KELOWNA, B.C. — Two years ago, Todd McLellan sat at a picnic table in Penticton, his back to Lake Okanagan, and spoke to Sportsnet about his new gig in Edmonton. His team did not have a hot clue how to win, but between then and now much change would occur, almost all for the betterment of the Edmonton Oilers.
“The only guarantee in the game that I know is this,” he told us that sunny morning over a takeout coffee. “If you commit yourselves and do things the right way, it does not guarantee a win, because there are still a lot of variables. But if you don’t commit yourself? If you don’t do things the right way?
“It basically ensures that you will lose.”
That was his mandate in taking over the Oilers. “Do things the right way.”
His mandate: Fix everything.
So this spring we visited him again for a morning coffee, this time at his tasteful lakefront summer home in Kelowna. Same Lake Okanagan, different position entirely.
“We’ve stayed in games longer. It was a theme: ‘Get mentally stronger. Hold your cards a little longer. Push.’ Convincing the players that, without that, nothing will ever change. We’ll just keep chasing our tail. We give up 285 goals last year, we don’t make the playoffs. That’s just the way it is.
“Those areas have improved to the point now where we have an opportunity to win every night.”
The team he took over would miss the playoffs for the 10th straight season. The team he’s coaching today has been, on and off, listed by Vegas as a Stanley Cup favourite.
It is a difficult time and he knows it, having coached a San Jose team that was picked year after year to win Cups, yet never closed the deal.
“Complacency comes into play. You rest on your laurels and you get stung for it,” he said, when asked of the perils of expectation. “I don’t expect any of players to be like that, but we have to be aware of it.
“The stress that’s on the team is different now, because of expectations. So, when things aren’t going well — and we will have those times — how does the group react, behave, and treat each other?
“Players have to remember — and they will be reminded daily — how hard it is to win.”
As the Sharks coach, McLellan’s admitted his game plan against Edmonton was simple: “Make them get to the point where they’d fold their hand, as quickly as you could.”
Then he found himself staring down at the nameplates of that weak-kneed team. His terminology for what ailed Edmonton was “belief system.” But he didn’t just have to fix the Oilers system. He had to create one from scratch.
“It’s improved immensely. Believing in the organization, the staff… The players believing in each other and how we need to play,” he said. “It’s most powerful when the players prove that to each other; when the players begin to realize that, yes, if we do these things, we have a chance at success. They hold each other accountable, and it becomes THEIR team.”
The goal is to have a team that doesn’t require a coach’s hand to be constantly on the rudder. One that can run itself at times, which this Oilers team has learned to do.
Internally, much credit there goes to Milan Lucic, whose subtle guidance of this roster is lost on some outsiders that focus on his 13 even strength goals and $6 million salary. Asked if Lucic has to be more tangibly productive, as opposed to providing leadership, McLellan is diplomatic.
“I would say that every player coming back has to have some incremental growth in their game for us to be better,” he said. “That goes from Connor through the roster. Do we expect more from Milan? I think Milan probably expects a little bit more from Milan. He’ll get it done.”
“What’s it like having the best player in the world on the bench in front of you?” McLellan is asked.
“It’s an honour,” he replies. “Connor (McDavid) will be the first to tell you, he doesn’t think he’s at that point yet, but no matter what side of that argument you’re on, it’s an honour to be on the bench with him.”
The skills are obvious, but McLellan gets more excited about the man. He can envision a player whose strength will grow as his game matures. A player who will improve, which clearly excites the coach.
“The best seat that anyone has is being around him during the day, between periods, on the plane… There were a lot of questions last year about if he was ready to lead? He was ready to lead, in my mind, easily,” McLellan said. “The way he carries himself, the way he puts his teammates first, the way he pushes — the right way. He takes responsibility on himself first, then expands out from there. Then you jump in the car and you’re driving home, and you think, ‘This guy’s only 20 years old. Wow!”
He still shakes his head over how his club blew a 3-0 lead with 3:30 to play in Game 5 of their Round 2 series with Anaheim. It cost the Oilers a third round berth, almost certainly.
“That’s why we weren’t quite ready,” he said. “I don’t know if we were the better team, or they were. They obviously were in the end, but they had enough poise and the steadiness to do that. We couldn’t stop the momentum quick enough.”
He’s taught this team plenty in two seasons. Some lessons, like that one, have to be applied externally.
This season begins with spoken expectation of a playoff berth. The words “Stanley” and “Cup” won’t be spoken, however, until such time as his club has qualified for the fourth round.
“Yeah, like June 14, or whenever (it would begin),” he said. “Everyone knows what’s at the end. Every player, every kid dreaming knows what’s at the end. We’ll worry about that part of it later on. We’ve got a lot of smaller challenges before we get to that point.”
Challenges that Todd McLellan has thus far ticked off, one by one.