McLellan: Coaching is Communication

Todd McLellan did not vow to make sweeping changes during his first press conference as the new head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. He was, however, very deliberate, honest and blunt in how he hopes to help his players improve, and ultimately win games.

He and general manager Peter Chiarelli spoke eloquently while seated at the podium, but McLellan’s best answers came later in a smaller scrum on stage.

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During that time it became very apparent that McLellan believes communicating and teaching is a must if you want to be a successful head coach. It was a brief seven minute Q and A, but he gave some excellent insight into how he will coach the Oilers.

I asked McLellan specifically about puck possession. It is the new
trendy word in the NHL. I mentioned that part of puck possession is
in fact giving up the puck, and asked him how he viewed it?

“That is exactly what it is. You have to give up the puck. There’s no way, shape or form of
playing hockey without giving up the puck and going to get it, placing
it in the right spot.  Arrive on time. Winning the battle in
that  situation is puck possession in my opinion.

“With the analytics, the trend that we’re going through right now,
there’s mass confusion on what possession really is. You can walk into
the Oilers’ locker room, you can walk into the San Jose locker room, and
ask the players what the definition is, and you get 20 different
answers. And they play the game. They’re the athletes that are involved.
That’s part of our job to clearly define what possession is, to clearly
define what toughness is, and go from there.”

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The Oilers have not been a good puck retrieval team for years. Ryan Smyth is a perfect example of a good puck retriever. If you dumped it in, he could go get it. He wouldn’t just go to the spot where the puck went, he also knew how to position himself to win the battle. He was elusive at fishing for pucks in skates along the boards and coming away with the puck. He rarely hammered guys with a big check to separate them from the puck, but for me he was great at possessing the puck.

Matt Hendricks is good at it too, but the Oilers’ top six forwards are more about handling the puck. Which is fine, that is a great skill, but they need to become better at making smart dumps and then being able to go retrieve the puck. I think Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is the best of the skilled forwards right now, and I’m curious to see how much better the rest of them will be after a few practices and video sessions with McLellan. Ultimately it is up to the player to play with the desire to get the puck, but McLellan’s job will be to show them the best way to regain possession.


If two players are equally willing to battle for a puck, often the player who is stronger will win that battle, not all the time, but most of the time. However, not every battle involves two players who are equally engaged, and often there are different circumstances leading to every battle. Body positioning, the time you arrived to the puck, the angle you were coming from, fatigue and many more.

I still believe the Oilers need to add some skilled, size to their lineup, but the future looks bright with Leon Draisaitl, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Bodgan Yakimov, Jujhar Khaira and others. It helps having some size in your lineup, especially within your top-nine forwards and your top-four defence.

McLellan was asked about their size and grit.

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“What we do in our game right now is we throw out catch words like
‘toughness’, ‘character’, ‘discipline’ and ‘hardness.’ We use them all the time, and we don’t define them any more for the players. They don’t know what it means.

“So Jordan Eberle, his ability to affect the game with toughness is a
little bit different than Matt Hendricks, yet he has to find a way to
bring his toughness to the rink night in and night out. Size, I don’t know how important it is, but the commitment to use your size is essential. We’ll try and
help them. We’ll try and expose them to techniques that may promote
success in certain areas, corners, hard areas. The ‘how’ part is one
thing. The ‘why’ part is the most important. If they understand why
they’re doing things and why they have to sacrifice and what the rewards
are, they’ll often get it done.”

No one should expect Eberle to suddenly become a physical player. He wasn’t drafted as one, but there are other ways to illustrate toughness and grit. Pavel Datsyuk demonstrates it all the time with his ability to strip pucks from opponents. He can pick the pocket of a player much bigger and stronger, and he does it regularly. 

I loved McLellan’s statement on the commitment to use your size. Hall’s most dangerous asset his is speed. He can get in on the forecheck quicker and get better body positioning while entering a battle. He doesn’t need to run over the puck carrier, and it sounds like McLellan will spend a lot of time explaining to his players why they need to do it. 


The money quote for me was when McLellan answered how he saw the Oilers through the eyes of an opposing coach.

