When the Edmonton Oilers hired Peter Chiarelli as GM, it was an unusual move in that he had previous experience as an NHL GM. Of the six men who have held the top hockey operations job since the Oilers’ arrival in the NHL, he’s the first who can say that.
Not only does Chiarelli have past experience, but it’s the kind of experience the Oilers could really use. In the summer of 2006, he took over a Boston Bruins team mired in the Eastern Conference basement and five years later he was celebrating a Stanley Cup championship.
It isn’t surprising that he’s already begun to remake Edmonton’s roster into an image of what he thinks a hockey team should be, and that work will certainly continue this summer following another unsuccessful Oilers season. This is what he promised when he took the job.
“You have to come at [playing harder] from a bunch of different angles, whether it’s player personnel, right; simply hard players,” he said at his introductory press conference. “Players are hard to find. It’s about the attitude and the heaviness for lack of a better word, whether it’s a heavy stick or a heavy player. There are teams that don’t have hard, heavy players but they play heavy, they’re strong on their sticks. That’s something that you have to instill.”
Chiarelli’s Bruins were a famously physical team and it’s clear he’d like the Oilers to move in that direction. When we look at players Edmonton has added to the roster over the past year, it’s plain to see size has been a priority:
Of the 877 skaters to appear in at least one NHL game this season, all but four are listed at a playing weight between 150 and 250 pounds (only one regular, Dustin Byfuglien, comes in at more than 250 pounds). Both the median and the average weight are just over 200 pounds; the typical NHL player comes in at around 201-202 pounds.
It’s possible to overemphasize Chiarelli’s desire to add size, but the pattern seems clear enough. Six of 10 additions have been big players by NHL standards; three of those rank in the top five per cent of NHL players by listed weight. Only stopgap waiver claim Adam Clendening and the consistently physical Lauri Korpikoski come in a fair amount below the average NHL playing weight.
That hasn’t been the only change to Edmonton’s roster that seems to relate to Chiarelli’s time with Boston. His handling of the goaltenders has been noteworthy, too.
With the Bruins, Chiarelli preferred a clear-cut starter; first Tim Thomas and later on Tuukka Rask. He preferred cheap backups, both in terms of salary and acquisition cost. He often raided Europe or the AHL, adding players such as Anton Khudobin, Chad Johnson and Niklas Svedberg.
Now, Chiarelli has taken that strong starter/cheap backup strategy with the Oilers. Last summer, Edmonton acquired Cam Talbot, who has played 54 games and posted a .917 save percentage despite some early struggles in the No. 1 role. Remarkably, he’s only the second goalie to play at least 50 games in a season for the Oilers since 2009.
In the backup role, the Oilers started the year using Anders Nilsson, a big 25-year-old with an unremarkable resume coming off a good year in the KHL; he was acquired in exchange for a long shot prospect. After trading Nilsson at the deadline, the backup job was given to prospect Laurent Brossoit, who Chiarelli signed to a cheap two-year contract at mid-season.
There’s also been an obvious focus on shoring up the team’s defence. Any general manager inheriting Edmonton’s roster would likely have done the same thing, but this also fits with Chiarelli’s pattern from Boston, where he shipped out eight of the 10 defencemen he inherited in his first year on the job.
In Edmonton, a similar pattern has emerged with the seven defencemen he inherited. Keith Aulie and Martin Marincin were let go over the summer. Nikita Nikitin was banished to the minors and Andrew Ference to the press box and then the injured reserve. Justin Schultz got a one-year extension and was traded before it ended. Oscar Klefbom (injured for much of the year) and Mark Fayne (who also got a stint in the AHL) are the only blueliners who played 20 games for Edmonton in 2014-15 and are still on the roster today.
Chiarelli also signed Andrej Sekera last summer, who was arguably the top defensive free agent available. While nobody will mistake Sekera for Zdeno Chara (signed by Boston early in Chiarelli’s tenure) he has played more minutes than any other Edmonton defenceman this year and has generally been a stabilizing influence.
One key question now is whether Chiarelli’s penchant for trading young, gifted forwards will carry over to Edmonton this summer. While with the Bruins, he dealt Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin in separate blockbuster deals. The first trade worked brilliantly (bringing back Seguin and Dougie Hamilton) while the second remains a controversial move.
The possibility of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joining the list of young forwards traded by Chiarelli has been trade rumour fodder for much of the year and may become reality in the off-season. And it’s not just one of those marquee names who could go: 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov seems all-but-certain to be traded.
All this taken together, it appears obvious Chiarelli is hoping to apply much of the same template in Edmonton that he did in Boston. By this measure, the Oilers will get bigger and more physical under Chiarelli’s watch, there will be a firmly established No. 1 goaltender and the defensive side of the roster will receive serious attention.
And most striking: It’s not likely the team will be afraid of moving key young players to improve long-term goals.