: coaches) for their own ineptitude.
Since February 2017, there have been 17 coaching changes in the NHL. In that same span, there have been eight general manager changes. Of those eight, four were promotions from within (Kyle Dubas, Julien Brisebois, Don Waddell, Rob Blake) that kept the team on the same course. Another one was Dale Tallon being reinserted into his previous role in Florida. The Islanders, Sabres and Wild are the only teams in nearly two years to fire a general manager and hire a new guy outside of the organization. Three GMs. In comparison to 17 coaches.
Of the NHL’s 31 general managers, 20 of them began their gigs before 2016, compared with 10 head coaches. The amount of band-aids applied to teams’ problems in lieu of the deep managerial surgery necessary to fix them will always be dumbfounding in the NHL.
I’ve written before about why bad general managers never get fired. In Chiarelli’s case, what’s kept him afloat? First, he still had a coach to fire to buy him some time. But there’s also the ring. The ring means you’ve won before, and in the NHL that means you can maybe win again. (Even if history shows that doesn’t actually happen. Ask Jim Rutherford how rare it is.) There have been 15 general managers hired or promoted since 2015. Ten of them have won a Stanley Cup as an executive. Chiarelli’s 2011 Stanley Cup win with the Boston Bruins is like Kevlar when “the bullet should have had general manager Peter Chiarelli’s name on it,” as Terry Jones poetically wrote in the Edmonton Sun this week.
(For the record: If you’re someone blaming the play of Cam Talbot for undermining the Oilers team that Chiarelli has built, then you also need to be someone admitting that he has a Stanley Cup ring because of Tim Thomas, a player that predated him in Boston. And the irony of the Talbot critique is that had the goalie not played out of his gourd in 2016-17, the Oilers would have failed to make the playoffs for the entirety of Chiarelli’s tenure there.)
The hiring of Hitchcock is Chiarelli’s last card to play, and the good news is that it’s at least a face card. I’ve no doubt he’s going to turn the team’s defensive metrics around. I’ve no doubt that he’s going to provide valuable data on the roster, on whom to keep and whom to jettison. I’ve no doubt that he’ll be a benefit to players like McDavid and Darnell Nurse. And I’ve no doubt that the Oilers, in the short term, now have a better chance at making the playoffs than they did last week. It’s weird how people refer to Hitch’s one-year stint in Dallas as something disastrous when he turned them into the seventh-best defensive team in the NHL and finished three points out of the playoffs.
But at this point in his career. Hitchcock is the NHL’s version of Winston Wolfe from “Pulp Fiction”: a last-resort option when you have to clean up a bloody mess. Stars GM Jim Nill made a hash out of the Stars’ blue line? Call the Wolf. Peter Chiarelli mismanaged the roster to the point where it’s as deep as a puddle? Call the Wolf.
“Call the Wolf” is never the plan. It’s the thing you do when the plan has gone horribly wrong, whether it’s accidentally shooting Marvin in the face or trading a future Hart Trophy winner for a positional need on defense. (Everyone: “The trade is one-for-one.”)
Hiring Ken Hitchcock is both a frantic attempt at success and yet an undeniable symptom of failure within the Oilers’ organization. Seriously: What’s the plan? The Oilers make the playoffs, Hitchcock returns for another year, the roster is still the roster and still in the hands of Peter Chiarelli, who used a 66-year-old coach for a stay of execution? Is that really preferable to the Oilers missing the playoffs, Hitch going back to consultant fees and Edmonton doing the kind of total regime change they should have already administered?
Maybe they can even add Hitchcock to the next “quote/unquote brain trust.” The one that might finally deliver a supporting cast worthy of Connor McDavid.
Congrats to all the 2018-19 playoff teams (maybe)
There’s a famous theory created by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who noted a few years ago that 78 percent of teams that were in a playoff position around (American) Thanksgiving would remain there through the end of the season. His research tracked back to 2000, and it’s a trend that held pretty well … until last season.
Of the 16 teams in playoff positions last Thanksgiving, six of them didn’t end up making it: the Islanders, Red Wings, Blues, Stars, Canucks and Flames. But in 2016-17, the trend did hold: 14 of 16 teams made the cut.
