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Damage has been done, but quality pieces still remain in place

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.

The good: 

  • 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.

The bad: 

  • 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.

The future: 

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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  • Randaman

    Can we please STOP calling out Russell’s contract as bad. He has lived up to every penny he is being paid. As far as I’m concerned he is part of the solution.

    • TKB2677

      I 100% agree with you. I don’t get why people hate on Russell. Is he amazing? No he’s not. He’s a solid, give you everything he has, skates well, block shots, good team guy, sacrifices his body, decent defending 4-5 dman who can play both sides. The whole notion that he is this 3rd pairing, crap dman isn’t true. He would be in a lot of teams top 4. His contract isn’t a bad contract. Do I wish he was making less? Yes! But I wish every player was making less. McDavid is worth every penny but if he made 2 mill less, it would be a lot better. Ian Cole signed with the Avs this offseason. Cole is a 4-5 , defensive dman. He makes 4.25 mill.

      So to list him off in the same breath as Lucic or Spooner or Manning or Sekera, is ridiculous to me. He’s not even close.

      • Kneedroptalbot

        The Oilers had to make a choice between Cam Talbot and Mikko Kostkinen, as both of them were ufa’s at seasons end. They could not risk going to free agency without a starting goaltender under contract . 4.5M per season ranks about 18thin the NHL (slightly below avg.).
        They made the right choice.

          • Quoteright

            I still contend that our defence has always looked bad because the forwards don’t help enough and have bad board play. This is caused more by the blender than lack of talent. Defence is a team thing. When you don’t have the puck their should be 5 defenders.

    • Spaceman Spiff

      Yeah, I was actually going to add that to my comment below. I don’t think Russell’s contract is bad. It might be a good pricey, but he does good work, night-in, night-out. And I bet Koskinen’s contract will be considered a bargain in a year or two, as well.

      • btrain

        I can see where you are coming from on Russell but what can you hang your hat on with Koskinen? He would have to amount to a top 10 goaltender in 2 of those 3 years for it to be a “bargain”. The odds are strongly stacked against him when you think of how many goalies each year hit hot steaks to fall back to earth and eventually out of the NHL.

        I like extending the guy but at this point in the year, as his game is falling apart, you lowball the guy. You dont give him beyond what he could expect on the open market even with a strong finish.

        • Glencontrolurstik

          Koskinen was arguably Chia’s last move, let’s look forward on a positive note. He is a veteran professional goalie & we have to have faith that K. Gretzky (the scout) saw good things & did his research before he was even first signed here to that inflated (so we all think) contract. If your a fan of this team. After yesterday’s move all we can all do is cautiously have faith… cautiously…

      • Glencontrolurstik

        This is great… positive, constructive comments from a fanbase looking for solutions & showing promise… Keep it up, it’s great… so far anyway.

    • Beer_League_Ringer

      Russell is currently part of the solution here. His mates and the coaches love him. He is effective when he isn’t required to play above his capabilities. The guy goes to war.

    • Redbird62

      I agree neither Russell’s nor Sekera’s contracts were bad. Sekera’s two injuries are just plain bad luck. He had never had serious injury problems previously in his career, and at the time of his injury, he was a bonafide 2/3 defenseman maybe not on every NHL team, but most. And the new GM is only partially limited with their contracts after this season anyway, since both switch to modified NTC. I read the other day someone saying the Oilers lack the experienced veteran defensemen to help calm things down and mentor the others. That is exactly what Sekera did in 2016/17. And the primary way to get those guys, if you have not developed them yourselves, is signing a free agent, where you have to pay in $$ and term what the market dictates.

      • n(Ice)

        The worst thing ever was trading Taylor Hall to free up $$$$ for the Milan Lucic pension fund. And don’t tell me it was all about Larsson. He’s fine but not at that price

        • Quoteright

          At the time there was huge pressure to get bigger. We did get bullied a lot, and Lucic was coveted. It could never have been guessed how bad it turned out. Ironically, the man was brought in for swagger and self admitted to losing it here. Total confidence meltdown to the biggest goon in the game. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to play under the pressure here is not listening to the players.
          Forget about Looch
          Let him play and if we ever make the playoffs, hope he remembers himself.

