Chiarelli hiring signals culture change for Oilers

The hiring of Peter Chiarelli brings a completely different -- and overdue -- culture to Edmonton. AP Photo/Elise Amendola

With all due respect to Connor McDavid and the magic he is expected to bring to the City of Champions, if you're a fan of the Edmonton Oilers or just someone who doesn't enjoy watching a 24-hour tire fire for 10 straight years, then Friday might just stand as one of the most important days in Oilers history.

Even after last Saturday's draft lottery saw the Edmonton Oilers -- in one of the most unpopular bingo drops in hockey history -- earn the first overall draft pick in June's draft, Friday's announcement that new Oilers over-boss Bob Nicholson had hired former Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli to take over as head of hockey operations and general manager marks a seminal moment in the history of the franchise.

The announcement stands as the demarcation line between an ugly past and a promising future. It is that simple.

Winning never happens to a team until the culture of losing has been eradicated. And in Edmonton, the old boys' network that had defined the team's management/coaching structure for most of the past decade had made eradicating that culture impossible.

No one wanted to win more than Kevin Lowe, the man who won six Stanley Cups as a player but who, for the most part, was ill-suited to be a manager and then president of the hockey team for whom he toiled so successfully as a player. And Craig MacTavish, while moderately successful as a coach after winning three Cups with the Oilers as a player (and one with the New York Rangers), was likewise ill-qualified to be general manager, which was his role until Friday.

Both Lowe, who moves to the business side, and MacTavish, who is in an undefined role, remain with the team but have been neutered of any power within the hockey operations.

That ownership would not or could not see that Lowe's continued place at the top of the hockey pyramid was counterproductive to rebuilding a badly constructed team is both an embarrassment and a shame, but it was what it was.

But those days are gone.

By first hiring Nicholson, the savvy longtime head of Hockey Canada and a man who knows the ins and outs of building winners and making tough decisions in pursuit of that goal, and then giving him the power to oversee a remake of the hockey operations department, owner Daryl Katz has taken a giant step toward fixing the mess he is in large part responsible for allowing to the team to become.

And credit Nicholson for having the gumption to see that sweeping change was needed if the Oilers were to get better and moving decisively to make those changes.

The Oilers are in a better place in terms of talent in the cupboard than the Bruins were when Chiarelli took over in the summer of 2006, but let's not revise history. He made mistakes, including hiring Dave Lewis as his first coach in Boston. Chiarelli will forever be remembered as the guy who traded away Tyler Seguin, even though it's entirely possible Seguin never would have become the player he is now for the Dallas Stars had he remained in Boston.

And Chiarelli did get boxed in by the salary cap and had to trade Johnny Boychuk last fall, and a lack of defensive depth ultimately contributed to the Bruins' fall out of the playoff picture this season.

But Chiarelli more than balanced that ledger in what he accomplished in Boston, bringing consistency to an organization that had been drifting for years. The GM built a team that gave the city its first Stanley Cup parade since 1972, back in 2011, and then two years later came within two wins of having another parade before the Bruins fell to the Chicago Blackhawks in the finals.

That he was fired after the Bruins missed the playoffs this spring wasn't shocking, even if Chiarelli leaves behind impressive young pieces such as Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, David Pastrnak and Ryan Spooner.

The Bruins will be back and Chiarelli's work there will pay dividends for years to come, and it is entirely possible president Cam Neely will come to regret having moved so rashly to fire Chiarelli.

But that move turned out to be a win for the Oilers.

"A week and a half ago, I got bad news, and today I got terrific news," a giddy Chiarelli said during the news conference announcing his appointment.

As much enthusiasm as there was in the air in northern Alberta Friday, it's not going to be a walk in the park. While Chiarelli will bring all his experiences, positive and negative, to bear to his new posts, the Oilers are still very much a smoking crater.

When the Oilers make McDavid the first pick in late June, their fourth first-overall pick since 2010, there will be no direction to go but up.

What will be fascinating to watch in the coming days is how Chiarelli plans to establish the culture of winning that became synonymous with the Bruins.

The Oilers are still not nearly good enough on the blue line, even though Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse have shown signs of being building-block blueliners.

They have no goaltending plan.

And they have to decide on a coach, although recently fired San Jose head coach Todd McLellan has already been given permission to discuss the job.

At some point, Chiarelli will have to determine if this team can move forward with all of the young skilled players it has or will have up front: McDavid, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Leon Draisaitl.

Chiarelli said Friday he's not afraid to make trades to try to get better.

"I've got thoughts. I've got ideas," he said.

But in just sitting at that table in front of the microphones Friday, Nicholson and Chiarelli represent a seismic shift in culture in Edmonton, and that change, along with the prospect of playing with McDavid (and the rest of the blue-chip talent in place), will make it exponentially easier to attract a topflight coach such as McLellan or any of the top coaches currently and possibly available this summer. Heck, even Mike Babcock, who sort of worked for Nicholson twice as coach of the Canadian Olympic team, might be enticed to consider the bench job in Edmonton.

And down the road, maybe as early as June, it will be easier to attract free agents to Edmonton and to keep players in the city as time passes, as the new culture becomes easier to identify.

It won't happen quickly, but for the first time in a long time, years in fact, it was easy to look at the Edmonton Oilers on Friday and not think of a pile of smoldering rubble. And that is not a small accomplishment.