The saying is that talk is cheap, but that hasn’t stopped NHL coaches from going off on their teams over the decades in an effort to grab their attention when things are upside down and on fire. I’ve been party to a few rants covering the Edmonton Oilers over the years and there have been some beauties – Ron Low was the king of the dress-down, although there’s been some other memorable rants and tirades. Non-repeatable, most of them.
By that standard, Todd McLellan stopping practice Thursday when he didn’t like the intensity, or the lack of same, he saw from his players – no stick rack was emptied, no players were called out by name – was relatively tame. Frankly, it was akin to choir practice compared to the days when Low would publicly lose his poop and let the boys have it by flinging it at the fan with great flair.
Still, with the consistently inconsistent Oilers coming off yet another uninspired defeat, this time in a 4-2 sleepwalk against the struggling Philadelphia Flyers at Rogers Place on Wednesday, McLellan called out his team. The Oilers are 11-15-2 going into games on the road against the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Columbus Blue Jackets.
“We’re looking to impose our will on teams,” McLellan said after letting loose at practice. “It’s like we’re waiting for an individual catalyst or a situation to poke or prod our team to get going. Today’s practice was a prime example. It was designed to get going and we needed a little bit of barking to activate people and once we barked at them, they responded extremely well.”
THE HAND YOU’RE DEALT
The thing about calling out your players publicly, like bag skates or early morning practices – various types of attention-getters that have been employed over the years when things have gone sideways – is that’s a card a coach can only play so often. Pull it out of the deck one time too many as a motivational tool and you get push-back. Worse yet, indifference. There is a point of no return where a coach can yell until he’s blue in the face or skate his players into piles of puking pulp and it doesn’t work.
McLellan isn’t there, yet, not even close, but the reality for him, and for any coach, is that old axiom – talk is cheap. Whether a coach calls out his players publicly or behind closed doors, in the end, results on the ice always come down to the players. The rest is blah-blah-blah. Scotty Bowman never once talked his way to a Stanley Cup. No coach ever has. All the coach can do is deliver the message as he sees fit. The players respond or they don’t.
If a coach has lost the room – I don’t believe that’s the case here with the Oilers coming off a 103-point season under McLellan – then the message gets lost in a hurry. At the opposite end of the spectrum, even if a coach has everybody’s attention, “buy-in” if you want to call it that, it’s the players who have to hit the ice ready to play with passion, gusto and with the ability to execute systems and a game plan.
Even with some duly noted holes in the line-up, I think the Oilers have the ability and enough talent to execute systems and a game plan on any given night, so the question for me is do they have the will? If the answer is no, then the Oilers have a problem that’s not going to be worked out in time to make any kind of run toward a post-season spot most fans thought was a given.
THE WAY I SEE IT
Games like the non-effort against Philadelphia have me puzzled and there have been other games, or segments of them, that have left me scratching my head. I’m guessing it’s the same for you. At times, indifference is the problem. Other times, execution is the issue. Too often, it’s both. How do you explain a historically bad penalty kill? Is Jimmy Johnson drawing it up wrong? There’s plenty of blame to go around.
No matter how a coach delivers his message, it’s up to the core players to take it to heart and play the game. It helps, however, if there are enough veterans in the room to reinforce what’s being said and lead the way when the puck drops. Is that lacking? Does McLellan have enough of those guys around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl? Is that a fatal flaw in how GM Pete Chiarelli has built this roster? I don’t know the answer because I’m not behind those closed doors. I think it’s a fair question, given what we’ve seen.
So, McLellan had his say Thursday. Players responded as you expected they would, but their real say comes when the gate swings open against the Canadiens. That, as has been the case since the first time a coach peeled paint and let his players have it, will be the real measure. Talk, from both sides, is cheap. Actions always speak louder than words. Get to it, men. Get to it.