Bob Nicholson has never been in this position before.
As President of Hockey Canada, he never had to contemplate firing a head coach or general manager during the tournament. The U17, U18, U20 (World Juniors), World Championships (men and women), and the Olympics (men and women), were so short once the decision was made on who would be coach and GM, it was final. Of course many Canadians wanted Marc Crawford fired the moment his submitted his list of five shooters at the 1998 Olympics, which didn’t include Wayne Gretzky, but by the time Dominik Hasek stoned them it was too late.
Nicholson’s role with the Edmonton Oilers is much different. As the Oilers season-long tailspin continues, we wonder: what Nicholson might or might not do?
This has been a disastrous season. The Oilers are in 27th place and on pace for 74 points. That is 29 fewer points than last year. One could argue this season is setting up to be the most disappointing in franchise history, and that’s saying something considering they missed the playoffs ten consecutive seasons between 2007-2016.
So what is Nicholson thinking?
Sources tell me many in the upper echelon of the Oilers organization are not happy. I should hope so. Someone will pay the price for the losing, but who and when?
Usually when a team underachieves the head coach gets most of the blame. Todd McLellan and his staff need to shoulder some, but not all of it. The penalty kill, 71.5%, is the worst the NHL’s seen in 30 years. For my money, the system is too complex for the mainly inexperienced penalty killing forwards. And the PK has stunk, 75.8%, for the past 112 games. Don’t mention the home or away efficiency this season, because the truth is this team hasn’t been able to kill a penalty consistently for 14 months. The powerplay is 24th at 16.1%, but it has dropped significantly during the season. In the past 22 games, it is only 11.5%, and the PK is 67.2%. Both have shown no signs of improvement. The coaches need to own that.
From where I sit, however, if Nicholson decides Todd McLellan is the scapegoat, then it means general Manager Peter Chiarelli is staying. Chiarelli is on the record as saying he won’t be firing McLellan. I’m sure he is thinking that today, but what if the Oilers lose the remaining three games on this road trip? We’ve seen many GMs state the coach is safe, only to see him fired a week or month later. It isn’t personal, just how the business works.
I think it is fair to ask if McLellan should look for another voice on his staff. McLellan has had Jay Woodcroft on his staff for eleven years and this is the SIXth year with Jim Johnson. A new voice could be a welcome change in the coaching room as well as the dressing room. A new voice and a new set of eyes can offer a different approach or viewpoint.
But a coach is only as good as his players, and Chiarelli has made some moves that have severely weakened the Oilers overall skill.
At the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, he traded the 16th and 33rd picks to the New York Islanders for Griffen Reinhart. It is the one trade in Oilersnation history where almost everyone agreed it was a bad deal. The best case scenario for Reinhart was he’d become a #5 D-man in the NHL. Only Chiarelli and head scout Bob Green believed otherwise. The deal was a head scratcher for many reasons. The Oilers had Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, Martin Marincin and Brandon Davidson in the system. All of them shot left like Reinhart. The Oilers had no skilled forwards developing in the minors or in junior outside of Leon Draisaitl and they’d chosen Connor McDavid 15 picks earlier. Why trade two picks for a left D-man who no one outside the Oilers management was projecting to be better than Klefbom and Nurse? At best he’d be a third pairing left D-man.
Then a week after the 2016 NHL draft, he traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Larsson is a quality NHL defenceman, and the Oilers desperately needed a right-shot D-man, but acquiring one at the expense of a winger who could drive a line was a bad trade. The interesting part was, while Hall rarely took a night off when playing for some brutal Oilers teams, many fans, along with Chiarelli, felt he was expendable. Larsson is a solid NHL player, but not a difference maker. No one can debate that it was a downgrade in skill. The comment section from that article is amazing considering how many felt Hall was bad in the room. It was a bogus argument then as it is now. Sadly, my concerns in the bullet points have come to fruition.
Chiarelli downgraded in skill this past summer as well, when he dealt Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. I cautioned many who ripped Eberle because he wasn’t physical, or looked disinterested at times and because he never scored in the playoffs. Replacing goals isn’t as easy as you think. Hoping young players will do it is much different than having young players who CAN do it. It was fair to say the Oilers needed more from him in the postseason, but the Oilers didn’t need to shed his salary this year. He might have been a cap casualty next year with McDavid’s new $12.5 million/year deal kicking in, but replacing a consistent 25-goal scorer is not easy. There was no need to rush it. Although, I never thought the Oilers would this bad. Every aspect of the team has failed from the GM, to the coaches to the players.
Chiarelli did make good deals in acquiring Cam Talbot, Patrick Maroon and Zack Kassian for very little, and he made some decent UFA signings, but I believe a lack of overall skill is hurting the Oilers more than coaching.
The concern with Chiarelli is that for the past three summers he’s made a trade where he acquired a player with less skill. I understand you don’t win every trade, and sometimes you give up skill to fill a hole, but not to the degree he has. It is a trend, and while each summer he loses the trade a bit less, he is still losing it.
Nicholson has to wonder if the trend continues this summer. And more importantly, how will the Oilers improve?
Chiarelli’s biggest error this season was dead cap space. The Oilers have millions of unused cap space? Then trade Eberle next summer if you want to shed salary. Why do it now and not use the money saved to bolster the team?
“I see the situation we’re in. I see levels of improvement, but I also see the losses piling up. There’s a plan in place, and a plan to bring up through the ranks, at the proper time, younger players.”
Which younger players is he talking about?
