For those that aren’t familiar, the numbers indicate that if an NHL team is not in a playoff spot on American Thanksgiving, then that team will more than likely not go on to make the playoffs that season. Thursday is the big day. The Oilers’ last game before that day is on Tuesday against the Sharks. As of now, the Oilers are 3 points out of a playoff spot. The math says that they will not be in a playoff spot by Thursday. You can see where I’m going with this… Based on where they stand right now, the Oilers appear poised to miss the playoffs again.
Two weeks ago, we were talking about how awesome the Oilers were playing. They had a tidy 8-4-1 record. They even held the Pacific Division lead… for about 2 hours. Fast forward to today, and we are talking about how the team has lost 6 of their last 7 games. It is spiralling out of control in a hurry in Edmonton! There was a section of Oilers fans that thought Todd McLellan should have been fired after last season. More Oilers fans were calling for McLellan to be fired early in the season, and those cries are even louder now. Two other coaches have already gotten the axe this season, and I’m of the opinion that McLellan needs to be the third.
Coming in to this season, the coaching staff set out to get the Oilers moving the puck up the ice faster. In order to move the puck up the ice faster, two things have to happen: the player with the puck needs to move it quickly, and the players away from the puck need to be in positions where they can receive passes. The first part doesn’t happen without the latter part. The latter part is known as being in a support position. That has rarely been the case so far this season. McLellan actually made reference to having focused on supporting the puck better in practice at one point earlier in the season. The team has done it well for short stretches, but that is the biggest thing that doesn’t happen when the team struggles. On breakouts, the Oilers always send one winger all the way up the ice. That essentially eliminates a passing option because the odds of a pass of that length connecting are extremely low. The odds that the player receives that pass with speed are next to 0. That player can either tip the puck deep, or stop it and hope to pass it to another forward streaking up the ice. In most cases, all three forwards are on the opposite side of the red line rather than supporting the puck. The bottom line is that the Oilers just haven’t shown enough improvement in that area. Peter Chiarelli said something to the effect that none of the Oilers’ defencemen move the puck spectacularly well last week on Oilers Now, but I’d argue that it is hard to pass it to forwards that aren’t open. Some of that is on the forwards, but a large part of that falls on the coach.
The Oilers special teams were a giant problem last year, and they haven’t been much better this year. The Oilers sit at 26th in the league on the penalty kill at 74.2%. They have allowed 17 goals while on the penalty kill through 20 games. That isn’t far off of a goal per game pace. You can’t expect to win when you essentially allow a goal against on the PK every game. The Oilers powerplay is a pedestrian 15th in the league at 20.6%. They have only scored 14 powerplay goals in 20 games. You can’t expect to win many games when you’re allowing more goals on the penalty kill than you’re scoring on the powerplay. The team started the year with an all-lefty unit of McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Lucic, and Klefbom. The criticism of that unit was that there was no threat of a one-timer unless the powerplay was run from the left side, which was not happening for the most part. They saw some early success, but most of that success came off of the rush. When the unit was set-up in the offensive zone, it rarely produced much in the way of chances. Now, McLellan has changed the unit by taking Lucic off of it and putting a right-handed shot there. It started in Tampa with Ty Rattie getting a look there. Alex Chiasson got the chance there against Vegas. Regardless, the powerplay hasn’t been spectacular even after the personnel changes. The right-handed shooter is being placed in front of the net or in the left corner rather than at the left circle (where the threat of a one-timer exists). Instead, Nugent-Hopkins continues to play on the left half-wall. I believe that Nugent-Hopkins would be better in the high slot because he can finish plays off from in tight, and he has the vision to see open shooters in the circles. The special teams haven’t been good enough, and the coaches are the ones designing and implementing the strategies, so a large chunk of the responsibility falls there.
Much has been made of the line combinations that McLellan has utilized this season. Hell, much is always made of the line combinations in any season with any coach. Last year, he was criticized for changing the lines too often. This season, he has been criticized for being stubborn. The players wanted fewer changes this season, and he has delivered on that. While there have been fewer changes this season, the changes that he has made have been heavily scrutinized. The best example of this is how the right side has been handled. More specifically, the way that Jesse Puljujarvi was handled was a big issue for fans and media. Puljujarvi had a great preseason playing with Ryan Strome on the 3rd line. McLellan said he planned to keep that duo together to start the season. He did that, and they struggled. Puljujarvi got a goal in Winnipeg on a shift where he was on the ice with McDavid, and Twitter exploded because they wanted to see Puljujarvi in the top 6. I wrote an article suggesting that Puljujarvi was the best RW for Draisaitl, so I’m in that group that wanted to see him in the top 6 as well. He got a chance there, and it didn’t work. He ended up being healthy scratched for 5 games (4 in a row at one point) before seeing time on the 4th line and eventually being sent down to Bakersfield. Puljujarvi was scratched because he needed to be held accountable for his play like anyone else, yet Kailer Yamamoto was elevated to the top line above Puljujarvi despite being younger and producing just as much offence. Puljujarvi is loved in Oil Country because of his endearing personality, and people are frustrated that he hasn’t been able to hit his stride in the NHL yet. A lot of people blame the coach for that because Puljujarvi hasn’t spent much time on a line with McDavid or Draisaitl, or on the first powerplay unit. Others blame Chiarelli for not having him in Bakersfield for a longer period of time in his young career so far. Ultimately, a player is responsible for his own play on the ice; but a young player needs proper coaching and development in order to succeed.
