“As a coach, most of us are wired to show the players how, but I don’t think we spend enough time teaching them why. We’ll try to bring that to Edmonton.” — Todd McLellan.
This is the intersection of preparation and opportunity. Where a coach who was a product of the Detroit Red Wings’ winning tradition, who had that close-but-no-cigar team for seven seasons in San Jose, meets up with an organization filled with people who simply cannot stand to lose anymore.
Do you think players like Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle will be receptive to McLellan’s philosophies come training camp? Well, they’ve done nothing but lose since the two came into the National Hockey League a collective 655 games ago. They’ve been through the desert and McLellan — who shrewdly put the two Oilers on Sidney Crosby’s flanks at the World Championships — is the water.
If you marvel, from whichever city across Canada that you are reading this, about how on earth an organization with so many good players could find a way to finish 29th every season, what do you think guys like Hall and Eberle are thinking?
“It’s going to go up,” promised McLellan on Tuesday at the press conference that made him the fifth head coach of the Oilers since Hall joined the team in the fall of 2010. “That’s what the plan is, to take the organization and begin to climb the mountain. We have to chart our path, determine what we want to be and how we want to look…
“Find the players from within the organization and put them in the right spots. With all of that, there is pain,” he said. “But we’re trying to take those painful nights and diminish them over the years to the point where we’re climbing that mountain.”
Pain. They know it well in Edmonton, but until now it has been the ache of futility. The hurt of free agent acquisitions like Nikita Nikitin or Anton Belov who have done nothing to move the needle; or the migraine that came with watching poor Leon Draisaitl battle to keep up at the NHL level, a blasphemous burden thrust upon the 19-year-old only because then-GM Craig MacTavish had failed to stock his lineup with enough NHL centres.
The Edmonton Oilers have had a steady stream of wrong hires (Dallas Eakins), wrong fires (Ralph Krueger), and that damned Old Boys Club that has done nothing but dig the hole deeper and deeper with every nepotistic appointment. It had to end, and with new general manager Peter Chiarelli and McLellan, perhaps a proud hockey city can now move on.
“The past is the past. No one is changing it, and neither of the gentlemen who are up here were involved in the past,” said McLellan as he sat at the dais next to Chiarelli. “We’re both in it together here, brand new. We get to leave our mark, formulate an identity, without any preconceived notions. Everybody gets a fresh start.”
Oh my goodness, could that city use a fresh start.
If sports is cyclical, and the good teams systematically fall towards the bottom while the bad teams get some draft preferences that help them swim towards the top, then Edmonton’s cycle has simply been elongated. So pronounced was the Oilers’ success in the ‘80s with Wayne Gretzky, that the years 1993 to 2015 have basically been the action-reaction phase of going to six Stanley Cups in eight seasons back in the good old days.
The penance was long. A solid 22 seasons in which the Oilers made the playoffs only seven times, winning a paltry five playoff rounds.
In that time Oilers fans suffered the embarrassment of Chris Pronger walking away from a Stanley Cup finalist because his wife couldn’t stand to live there. The black eyes of drafting so high and accomplishing so little since 2010 are still fresh, and over the current nine-year stretch of playoff misses, let’s face it: the Oilers have become the laughing stock of the National Hockey League.
Finally, it ends.
No one is laughing at the choice of Chiarelli as general manager, or at the decisive way he went after McLellan, a highly respected 47-year-old who won more games in his first four years with San Jose than any coach in NHL history. Or the way Hall and Eberle played in Prague. Or at Connor McDavid, Darnell Nurse, Draisaitl, or young defenceman Oscar Klefbom, who looks more like Chicago’s Niklas Hjalmarsson every day.
McLellan is old school Melville, Saskatchewan, from the land of the Millionaires, cereal crops and Slow Helen’s steakhouse in the Waverley Hotel. McLellan is all about arriving at the rink early and staying late. About accountability and establishing a culture where nobody gives a damn how highly you were drafted.
I have come to know Todd fairly well over the years, and if I may say, he’s one of us: A Western Canadian who isn’t afraid to say he doesn’t know the answer, but seldom has to. He doesn’t know how to spell the word “phony,” and will sit a top draft pick down for a period or two without hesitation, if that’s what it’s going to take to make him a better player.
“We’re not going to talk about playoffs here,” he said. “We’re gong to talk about a foundation, about creating an identity.”
It is time, finally, for the worm to turn in Edmonton. Enough pain, enough penance. Whether this is a playoff team next season, or the one after, the right people are in place now.
The light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a neon bar sign anymore, Oilers fan. It’s real, and you deserve it.