After a decade of watching the Edmonton Oilers trying to fill countless holes and re-invent themselves every summer after yet another dismal season in which they missed the playoffs by a $5 cab ride, I’ve got no real concerns with what’s been a relatively low-event off-season.
Time-wise, the Oilers aren’t that far removed from the bad old days when turnover – in the front office and the coaching staff, not to mention the roster – and talk about “culture change” was standard off-season fare. Teams languishing like the Oilers did during a 10-year stretch in which they managed just 62 points three times and managed to surpass 80 points just twice better examine everything. We saw plenty of that – with mostly lousy results.
Team-wise, the bad, old Oiler teams under GMs Craig MacTavish and overwhelmed Steve Tambellini and a carousel of coaches seem like a speck in the rear-view mirror as we approach the third season under GM Peter Chiarelli and head coach Todd McLellan. Coming off a 103-point campaign and a postseason in which they went two rounds deep, there is no need to turn everything upside down. If it ain’t broke . . .
Of course, that doesn’t mean the job is complete and status quo is just fine heading into 2017-18 – getting a new deal done for Leon Draisaitl tops Chiarelli’s to-do list – but there’s something to be said for consistency and maintaining the course when you’re coming off a 103-point season. Not so much with the mess we’ve seen in recent seasons. McLellan touched on both during a media availability Wednesday. A couple of things stood out for me.
WHAT HE SAID
On the coaching staff: “In year three we have a much better idea of how our players are going to react to different types of coaching and motivational tools, whether that’s a push or a shove or a hug or whatever that might be. We should have a good idea of what buttons to push with most players. We have a better idea this year of their ceiling and how close they are to it individually, but it’s the collective part of it that concerns our staff coming in.
“We have to come to camp with a very focused and direct approach. We can’t get casual, we can’t get relaxed and that’s where we’ll have to step in as a coaching staff. Some of us on that staff have the experience of going through that in the past so we’ll have to help them as much as we can.”
On raised expectations: “Expectations will be a word we’ll be hearing a lot of heading into training camp and throughout training camp. Expectations make it a little harder on a hockey club mentally and physically. We haven’t experienced that as a group yet and that’s why I still consider our team a growth team.
“We’ve got to go through that now. Teams will be ready for the Oilers. They’ll be prepared to play against us night in and night out, and people expect us — our fans in particular — to win on a more regular basis than we have in the past. Our task just gets tougher.”
FROM WHERE I SIT
If you ask players what they want and expect from their coaches, consistency is always at the top of the list – in systems, philosophy and expectations in general. With McLellan, Jay Woodcroft, Jim Johnson and Ian Herbers, the Oilers have it. That consistency was woefully absent when the coaching carousel was spinning out of control during a six-year stretch, 2009-10 to 2014-15, in which Pat Quinn, Tom Renney, Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins and Todd Nelson took turns running the bench. Big positive here.
As for expectations, McLellan has been around long enough to know there’s no place for complacency. The higher you climb, the steeper the grade. It gets more difficult now, not easier. McLellan consistently had 100-point teams and Stanley Cup contenders in San Jose. He never got over the hump and sipped champagne. Last season’s success was part of the journey this team has to make, not the destination. I expect that will be a message McLellan drives home every chance he gets.
There’s always personnel questions to sort out and that’ll hold true again this season. Who plays with Connor McDavid? Where will Ryan Strome and Jussi Jokinen fit? That said, the personnel on the blueline is more stable than it has been in years. The group is, essentially, intact aside from the challenge of getting by without Andrej Sekera to start the season. The loss of Sekera is significant, but there’s some help behind the go-to pairing of Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson in developing Matt Benning and Darnell Nurse.
Bottom line, I like the moves made by Chiarelli so far this off-season and I liked what I heard from McLellan Wednesday. Of course, I’ll like this summer more when the Draisaitl deal gets done. The obvious caveat is there is always more to do, but we’re at the point now where it’s a matter of tweaking and tuning rather than grasping at straws and taking desperate shots in the dark. I’m good with that.