McLellan faced more criticism for going back to the old but faithful combination of McDavid and Draisaitl 3 games ago. It worked against Montreal when the Oilers won 6-2 and Draisaitl had 3 points (although he could’ve had 6 or 7), but it didn’t work against Calgary or Vegas. That duo can win games on their own, but they can’t win ENOUGH games on their own to get the Oilers to the playoffs. Here’s my line of thinking… The Oilers have three star centres in McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins. They also do not have the depth at wing to have each centre their own lines. One of them has to play the wing on a line with another one, and one has to play on his own line. Of the three, who is the most capable of driving his own line?
If you said the guy who has won the last two Art Ross trophies, I’d say you’re right.
McDavid is strong enough to not need a star player on his wing. Sure, it’s a luxury if that can happen, but it is not a must. One of the reasons that Nugent-Hopkins was succeeding on McDavid’s wing was because he is the most responsible defensively of the three. Nugent-Hopkins allowed McDavid to “cheat” a little bit, which created a lot of chances for McDavid off of the rush. I’d argue that Draisaitl could benefit from that help defensively more than McDavid could because Draisaitl is the worst of the three defensively. If anyone needs to be insulated on the defensive end, it’s Draisaitl. Add Chiasson, who has been great with Draisaitl on the right, and you’ve got a solid 2nd line. The Oilers could load up their 2nd line while still having a top line that features McDavid.
There are a few wingers who have had success with McDavid recently. On the left, Drake Caggiula has been effective with McDavid this season. Rattie has been a good fit with McDavid on the right side. That could be a decent top line. Nobody is accusing Caggiula or Rattie of being a proven top-line winger, but guess what… Sidney Crosby has rarely had a true top-line winger on his line in his career. Malkin was there in the first few seasons; but guys like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Dominik Simon consistently flank Crosby. No one is accusing any of them of being top-line wingers. Here’s what this line-up could look like if McDavid were left to drive his own line:
Lucic-Spooner-Marody (Rieder once he comes back)
I’m one of the many “experts” that has an idea about how the lines should be. The one thing that I do know is that the line combinations are not why the Oilers are losing. Jon Cooper changes his lines in TB all of the time, and that team is consistently good. Coaches change lines all of the time all over the league. I will give McLellan some credit for moving Lucic out of the top 6, and for finding gold with Chiasson alongside Draisaitl. However, I’d like to see Nugent-Hopkins on Draisaitl’s wing soon here.
Some fans on Twitter have pointed to McLellan not calling time-outs when things start to go sideways as more reason for him to be fired. The same thing can be said for not pulling the goalie soon enough in some games, such as last night against Vegas. Those moves are things that can stop the bleeding and get the team under control in a game. McLellan put Lucic on the top line with McDavid and Draisaitl against Calgary on Saturday once things had gotten silly with Tkachuk the turtle doing his thing. There weren’t any more incidents after that, but Lucic wasn’t effective on the line. The team couldn’t generate offence after that adjustment was made. At this point, I think we’re starting to try really hard to find things to fault McLellan for. Calling a time-out or pulling the goalie wouldn’t guarantee wins in situations where the games start slipping away from the team, as we saw against Colorado.
There are a lot of factors that have gone into the team’s recent losing streak. McDavid and Draisaitl can only do so much. The secondary scoring has dried up. Cam Talbot has had a rough stretch lately. The team has struggled defensively at times. At the end of the day, something has to change if the team is to start winning consistently. Chiarelli has already made one trade, and the team has lost both of their games since. The Oilers are in the midst of a big stretch of games against divisional opponents that could make or break their season. Now is the time for more of a change. The coach is usually the fall guy. McLellan is currently the 5th longest tenured active coach in the NHL. It really seems as if that tenure will come to an end sooner rather than later.
When Glen Gulutzan was hired as an assistant this spring, speculation was rampant that Chiarelli had hired McLellan’s eventual replacement. That would be the most likely scenario should McLellan be let go. The most tantalizing option is Joel Quenneville. The three-time Stanley Cup winner was recently fired by the Blackhawks. Chicago missed the playoffs last year, so it’s not as if Quenneville is the magic solution to all that ails anyone. He was given an incredible core group of players in Chicago. We don’t know if there is a causation or a correlation between Quenneville’s coaching and Chicago winning the Cup so often. However, we do know that whichever team hires him will pay a pretty penny. Another viable option could be Alain Vigneault. He has brought Vancouver (2011) and the Rangers (2014) to the Stanley Cup Finals in recent years. He does well with teams that are either on the rise or teams that have established themselves as being a threat already. The Oilers are a team that is on the verge of becoming really good, although that is not likely to happen this season. There are three strong options out there that could be fits to replace McLellan should Chiarelli pull the trigger on that move.
I don’t know what is going to happen, but I do know that the pressure to win is palpable in Edmonton right now. Chiarelli has already made one trade in an effort to give the team a different look. Given the pressure to win and the situation the team is in right now, I would be shocked if the Spooner deal is the only change that happens. Who knows, maybe that change will have already happened by the time you see this article.