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“One, they scared you because they could beat you 7-2 on any given night, and there were other nights where we had our way. And that’s the consistency (or lack thereof) that we will try and fix here. I think there were games where if you could get off to a good start and push them out of games, and the mental aspect of them not being in it for the whole night, you thought you had a chance to succeed.

“That is something we will have to change. 

“There are going to be games where it is not going your way, but you are not out of it, you have to fight through it. You have to keep going. They haven’t had a lot of success, as far as wins go, so we will have to find other ways to build that mental strength. That comes before the games are even played. That comes in practice, in meetings, being good teammates. We have some things to work on.”

McLellan said a lot in these two paragraphs.

He saw the same thing that I, and many of you, have seen during the past few seasons. The Oilers were mentally weak. Too often they didn’t battle as hard as their opponents. This must change before they can win, and it was nice to see McLellan address that right away.

He also recognized that part of that is due to all the losing. I don’t care how much money you make, losing all the time will beat you down. The great part about confidence, however, is how quickly it can change. The players will arrive at training camp with a new GM, a new coaching staff, a generational player in Connor McDavid and renewed attitudes. They will be sponges, willing to absorb everything that McLellan has to say, and they will begin the season in a better mental state.

Once the season begins and they lose a game or two, the challenge to maintain their positive attitude will be more difficult. McLellan said there will be some tough nights next season, and that is when we will see how they deal with adversity.


  • If your child plays minor hockey, or any sport for that matter, I recommend reading this article. Parents and coaches need to recognize what is most important.
  • Big news. Former NHLer, Matt Kassian and TSN’s Ryan Rishaug are teaming up as a duo and will be participating in our 3rd annual Karaoke contest. These two love boy bands, so I can only imagine what song they will choose. The best singer this Friday night will win $1,000. It is a fun night and 100% of money from tickets goes towards the MS Bike Tour. Buy your tickets here, and support a great cause. I guarantee you will have a fun time.

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  • utarded

    Thanks for the e-mail link and for your article on spring hockey.

    My ten year old son is an avid hockey player who has played spring hockey since he was seven.

    He has played spring hockey because he loves the game–not because he has been pressured by “My son will make it” Dad or his “Cheering” mom. He also plays other team sports like soccer, baseball, etc..

    On this year’s spring team, he has a coach that selected kids to play on special teams and that would shorten the bench regardless of the score.

    The selection for special teams and playing in the last five to ten minutes of every game were not dependent on skill, rotation, or effort, but on size alone. The quote he gave to parents was “I can teach skill, but I cannot teach size”.

    A few games ago, my son and others approached the coach after a game (which we lost 9-1) and indicated that “sitting on the bench is not what they come to the rink for” and offered their jerseys to the coach.

    Unfortunately, the high fees associated with playing spring hockey results in parents demanding a return on investment. As well, spring teams that have a losing record or no trophies have a very low retention rate of players or $$$$. It becomes a question about how much do I pay and how much can I charge.

    It would be great if every coach defined “success” as the number of players that developed and not the wins. Sadly, our coach has refused to adjust his approach to bench management.

    • YFC Prez

      I coach. Not the elite level and not off-season teams. I like to think I’m quite successful. I like to win. I’m at bantams now and every season we seem to get some first year players.

      The first thing is Minor Hockey is not the pro’s. Parents pay for their kids to participate and generally they all pay the same. Parent’s have the right to expect reasonable ice time for all. This isn’t down to tracking minutes-on-ice. A routine rotation and MAYBE some bench shortening the last minute or so of a close game.

      What I enjoy is watching the kids play at the end of the season and think about how they were at the start. For me and important factor is spending more time with the kids at the lower end of the ability factor. With the proper attitude they will improve in leaps and bounds. Kids want to do well. They have more fun when they do well and generally, with a little attention and encouragement, they will.

      There is so much more that goes into coaching. Basics, attitude and having fun are the basis of what I try to do.

      Why do I think I’m quite successful? Because just about all the kids I’ve coached are back the season. This is no just a slap on my back. The parents and all the volunteers deserve just as much credit for having a good season. To me, this is what minor hockey is about and it’s a shame so many parents and coaches don’t under this.