The Oilers have zero forwards in Bakersfield who can help, now or in the future. Their best forward prospects are Tyler Benson and Kailer Yamamoto. I sure hope Chiarelli and management don’t expect two 20-year-olds to cure the woes of the group next season.
On defence, Ethan Bear, Caleb Jones and Ryan Mantha are rookies. Bear missed two months with a concussion and then needed a few extra weeks to get back in shape. His off-ice conditioning has been an issue dating back to junior. Is Jones better than any of the LD currently on the roster? Nope. Mantha shoots right, which the Oilers need, but I don’t see how he will improve their defence next year.
This team doesn’t need to get younger. They need more experience, and yes, they need to keep developing players but don’t develop them in the NHL. Try playing them big minutes in the AHL first, instead of playing 27-year-old AHL veterans more minutes on a consistent basis.
The last thing the Oilers need is more inexperience. They need some more proven, consistent veterans, and the problem Chiarelli faces, or any GM who might take over if Nicholson makes a move in the summer, is the Oilers don’t have a lot of assets to give up to improve their team quickly.
CAP NEXT YEAR…
The Oilers currently have $58.55 million towards next years cap with seven forwards (McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Lucic, Puljujarvi, Khaira and Kassian), four D-men (Sekera, Klefbom, Larsson and Russell) and Cam Talbot. They also have $1.33 million in dead cap space due to the Benoit Pouliot’s buyout. So basically $60 million is already accounted for.
The positive is most of their best players are signed. Re-signing Nurse will be Chiarelli’s main priority among the RFAs. Patrick Maroon, Mike Cammalleri and Mark Letestu are UFAs. Do the Oilers just let Maroon walk and hope Anton Slepyshev, Drake Caggiula or Khaira can fill his goal-scoring void? We’ve seen how that works. If they don’t re-sign Maroon they better bring in a veteran scorer with a proven track record. Don’t underestimate the ability to score goals. Yes, Maroon isn’t a perfect player, but he can produce.
So how can Chiarelli improve his team? The list of potential free agents isn’t long on players who can produce and be signed at a reasonable dollar figure.
An NHL scout said this in a text message to me on the weekend: “I don’t think they have the players to be honest. McDavid is so good every night, but no one can do it by himself. (Wayne) Gretzky (Mario) Lemieux and (Sidney) Crosby had lots of quality players around them. The Oilers have some other good players, but not enough.”
That is only one scout’s opinion, but it is fair to wonder how they improve. The parity of the NHL means they don’t need to make sweeping changes to improve, but if you believe the players aren’t good enough then that falls on the GM. He built the team.
The Oilers are not Stanley Cup contenders. I thought they’d make the playoffs at the start of the season, but this roster shouldn’t be in 27th place. The players are also responsible for some of this mess, but the organization can’t buyout or trade every player.
If they make a major move, it likely will be the coach or the GM.
It would be foolish to replace McLellan now, bring in a new coach, and if nothing changes axe Chiarelli in the summer. The new GM should hire his own coach, so forcing him to inherit a coach wouldn’t be ideal. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time the organization hired someone, Dallas Eakins, but didn’t let him pick his own staff, but I’m confident Nicholson realizes that is a recipe for failure, not success.
Maybe Nicholson does nothing and lets the season play out. The odds are very low, but not impossible, they make the playoffs even if he makes a major move now, so I don’t expect one, but he has to look at where they go in the future. Do they have the right pieces in place off the ice?
That is the question Nicholson needs to ask himself.
1. Changing a coach or GM will appease many frustrated fans, but history tells us continuous change leads to continuous losing. However, if you keep the same decision makers in charge and they keep making bad decisions, then you will never improve. Chiarelli and his scouting staff need to recognize they made three major errors the past three summers. Every GM or scouting staff will lose a trade, but try losing a minor deal instead of winning those and then getting crushed in the major deals.
2. Captain Obvious states the special teams need to be better. The fact the PK has been this terrible for 112 games tells me the system is not working. Of course the players have made mistakes as well, but this system is not working. And whatever they are coaching or showing on video to the PP group isn’t either. Make some changes. Stop doing the same thing expecting it to improve. It isn’t. It is getting worse.
3. Talbot needs to be better at EV. In today’s NHL your goalie often has to be one of your three best players most nights to win. It might not be fair, but that’s the reality in 2018. Of the 28 goalies with 25+ starts only Craig Anderson (.901), Matt Murray (.905), James Reimer (.912) and Semyon Varlamov (.913) have a lower EV sv% than Talbot’s .916. Last year he had a .927%. He can play better and needs to. Last year on the PK he had a .877sv%. And keep in mind that PK was 78% for the final 68 games. This year he has a .807sv% at 4×5. There have been some major breakdowns in front of him, no question, but Jaroslav Halak has a .863sv% for the Islanders and they have the second worst PK at 74.1%. Talbot is capable of being better than he’s played this year.
4. Chiarelli’s top priority must be finding a right-shot defender who can produce offence, move the puck up ice quickly and knows how to defend. This has been talked about for years, but we’ve yet to see him address it. Sure, it isn’t easy, but until you make that move, stop making other trades that lower the skill level on the team. That strategy is not working.
5. All the “Hall was the problem” articles and comments sure have quieted down. I wonder why? Because he wasn’t the problem. Learn from that and stop trying to pin the Oilers current place in the standings on some BS “off the ice issue.” The Oilers aren’t losing because the dressing room isn’t cohesive. Many of you believed that was the case with Hall and you’re seeing the errors of your ways. Don’t fall for it again over the next four months when some people are going to try and find a player to scapegoat for the woes of the team. No one player is the reason. Never has been and never will be.
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