When Peter Chiarelli was hired as general manager of the Oilers on April 15, 2015, he inherited an idiot-proof situation. The Oilers, who had spent the past half-decade loading up with high-quality talent from the draft, won the golden ticket.
It was a slam dunk. There was already a wealth of quality players in Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse, and Jordan Eberle, and then a generational talent in Connor McDavid got added on top. There was also a mid-first and an early second round pick after McDavid in a deep draft and a wealth of cap room to make some moves in free agency. It was any general manager’s dream.
Now, three-and-a-half years later, the Oilers are somehow in worse shape than they were when he inherited the team.
It began with inexplicably trading a first- and second-round pick for Griffin Reinhart, who was already well on his way to bust territory. It continued when Taylor Hall needed to be dealt to fill the void on the blueline that wasn’t with the Reinhart deal. As time went along, Chiarelli routinely got fleeced in trades, spilling the value the Oilers had acquired through that Decade of Darkness down the drain. He also backed himself into the corner with bad free agent contracts, making it virtually impossible to make edits to the deeply flawed roster he had assembled.
Nobody in 2015 imagined that this is where the Oilers would be four years into McDavid’s career. Nobody. Even when people said “the Oilers will find a way to screw this up”, they didn’t envision the colossal failure that Chiarelli managed to put together. You might have thought the Oilers were the laughingstock of the league during the Decade of Darkness, but Chiarelli wasting the early career of the league’s best player ushered in a whole new level of comedy.
But this is a dead horse now. We don’t need to argue about Hall for Larsson or Eberle for Strome or Milan Lucic’s deal or Kris Russell’s deal. It’s time to look ahead.
Chiarelli’s tenure is over. The Oilers decided to pull the plug half-way through the season, which is pretty uncommon when it comes to executives, mostly because they didn’t believe he could clean up his own mess. He got a vote of confidence just over a month ago from CEO Bob Nicholson, who stated Chiarelli’s job was safe if the team made the playoffs. Given the way things went, the organization ultimately felt Chiarelli could only do more harm than good if he was kept around.
As I said earlier, the situation is worse now than it was at the draft in 2015. The team doesn’t have as much high-quality talent, the cap situation is murky, and the fans have reached an all-time boiling point in frustration. Still, despite the challenges, there are pieces in place here to turn this thing around.
- Connor McDavid, the league’s best player, is here and he’s signed for seven more years after this one. Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, and Oscar Klefbom behind McDavid represents a formidable core.
- There’s a wave of good prospects on the way. Evan Bouchard looked good during his cup of coffee at the NHL level and fellow 2018 pick Ryan McLeod was excellent in training camp. Caleb Jones looked like a pro in his call-up and Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, and Cameron Hebig look like they can become depth NHLers one day.
- One thing making life difficult for the Oilers to make changes are ugly contracts to Milan Lucic, Kris Russell, Andrej Sekera, Ryan Spooner, Brandon Manning, and potentially Mikko Koskinen. There’s a lot of dead weight bogging things down that won’t be easy to deal with.
- There have been mismanaged prospects under Chiarelli’s watch. Due to the team lacking depth, players like Jesse Puljujarvi, Kailer Yamamoto, and, to a lesser extent Evan Bouchard, were rushed to the NHL level. The organization has to handle these players better in order to get the most out of them long-term.
With Chiarelli out of the mix, I think it’s become clear the Oilers aren’t going to be buyers at the trade deadline. They can still make it to the dance with their internal options, namely a healthy Oscar Klefbom, but they are no longer in a position with a desperate general manager at the helm to push for it. Instead, the Oilers would be best to sell at the deadline. I don’t mean a full-on firesale, but if there are teams who could use a player like Alex Chiasson, it’s best for the long-term health of the organization to pull the trigger. If you can find a suitor for somebody like Zack Kassian or Kyle Brodziak, you have to take it.
Whoever eventually takes the wheel from the Old Boys Club group effort will have an interesting challenge ahead of them. There’s a lot of talent to work with, especially the best player in the league at the forefront, but there are also obstacles to work around. The worst things Chiarelli did, I think, was losing an MVP-calibre player in Hall and putting the team in cap hell. Finding another quality play driver like Hall and navigating out of cap hell will be the biggest obstacles for whoever comes in next.
When Chiarelli came in, he had a massive load of disposable income in the form of high-quality assets and a blank slate to make his mark. To be fair to Chiarelli, he also had a very obscure roster to fix, loaded with forwards and devoid of blueliners and goalies. He also had a prospect system barren of any kind of depth beyond top picks. The new guy will inherit a more balanced roster with less glaring issues. There won’t be the pressure to execute a Hall of Larsson deal, instead, the new guy will have to be shrewd in making smaller moves that improve the quality of depth at the NHL level.
Bob Nicholson said during the press conference on Wednesday that the suggestions of Old Boys Club involvement were overstated and that Chiarelli’s team was, in fact, Chiarelli’s team. We have to take his word for it, but, still, while this was Chiarelli’s team, Chiarelli was Nicholson’s guy. The situation this time isn’t idiot-proof like it was last time, but righting the ship is doable so long as the Oilers can find the right person for the job.
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