EDMONTON — There is really only one member of the Edmonton Oilers who has been through expectations like these, and never found the answer at the other end.
It just so happens, that someone is the current head coach of the Oilers, and the former coach of one of hockey’s great “close but no cigar” teams, the San Jose Sharks.
So when the Oilers pitched a near perfect game in handily winning their first game of the season, then fell comfortably into cruise control for the next two games, Todd McLellan recognized something he had seen before.
“I have,” admitted McLellan, after the third day of film and practice on what amounted to a boot camp this week for his Oilers. “You never want to foreshadow, or share your negative thoughts, but my gut told me we were going to have to fight through this at some point. I was hoping it would be a little bit later, we’d maybe get a few wins in the bank and then we’d get comfortable. But, that wasn’t the case.”
In his three seasons in Edmonton, McLellan has been loathe to draw back to his days of teal. Those lessons are ingrained — all those reasons, real or perceived, why his Sharks never got out of the West despite being an annual powerhouse — but he has referenced them sparingly since changing teams.
It is clear, however, that this coach doesn’t want to go down in history as the guy who could never get the project over the goal line. No coach wants to bear Barry Trotz’s yoke, one of hockey’s finest coaches and best people whose teams inexplicably never get the job done.
It might not be fair, but until a Trotz team gets the job done, those coals will stay lit. So McLellan spotted this early malaise immediately, because frankly, he’d predicted it. This week he squashed any entitlement or lack of hunger with a sledgehammer, with Ottawa visiting Rogers Place for Game 4 of the Oilers season.
“The messages weren’t veiled. They were pretty direct, and guys got it,” said veteran centre Mark Letestu. “You know, we’re professionals here, and we want to win hockey games. He’s just trying to get that out of us. We earned what we got the last three days. It’s up to us now to change the narrative.”
It was a side of their head coach that some had not seen before. Like Milan Lucic, who arrived last season to a 7-1-0 start that cruised along relatively seamlessly.
“Last season, it was almost like everything was going so well that there was really no opportunity for anyone to get hard on anyone. There wasn’t really an expectation (of winning),” Lucic said. “There weren’t a lot of games, especially back-to-back, where we gave up so many chances. So many breakaways, two-on-ones. As players, I don’t think we gave him the chance to bring out his mean side like he has.”
The “mean side.”
It is in every coach, but the days of the ‘yeller’ are long gone. Today, the art of the gig is to employ it as seldom as possible, for maximum effect.
“We were very direct with players this week,” McLellan said. “There wasn’t a lot of hugging going on — there was a lot of kicking. I’m sure they got the message that their individual performances have to go way up, and collectively we have to perform a lot better as a group to give ourselves a chance.”
He’ll be without Leon Draisaitl on Saturday. The big German missed practice all week with an eye injury that is said not to be serious, but may have come with some other malady, like perhaps a concussion.
And it appears French defenceman Yohann Auvitu will play his first game as an Oiler Saturday, drawing in for either Eric Gryba or Matt Benning, unless there is another injury we are unaware of.
For only three games, much has happened in Edmonton thus far in 2017-18. Much more than was expected, that’s for certain.
“Start out with some adversity right off the bat. Every season brings new challenges, and we’re getting hit with some already,” Lucic said. “As a group, we’re realizing early what it’s like to be a team with expectations and pressure, and getting everybody’s best game. It’s not going to change (versus Ottawa).”