So, with Peter Chiarelli rightfully sacked and shown the door by the Edmonton Oilers in the better-late-than-never department, an obvious question begs: Now what? That’s really a two-part question, the way I see it. First, what happens in the short-term? Second, what happens in the long-term? They are, it goes without saying, connected.
Specifically, can the immediate future include a push for the 2019 playoffs that doesn’t involve mortgaging the future and weakening a roster Chiarelli already watered down for what could be a one-and-done taste of the post-season? Can the organization put the Chiarelli era behind it without leaving whoever takes over from interim-GM Keith Gretzky and his front office committee in a deeper hole?
I say yes. Whether it’s somebody like Kelly McCrimmon or Bill Guerin or any of the other candidates being speculated about coming in to clean up Chiarelli’s mess, I think it’s possible. I think the Oilers, who stagger into the all-star break three points out of a wildcard spot in the Western Conference after three straight losses, can make a run without Chiarelli’s bungling as part of the process. No mortgage needed.
I know that sounds optimistic in the extreme to many of you and that’s completely understandable given the roller-coaster ride this season has been, but I think it’s do-able. The only caveat is that Gretzky and those around him don’t make the kind of boneheaded moves that got us here in the first place – Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome for Ryan Spooner comes to mind. The Oilers don’t need to make big deals to get into the playoffs, they just can’t afford to make any bad deals.
Here’s the way I see it.
THE NEW GUY
Oscar Klefbom has been out of the line-up so long, his return after the all-star break and bye week from a broken finger will almost be like getting a new player, and a top-pairing defenceman no less. In the 31 games Klefbom played, the Oilers were 17-12-2. In the 19 games he’s missed, the Oilers are 6-12-1. Neither mark rests solely with Klefbom of course, but there’s no getting around the impact his absence has had.
Without Klefbom and, for a time, Kris Russell, an already thin blueline group has been stretched beyond reasonable expectations in terms of having players like Darnell Nurse and Adam Larsson play too many minutes and others like Kevin Gravel, Caleb Jones and Matt Benning play too high in the line-up. Nurse and Larsson, in particular, have worn down and struggled. Jones is going to be a player, but was forced into too many minutes.
Getting Klefbom back and up to speed doesn’t make this roster contenders for the Stanley Cup with all the holes up front, but he’s the team’s best puck-mover and he’ll help on the power play. Just as important, Klefbom re-sets the pecking order on the blueline. A top-four of Klefbom-Larsson and Nurse-Russell is a start in front of whoever rotates through the third pairing.
THE OLD GUY
I’ve got a lot of respect for Ken Hitchcock because I’ve seen him find a way to get the best out of the line-ups he’s had to work with dating back more than 30 years to his time with the Kamloops Blazers in the WHL. While Hitchcock is no magician, as the slide the Oilers endured after Klefbom went out shows, I don’t think we’ve seen his best work yet.
Hitchcock knows how he wants to play, but it takes time for any coach to figure out who fits where within any given scheme. As important, it takes time to figure out which buttons to push with different players to get what he’s looking for out of them. I believe he’ll get more out of Jesse Puljujarvi. I feel the same way about Milan Lucic. There’s a time to coach with the carrot and there’s times when you have to go to the stick. Hitchcock knows that as well as any coach I’ve ever seen.
That doesn’t make the roster as it stands today anything resembling stellar because that’s a long-term project, but for all of the faults and flaws at forward and on the blueline, the Oilers are three points out with 32 games remaining. Can Hitchcock squeeze more out of players not named Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins? I say yes.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Make no mistake, I’m not saying that firing Chiarelli means this team can or will turn on a dime. It’s likely going to take years to replace the talent that’s been bled out of the lineup. It’s going to take some time to build the kind of depth around McDavid it’ll take to become a legitimate contender no matter who ends up being the new GM.
In the big picture, it’s going to take a fundamental shift in philosophy at the top of this organization, namely from owner Daryl Katz, for any real change to take hold. Katz must rid the team of any interference or influence by those not working directly in hockey-ops, and it likely means swapping out some old friends who do. That’s a story for another day.
Here and now, I believe the Oilers can make the playoffs this season without sacrificing the future before a new GM takes a swing at things down the road. That’s certainly not the end-game, but it sure would be a pleasant distraction along the way after the monotony of misery fans around here have endured for a dozen years.
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