        • CityofWhat

          When Hall was send packing I knew any chance of winning a cup went packing too. Don’t tell me he wasn’t a winner, some of the great players took a long time to get a ring, Marcel Dion never won one and guys like Boutique won in the last year in their career. Hall with RNH, Drai and McDavid would’ve brought a cup way sooner than the position we are in now.

    • 50 Flex

      I like Kris Russell, but lived up to every penny? No, he hasn’t. He is overpaid. There is no arguing that. He would be a third paring d-man on any playoff team and you simply DO NOT pay third paring d-men 4 million dollars. You like a player all you want, but they can hurt you if they are overpaid in a salary cap league.

      • Odanada

        I dunno. Russell brings it every night and sacrifices his body without question. Did you see him go to block a shot after he had lost his glove in the Detroit game? He’s got “compete” in spades and is the kind of guy I’d want watching my back in the trenches.

        • Arfguy

          I am actually quite sick of the Russell hate. I would much rather be paying him his $4+ million than the likes of Spooner or Manning. I can’t believe what a bust Spooner has turned out to be and the Manning trade was just a giant WTF!

          Unlike a lot of the dead weight we have on this team, Russell actually puts in an effort every frikkin’ game. I can’t believe how invisible and lost players like Brodziak, Kassian, Lucic and Rieder look on a regular basis. It’s like every single player forgets the simple essential hockey skills when they join the Oilers.

  • Natejax97

    Can we please just come back from the break refreshed and positive (players fans and media) and have a good reset…Oscar healthy, and get on a roll that gives us all exciting hockey down the stretch. Please…

  • Goaltender Interference

    The NMCs that Pete handed out like water don’t help very much either.

    Agree with the commenters on the Russell trade. Maybe a slight overpay but unlike some others on the team he’s earning it. The difference in the games he was away and injured was noticeable. His absence had as much impact as Klefbom’s.

    Bob Nicholson is a liar. Right from the Reinhart trade the heavy hand of the OBC has been apparent. If he thinks anyone buys that they aren’t involved then he’s an idiot as much as he is a liar.

  • btrain

    I do think there is reason for optimism and I think the OBC narrative is the distraction but in reality they maybe didnt get involved enough.

    What Chia did in Boston is relatively indistinguishable from what he has done with the Oilers. So for me, the Oilers did give Chia the reins and it’s his fingerprints all over this mess. The overpays, the willingness to move elite level talent, and counting on gambles and gut feelings rather than analytics and league trends are Chia’s calling cards.

    I hold the OBC accountable for not taking back control from Pistol Pete sooner. As a result of a lack of intervention/involvement the Oilers have 3 more in-season contract disasters to deal with in Manning, Spooner, and by far the worst of all (given the timing), Koskinen.

    Chew on this, in 24 games Hammond put up a .941 sv% with the Sens. He literally pulled the Sens into the playoffs. He recieved a 1.35mill over 3 year extension for his efforts. In 56 regular season NHL games Hammond sports a .923 sv%. Koskinen in his 32 NHL games has a .905 sv%. One of these goalies makes league minimum and cant even get into an NHL lineup while the other just received a 4.5mill extension with a NM sweetener to boot. What a parting gift that was! Thanks Pete!

    • A-co

      Burger Bob said Koskinens deal was a collective decision and not solely on Pistol Pete….there are still a couple guys that know a thing or two about winning lingering around which is not good for business BUT makes the little real estate mogul owner happy which is all that matters at the end of the day.

      • btrain

        The alternative to saying it was a group decision was to say that they continued to be hands off with Chia and allowed him to make another immediately critisized decision. From a PR perspective taking ownership of the Koskinen deal was the best play.