So was last season a wacky anomaly in an expansion year that saw its share of wacky anomalies? Or can the trend be bucked again?
Our Eastern Conference playoff teams, entering Friday: Columbus, New York Rangers, Washington, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Buffalo, with Boston and Montreal in the wild cards.
Our Western Conference playoff teams, entering Friday: Nashville, Minnesota, Winnipeg, Calgary, San Jose, Anaheim, with Colorado and Dallas in the wild cards.
About 13 of these teams will be playoff teams, if the trend returns. Which ones do you see dropping out, and are they the Rangers, Canadiens and Ducks?
The week in Gritty
TIME Magazine has opened its Person of the Year voting, and naturally the Philadelphia Flyers‘ ubiquitous mascot has put its name in the conversation. To further that candidacy, Gritty granted the magazine a rare interview, and was asked (among other things) if he was comfortable with having been co-opted by the political left as a protest symbol. Said Gritty: “You want to talk about comfortable? Have you EVER slipped into a snuggie?”
Then there was the matter of what the heck is on his stomach. In previous photos, Gritty appeared to have an orange outtie. But as the photo evidence shows, his belly button seems to arbitrarily change color:
What is going on here? Is it like a mood tummy that changes color depending on how Gritty is feeling? I think we can all agree it’s gross, at the very least.
Finally, it was Thanksgiving, which meant that Gritty had a message for his Gritizens:
Yes, that’s a rotisserie chicken.
Meanwhile, here’s the Gritty meets Norman Rockwell art we all had in our heads this week:
Do … do Grittys eat Grittys?
Lifespan of a contract
In thinking about the tenure of NHL general managers, I started thinking about the tenure of NHL contracts.
According to Cap Friendly, there are 876 active contracts in the NHL as of Wednesday, excluding entry-level deals. The average length of those contracts: 3.2 years.
If you exclude all contracts under $1 million in average annual value as well as entry-level deals, the average length of those contracts is 4.4 years.
If you just take contracts with an average annual value of $5 million or higher, there are 182 of them, with an average term of 6.4 years.
Keep in mind the results don’t include long-term deals that kick in next season (like the Drew Doughty deal) and that it also includes elephantine deals of yore, like Alex Ovechkin‘s 13-year contract.
Make of these results what you will, but it’s interesting to note the term on that last group. The NHL has indicated, or at least deputy commissioner Bill Daly has, that they’d like to see a five-year cap on contracts. Whether or not that becomes an issue in the next CBA is a mystery, but are teams right around there anyway for most players making more than $5 million?
Jersey Foul of the Week
A classic, as Blake found the worst Jersey Foul of all-time two years ago, and frankly that’s underselling it.
So that’s a combination of the names of Sidney Crosby and Ben Roethlisberger. That’s a combination of Pittsburgh Penguins and Pittsburgh Steelers uniform numbers. Just to drive the point home, our new friend put a Steelers helmet and an NHL logo on the back of the sweater. Yes, an NHL logo on an NHL team jersey.
Perhaps the most offensive thing about it: that Sidney Crosby would ever have to share a jersey with anyone that didn’t have G.O.A. T. status.
Listen to ESPN On Ice
What are you most thankful for in hockey these days? Emily Kaplan and yours truly presented our top 10 list of things we’re thankful for in hockey in honor of Thanksgiving. Plus, an in-depth interview with Lyndsey Fry, the former Team USA player turned Arizona Coyotes executive. Stream it here and listen on iTunes here.
A look at the Reading Royals’ 3-D hockey jerseys. “There were some elements that we had to ensure were clearly visible, even without the 3D glasses … We needed to make sure that you could still make out the numbers on the jerseys for the play-by-play announcers.”
The Humboldt Broncos are in first place, which is really wonderful.
Nice feature on U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Stewart (subscription required). Man, what happened to referees with personalities? We have, like, one now.
Q&A with NWHL rookie Kayla Meneghin.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
There seems to be another disastrous story for the Ottawa Senators in this spot every week, so why not another? The team’s downtown arena project appears to be coming off the rails.
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Why have so many coaches been fired this season? Emily Kaplan took a look.