EDMONTON — Any National Hockey League coaching staff that adds assistants with the pedigrees of Trent Yawney, Glen Gulutzan and Emanuel Viveiros is going to be strong. Given the mix of experience behind Todd McLellan, and Vivieros’ status as a hot, new up-and-comer, if the head coach can’t win with that staff….
The elephant in the room, of course, is that the failure of the Edmonton Oilers in 2017-18 can’t be laid at the feet of three assistant coaches.
“Well, there are a number of areas we looked at, and I’m not saying we’re finished either,” said Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli. “Much like you can change your roster, I looked at it the same way. Not to say we’re finished, but (coaching) was an area we felt we could improve.”
The edict came down after the Oilers’ face plant this past season, ostensibly failing even to compete for a playoff spot after having made it to within one win of a Conference Final a year ago. A 31st place power play (14.8 per cent) and a 25th ranked penalty skill (76.7%) — plus a head coach with two expensive years (US $3 million per) left on his contract — trained the organization’s gun sights squarely on the three assistants whose contracts were up.
“We looked at some areas where we felt we were deficient,” Chiarelli said. “It’s an area we felt we could improve. It’s an area where Todd felt we could improve.”
No NHL team had worse special teams than the Oilers last season, so heads had to roll. Jim Johnson and Ian Herbers were out, while Jay Woodcroft was made the head coach of AHL Bakersfield. On Monday the news was made official that McLellan had three new assistants, two with NHL head coaching experience.
“Each of them has a different skill set, and different experience,” began McLellan, who had Yawney — a former head coach in Chicago and a penalty kill specialist — on his staff in San Jose. “Perhaps most important is his ability to develop young defencemen. Look at Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook in the Chicago organization, and the young defencemen that Anaheim has. He’s had his fingerprints on their development since Day 1.
“Glen Gulutzan has had a variety of experiences,” McLellan said of the recent Calgary head coach, who also was a head coach in Dallas and an assistant in Vancouver. “He understands what it’s like to be a head coach. He brings an upbeat personality, a good hockey mind, and I’ll use him in all situations.
“And Emanuel Viveiros is mature as an individual, but he’s an up and coming coach. He has a talent level that hasn’t been tapped yet. He’s got a very strong European background, was a very offensive defenceman when he played, has a very strong power play sense. We’ll lean in that direction with his skill set.”
What Chiarelli has done here is focus down on what this team requires: A better and different power play acumen that can exploit the talents of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; an ability to right a penalty kill that inexplicably went from 17th to 31st year over year; and a guy like Yawney to go with young defencemen Darnell Nurse, Matt Benning, Oscar Klefbom, Adam Larsson and Ethan Bear — all 25 or younger.
“We targeted these three individuals for their specific talents,” Chiarelli said. “They come from different backgrounds, different experiences and different skill sets. The group will challenge each other.”
The young defencemen in Anaheim, where Yawney was their tutor for the past four seasons, are as good a crop as anywhere in the NHL. And in Viveiros, an offensive defenceman drafted by the Oilers in 1984 who played 15 seasons in Europe, they have a fresh young hockey mind whose Swift Current Broncos just bowed out of the Memorial Cup.
Gulutzan was the Flames head coach last season, while Yawney played four seasons on that side of the Battle of Alberta. Both men grew up in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, while Yawney, McLellan and Gulutzan all played junior with the Saskatoon Blades.
Paul Coffey will remain as a roving skills instructor within the organization, while Viveiros, from the Edmonton suburb of St. Albert who played his junior in Prince Albert, was an offensive D-man who would be making $6 million per season today. In the ‘80s, however, he was deemed too small and shipped overseas.
McLellan admits these men are well known to him, particularly Yawney and Gulutzan.
“But if we all hired our friends in this business, we’d have large staffs,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
No more time for an Old Boys Club in Edmonton, or hiring unqualified friends. It’s time to win.