Just five weeks into his tenure as GM of the Edmonton Oilers, Pete Chiarelli has been doing most of his talking behind closed doors since unveiling Todd McLellan as his head coach rather than publicly as the Oilers prepare for the NHL Entry Draft.
With the NHL combine in Toronto looming, Chiarelli has been meeting with his amateur scouting staff and making sure everybody is on the same page about what the organization wants and needs here and now and where it’s going after he takes the podium in Florida and selects Connor McDavid first overall. That’s the easy part.
Chiarelli surfaced for 15 minutes or so today on Oilers Now with host Bob Stauffer, touching on a number of subjects without delving too deeply into any of them as he begins to re-shape hockey-ops into his vision. Here’s some snippets from that interview and my takes on them.
Stu MacGregor and Edmonton’s scouting staff has had the luxury of picking first overall three times in the last five years and it’ll be four times in the last six when Chiarelli calls McDavid’s name. With the Oilers having six picks in the first three rounds and preparing to interview as many as 15 players a day during the combine, Chiarelli was asked about his discussions with MacGregor and staff.
“I wanted to make sure that they dug a little deeper or maybe dug in a different place. When they’re talking about specific players, just make sure that when they were digging they were highlighting the harder areas of the game, where they exist in this player.
“It’s more of just re-adjusting a focus and letting them know what our philosophy is. It’s about maybe directing traffic a little bit in the course of a meeting.”
Every GM has his own philosophy, even if there’s plenty of overlap, and Chiarelli is no different. His record in Boston shows he likes edge in his players, be they big or small, and I doubt he’ll change. The Oilers have drafted size and they’ve drafted skill in the past. Seldom have they found both in the same player. Chiarelli wants to change that.
THE RIGHT MIX
What team doesn’t want a towering defenseman who is good in his own end, is physical and can move the puck or a winger who can work the corners, cycle forever, is big as a house and has soft hands? Players like that are home runs. Finding them, especially in later rounds, is another matter. The best teams tick off as many of those boxes as they can.
“The size thing is something that’s important and that may be another kind of vetting process that we go through with later on, before the draft. Right now, we’re interviewing a lot of these kids at the combine and they know that I place a certain level of emphasis on size, a certain level of emphasis on grit, and we don’t dismiss skill.
“They know these are areas that they have to check off when they’re interviewing these kids. It’s more about the beginning steps of imparting my philosophy. It’s really just a higher level of due diligence and just all of us, collectively, rolling up our sleeves and pecking away at it. A lot of it right now is evaluation. It’s interviewing, it’s assessing, but it’s also all the personalities involved getting to know each other too.”
I’m not sure exactly how Chiarelli weights the areas he mentioned – size, grit and skill – but he loves nasty, skilled guys like David Backes and Milan Lucic and skilled little guys who compete like Johnny Gaudreau. They are rare as hen’s teeth, but they’re out there.
The Oilers have been way too easy to play against for far too long. That has to change and part of that, Chiarelli says, is convincing skilled players to reach outside their comfort zone and lead the way.
“There’s no real template. You have to look at what is there and what the core is. At my press conference, we talked about getting guys to play harder, not necessarily getting harder players . . . if you look at Tampa and you look at Chicago, (Jon) Cooper has done a terrific job of getting their skill guys to play hard and (Joel) Quenneville’s always done that.
“He’s done a great job with these skill guys that play hard. They’ve got some terrific leaders and that’s something we have to improve on also. There’s a number of cards you’re dealt and you’ve got to build around it. The common denominator is playing hard and finding different ways to play hard.”
Despite a well-documented nine-year string of misery, Chiarelli has a pretty decent core of skilled, young forwards to work with in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Putting together a roster that is willing to compete harder more often than past editions hinges on getting more from those players when the going gets tough. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one.
ROOM FOR LEON?
With Nugent-Hopkins and McDavid destined to occupy the top two spots at centre, there’s been plenty of discussion about where, or if, Memorial Cup MVP Leon Draisaitl fits in the mix next season. In the AHL? On the wing? Chiarelli’s take:
“What can I tell you? Leon had a terrific year and playoff. I’d rather be in a position to see a number of competitions at camp and make some determinations at that point. I don’t want to guarantee any spots to anybody. Having said that, I did really see a level of improvement in Leon in the course of the year. I saw him sporadically at the beginning, but I saw him more at the end.
“Then there’s also the option of maybe one of those players going on the wing, one of the younger players, if it merits – if they merit a job. So we look at a lot of different things. I know Derek Roy had some success last year with (Nail) Yakupov and I haven’t ruled that out yet. But there’s a lot of different things we’re looking at for one of those centers, whether it be someone we draft or someone we acquire or someone who is already in our system.”
The way I see it, there is no such thing as having too much depth at centre, so whether Draisaitl starts in the middle, on the wing or in the AHL, it’s all good. This is a team that started last season with just two bona fide NHL pivots and yet some people are talking about dangling Draisaitl as trade bait because there isn’t room for everybody. Chiarelli is smarter than that.
TODDS ARE TALKING
According to Darren Dreger of TSN, Todd Nelson is talking to McLellan about a possible return to Edmonton as part of the coaching staff. No word, yet, as to which way it’s going to go, but it’s obviously worth keeping an eye on. Speculation is at least one NHL team — my guess is Detroit — has asked to talk to Nelson. Stay tuned.
Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TSN 1260.