Q&A: Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli on building a Stanley Cup contender

John Shannon sits down with Todd McLellan to talk about managing expectations, Connor McDavid pairing with Leon Draisaitl and how he underestimated the passion of Oilers fans.

PENTICTON — It’s no secret what the fallout will be from having two players being paid a combined $21 million, as Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl will be collecting once McDavid’s new deal kicks in on July 1, 2018.

We’ve watched the Pittsburgh Penguins handle their Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin conundrum their way, and the Chicago Blackhawks deal with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in their preferred fashion. Between those two clubs, they have won six of the past nine Stanley Cups.

Peter Chiarelli’s Edmonton Oilers are in the same territory as those two clubs when it comes to salary structure. The problem, of course, is they don’t have any rings yet.

We caught up with the Oilers general manager at the Young Stars tournament in Penticton, as he takes a Stanley Cup contender into training camp in Edmonton for the first time. Here is our conversation:

Sportsnet: You helped to build a Stanley Cup contender in Ottawa, and built a Stanley Cup winner in Boston. Is there a template? And if so, is there a comparable for you as to where this team stands this season?

Chiarelli: “When I first came into Boston, I had some notions, some experience … (but now) I don’t think there is any one template. There are certain ingredients that you need, and sometimes you have to tweak the recipe based on what you already have.

“In Edmonton, there was a lot of skill here and we brought in some size. Now we’re bringing in some more skill. There’s no template. It’s character, size… Certain ingredients.”

Sportsnet: So it’s different now in Edmonton. In a dressing room where everyone knows players will be moved due to salary concerns, how do you keep players’ minds off of that?

Chiarelli: “I’m not so sure that the theory that everyone knows that players have to be moved applies. Maybe that’s a lot of people’s take on it, but to me it’s more like, ‘I’ve got to make this team. What do I have to do to stay on this team?’”

Sportsnet: But we’ve all watched Chicago strip its roster down after every Cup…

Chiarelli: “But what about Pittsburgh? Did they shed? They’ve identified and cultivated younger players and put them in positions to succeed. I’ve talked to Stan (Chicago GM Bowman) at length over the years about what they’ve done… It’s all different. I think it goes back to players wanting to stay in one spot.”

Sportsnet: You moved Taylor Hall, then Jordan Eberle. Now, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ $6 million salary puts him at the front of that same line. Tell me about being the GM who comes to town and breaks up the band.

Chiarelli: “It hasn’t been easy. Any time you trade a popular player, it’s a very hard thing to do. But, I’ve been in this business long enough to know the remedies for things, how to fix things. You identify things and try to address them. They’re hard decisions, and you know they’ll be met with at least 49 per cent opposition. You’ve just got to do it.”

Sportsnet: With $21 million wrapped up in two players starting next season, how nervous is the GM about where the cap goes in the coming years?

Chiarelli: “I’m not nervous. It won’t be easy, but we’ve planned it out. We’ve looked at our roster going forward, with a flat cap. We go three or four years ahead, and you can’t work beyond that. You look at the worst case scenario — a flat cap. Or going backwards, but I don’t foresee that.”

Sportsnet: Connor McDavid: What’s it been like having that generational player? And going forward, how does a GM handle that dynamic on his team? Do you build a team differently, because you have that player?

Chiarelli: “If you’re just talking about having the generational player, it’s easy. Because Connor is such a humble, good person. That takes away a lot of the potential issues. The biggest thing is, he wants other players to succeed. That makes it easy as a manager to build around someone like that.”

Sportsnet: Where do you think the evolution of his game is at? How much better can McDavid become?

Chiarelli: “He’s still growing physically, so by virtue of that his game will get better. He’ll shoot the puck better, win more faceoffs … and of course, with more strength comes more speed, right? He’ll get better, because every area will improve a little bit, just on the function of his strength getting better. Mentally too, he’ll think the game better. I can’t tell you how much better that gets, but strength will definitely improve.”

Sportsnet: Cam Talbot: Is that your best move since coming to Edmonton?

Chiarelli: “Ummm… We got a bonafide No. 1 goalie who is a leader on the team. So yes, it’s in the Top 2 or 3 sure. (Thinks for a second). Yeah, probably (it’s the best move), yes.”

Sportsnet: You brought Milan Lucic in to play with McDavid, and I know you see Draisaitl as a centreman, eventually. But your coach deployed both players differently last season. Is that a running debate between you and Todd McLellan?

Chiarelli: “Yes, but I want Todd to be able to coach the team so we can succeed in the way that he coaches it. A coach will coach better if he has the relative freedom to express himself as a coach. There are ideas, concepts we talk about, but we hired him to coach the team, based on his coaching principles.

“I asked Leon the other day: ‘Do you really care where you play?’ He said, ‘I don’t care one bit. I like playing centre, but I like playing with another centre too,’ he said. I want Todd to have the flexibility. At the end of the day I think Leon is a big, strong natural centre. But he can shoot the puck, and his wall play is befitting of a winger, too.”

Sportsnet: Does Lucic’s body type marry with the changing NHL? Most would agree he has to get quicker. Can he?

Chiarelli: “Is that one question, or two?”

Sportsnet: “Your call.”

Chiarelli: “Milan is a student of the game, with good hands. He’d be the first to say he could have scored more (than his 23 goals) last year. I was more than happy with what he brought to the team, knowing that he can do better.

“Is the question, can a big man survive in his later years in a quicker game? Generally speaking, a big man will have more difficulties as the game evolves. That’s my general comment, but I think Milan will figure out how to play in this game, because he’s still young (29) and he keeps his body in very good shape. But it will be a challenge as the league gets faster, for sure.”

Sportsnet: The recipe says that you’ll need cheap young players to over-perform under this model, like Pittsburgh. Do you have those players? And which ones will be your next Conor Sheary’s and Brian Rust’s?

Chiarelli: “I don’t know if they have to over-perform. You have to integrate them into your lineup, and they just have to perform. We’ve revamped our amateur scouting staff, and one significant move is (assistant GM) Keith Gretzky. Another significant move this year is Vaclav Burda, a terrific scout who is heading our European scouting.

“So, will we get them? I better assure that we get them by improving our amateur staff. Do we have them? Look at the four D-men that (were in Penticton): Caleb Jones, Ethan Bear, William Lagesson and Ryan Mantha. There are some good players in those four D-men.

“That’s what we’ve been trying to do, switching to this scouring model, now that we have Leon and Connor.”