  • 916oiler

    My favorite quote:

    “The ‘why’ part is the most important. If they understand why they’re doing things and why they have to sacrifice and what the rewards are, they’ll often get it done.”

    You can tell someone what to do, but if they don’t know why they will resent you. If you explain the reasoning and benefits, they are more likely to understand that although the task at hand is difficult, it is also necessary.

  • Dirtski

    ‘ SHOW ME THE MONEY’, Mike !
    Hey, Toronto, ” you can hang your glory on my back’

    Babock, the biggest star on the the team right now.!

    This nonsense about driving up the salary structure for the NHL coaches fraternity, is a bunch of Hooey…. The only thing that it drove up was Babcocks back pocket.

    PS Good for him, get all you can, but don’t spin Eakin/MacT type B.S.

  • utarded

    Im curious who McClellan will give the “C” to. If Hendricks stays around I’d rather see him get it than Ferrence, hell Gazdik would be a better option than he. Who would you pick?

    • YFC Prez

      I would pick ferrence.

      His leadership was never in question by the players. I don’t see a clear cut winner for the C that could beat out Ferrence. I think one day it goes to Hall, but he has a few things to learn first.

      Andrews game may leave a lot to be desired now. That doesn’t mean he’s no longer captain material.

      • Dwayne Roloson 35

        Of course, his leadership wasn’t question by players. Why would it be?

        When is leadership, ever, questioned by NHL players? It doesn’t happen. But, I bet once that player is gone, or another parts way, things could be said.

        I can’t believe that you don’t see a clear cut over Ference. Hall would be a better option, he shows more emotion, leadership and heart. Hendricks as well, Gordon too.

        Ference was becoming useless quicker than Eakins was unemployed. He is to the C as Eakins is to coaching.

        • utarded

          One thing ( perhaps this is a bit nitpicky but…) Ferrence’s captaincy is part of Eakins’s legacy. For me its a cold reminder of that year and a half of hell.

          Also Ferrence threw the team under the bus for lack of compete on national tv, after that do you still think he has the room? Maybe so but to a lesser extent im sure. Did they deserve it? Alot of nights yes! But solid leader should address the room when upset, not the media.

  • .

    “If two players are equally willing to battle for a puck, often the player who is stronger will win that battle, not all the time, but most of the time.”

    This is completely dependent on the players. Keith, Datsyuk, Nugent-Hopkins, and the Sedins can all battle and win without being stronger. For the most part, they’re quicker and for all of them they’re generally smarter.

    The Matt Hendricks perspective is right on. Why couldn’t Hendricks move up to the 1st or 2nd line to provide the hard play in the corners they need, the D they need and the puck battle benefits he already provides?
    One of the impressive things about Chicago is that 3rd and 4th line players like Shaw and Bickle or Sharp can play just as well on the 1st or 2nd line. I’d love to see that flexibility evolve on the Oilers.

  • Cowbell_Feva

    While I might not always agree 100% with JG he has been hitting the nail on the heads for years now when he “blathered on” about size and grit on the Oilers.

    Anyone with a few games of sample size against the Western Conference big gun teams would be able to see this fact. A lot of Oiler fans have trouble falling in love with players, and then overvalue them because of it. (Especially when I read some trade proposals on this site sometimes.)

    At the end of the day, Eberle is never going to be a grinder nor is Hall. If that roster spot requires that niche, those particular players won’t get that job done. Their talent is in a different aspect of the game. This is why the Oilers have been as bad as they have been.

    As of today, the roster is still a bottom feeding roster. Connor McDavid is not going to be a world beater in his rookie season, especially given his support staff. I am confident now however, given the managerial shakeup, that the holes will be addressed properly now for the first time in near a decade.

  • Leef O'Golin

    A few Q and A and the new coach is a saint!? Guys, calm down. Like every year, I’ll tell you mid December how this team is. Coaching will help but it’s up to the players.

    Eakins had lovely inspiring stories as well. I believe “compete” was his Magic word. I welcome Todd to edmonton but let’s not all get carried away here. This season “should” be better. Maybe only a 15 game losing streak and not 20 like last year will happen this November. Let’s all reax and just enjoy the ride and temper expectations.