Back in September, speaking at length at the Rookie Tournament in Penticton, B.C., the newest in a long line of Edmonton Oilers head coaches revealed what he used to tell his San Jose Sharks prior to taking the two points from Edmonton:
“It was the mental aspect of the game,” Todd McLellan said. “They scared you because they could punish you offensively if you were sloppy and made mistakes. Our approach was to get into the game quickly against them. Don’t let them build and get any type of momentum. Make them get to the point where they’d fold their hand, as quickly as you could.
“Teams that win a lot have a big belief system, that they can overcome adversity. Teams that don’t have a lot of success, that’s a lot smaller.”
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You don’t just walk in the door and change a belief system, or install swagger. Because a belief system is a result of winning, not a precursor to it.
So it started this season for McLellan with teaching a team to win. Play hard but smart; back check as if you consider it an important part of the game; keep shifts to 45 seconds. All basic tenets of winning hockey that somehow disappeared in Edmonton over the length of hockey’s most dysfunctional rebuild.
And his team did a lot of that through seven months of the 2015-16 season. But then, on the final Battle of Alberta on Hockey Night in Canada ever to be played at Rexall Place — the last night when you’d have thought a motivational speech was necessary — the old no-care bunch of floaters emerged in Oilers uniforms, only to be booed off the ice after a 5-0 loss at home to Calgary.
“1:20 shifts, and then still trying to go on offence. Complete disregard for back checking,” is what the game film showed McLellan, who felt the practice day was wasted Monday on working his players rather than improving them. “The day was spent trying to re-establish boundaries. What’s acceptable and what isn’t.”
That’s it, folks. We’re six, seven, whatever-you-want-to-call-it years into this rebuild, and they’re still working on the boundaries. Nibbling at the edges of what defines a successful team, after all these wasted seasons in Edmonton.
“My experience is 200 days,” said McLellan, a fact that is easy to forget. “I’ve seen improvement in a lot of areas, but (the delinquent play) comes back in. It’s like a disease that you think you have cured, then it reappears. You’ve got to get it out of your system.”
By his definition, it is a cancer — and the Oilers have it.
One example made by Kelly Hrudey on the HNIC broadcast is Jordan Eberle, who is 25 years old and has played over 400 NHL games. Yet there he is, cheating on offence and approaching his defensive responsibilities like he’s 18.
“I watch the kids in the USHL (where his son plays) all the time, I watch Brandon (vs. Edmonton in the WHL playoffs),” McLellan said. “They know right from wrong. They know when they need to do it.”
Did McLellan bite off more than he can chew here? We would think not.
Is the team built by Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe more flawed than even he and new GM Peter Chiarelli had expected? Undoubtedly.
But in an unsolicited statement that Colorado Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy could learn from, McLellan made it clear that he’s part of the entire picture here, not just the one that will emerge from this summer’s transactions.
“The last thing we will do here is separate the coaches from the players. We’re in it with them,” he said. “(The staff) was just as bad as the players (Saturday) night. I made many mistakes on the bench. My belief system was low, and they probably looked at me — my body language, my verbal cues — and they probably read off of that.
“I am just as responsible as the players are.”
What that shows you is that even a top hockey man who has resided on the top of the standings for more than a decade can be poisoned, if only temporarily, by the vile concoction that is this Oilers franchise. The potion of first overall drafts, mindless acquisitions like Nikita Nikitin, bad signings like Mark Fayne, hopeful prospects like Darnell Nurse and flawed pickups like Andrej Sekera have yet to blend into anything palatable.
This season there has been actual, tangible progress: Goals against per game has gone from 3.37 last season to 2.96; Cam Talbot has shown he can be a legitimate No. 1 NHL goalie, something Edmonton has lacked for years; their chronic lack of size has been assuaged by players like Patrick Maroon, Zack Kassian, Brandon Davidson, Eric Gryba and Adam Pardy.
None of it matters a lick, of course, as long as you have to go to the very bottom of the standings to find Edmonton.
“It’s character time. This is when you reveal your character,” McLellan said of these final two, meaningless games of the season, a back-to-back against the Vancouver Canucks. “You can reveal it in 28th, 29th or 30th. Or you can reveal it in one two or three when you’re lifting the Cup. Everyone reveals their character (at this time of year).”
That includes the coach. To these eyes, the losing hasn’t gotten to Todd McLellan.
Not yet, anyhow.