McLellan is Out, Hitchcock is In… Chiarelli Stays

Oilers fans got their wish today as Todd McLellan has been fired. McLellan finished with a 123-119-24 record over 266 games in Edmonton. Peter Chiarelli hired McLellan to be the man to lead the up and coming Oilers to the promised land. He was the experienced coach that the franchise had been searching for. The Oilers made the playoffs in one of McLellan’s three full seasons behind the Oilers bench. Needless to say, the way it ended was disappointing. The Oilers have lost 6 of their last 7 games, including the first two of a stretch where the Oilers play 7 of 8 games against divisional opponents. The Oilers mathematically cannot be in a playoff spot by the time American Thanksgiving rolls around on Thursday. While teams on the outside looking in at this point don’t often make the playoffs, the Oilers are still in a position where they can defy that trend. All of that factored into Chiarelli’s decision today. Much has been made of McLellan’s inability to get the most out of this roster. His strategies were criticized. His line configurations were scrutinized. Some observers pointed out that the team appeared as if they had stopped playing for McLellan. Every coach has a shelf life, and McLellan’s ran out in Edmonton. This was the correct time to make the move.

McLellan has been replaced by Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a career record of 823-506-88-119 over 20 seasons of NHL coaching duty. The Edmonton native had retired from coaching at the end of last season, and has been working as a consultant with the Dallas Stars. Perhaps the lure of coaching the local team was enough to coax Hitchcock out of retirement. Maybe it was the opportunity to coach Connor McDavid. Whatever his reasoning for accepting the job, the Oilers are his team now. At least until the end of this season. After that, we’ll see. I don’t see this as the long-term solution behind the bench in Edmonton due to the fact that Hitchcock has retired once already.

The young Oilers will be wise to learn as much as they can from Hitchcock while they have him. Hitch has always been known as a defensive specialist. The Oilers are 25th worst in the league with 3.3 goals against/game. Hopefully Hitchcock can help to improve that stat. The reality is that secondary scoring is a massive obstacle for the Oilers to overcome… if they can’t defend, they won’t win many games. Teams have consistently out-worked the Oilers this season. The 3rd period against Calgary on Saturday was probably the greatest example of that in action. That won’t be the case with Hitchcock. The boys will work, or they won’t play.

While many Oilers fans are happy to see this coaching change, there is still a large contingent of fans that think the Oilers should fire Chiarelli. This is the start of McDavid’s 4th year, and the team is struggling to assert itself as a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender. Chiarelli traded away Hall and Eberle in two one-for-one deals in which the Oilers gave away the superior player. He traded the picks that turned into Matt Barzal and Mitchell Stephens for Griffin Reinhart. Those picks could have also been Kyle Connor, Brock Boeser, Travis Konecny, Thomas Chabot, or Sebastian Aho. He gave Milan Lucic a no-move clause, and Lucic has been awful.

Despite the optics of those moves, I am certainly in the minority that will defend Chiarelli. I believe that the team is in a much better position today than they were when he started here in 2015, and I believe that Chiarelli is still the right man for the GM position in Edmonton.

I have written extensively on the Hall trade. Find articles here, and here. The defence that Chiarelli inherited was Justin Schultz, Darnell Nurse (19), Oscar Klefbom (21), Nikita Nikitin, Andrew Ference, Mark Fayne, Jordan Oesterle, Keith Aulie, Brandon Davidson, Brad Hunt, Martin Marincin, and David Musil. It was a tire fire! Total garbage. Chiarelli signed Andrej Sekera as a free agent and gave him a no-trade clause, which is the price of signing a big free agent. You make that move 10 times out of 10 given what the Oilers had to work with.

Look at the context of the Hall trade. Chiarelli watched the team struggle to a 70-point season in which they finished 25th worst in the league with 245 goals against. The team went 12-17-3 when all four of Connor McDavid, Taylor Hall, Leon Draisaitl, and Jordan Eberle were healthy and in the line-up together. Everyone on the planet knew that the Oilers’ defence was shit, and that they had a collection of talented wingers that had just had their 5th consecutive horrible season as a team. Chiarelli was hired to build a team around McDavid, and the team had a new arena opening in 2016. There was a lot of pressure to make a change. Standing pat with that core in tact was not an option. Fixing the defence was the first item on Chiarelli’s to-do list in 2016.

Look at the market for right-handed defencemen at the time. PK Subban was traded for the only asset powerful enough to land a young elite offensive RH defenceman: an elite offensive defenceman in his prime (Shea Weber). Montreal apparently wanted Draisaitl, plus, plus, plus for Subban. No thanks. The ask for Kevin Shattenkirk from St. Louis was Eberle AND Nugent-Hopkins. He didn’t want to sign here anyway, so we would’ve lost Ebs and Nuge for nothing. Nope. Jason Demers came here and met with Chiarelli a few days before the trade. It was an option that was explored. We don’t know what the Oilers’ offer was if there was one at all, but the article from Sportsnet regarding Demers signing in Florida said that he took less money to sign in Florida. There’s no state tax in Florida, so that’s a factor. Regardless, he clearly didn’t want to be here.

The trade ended up being Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson. Straight up. One-for-one. Hall is obviously the better player, no one is denying that. Market value and skill are two different things though. Right-handed defencemen that can play on a top-pairing are far more rare than top left wingers. The value of a right-handed defenceman is higher. That means that in a one-for-one deal involving a defenceman and a winger, the winger will be the better player of the two. Larsson’s age and his cost certainty were other factors that drove his value up as well. Oilers fans claim that Chiarelli traded an MVP for Larsson. No, that’s not how that works… he was not an MVP in 2016. As long as he was on a team with McDavid, he would never have won an MVP award. Minds far superior to mine didn’t even think he was one of the 4 best left-wingers in Canada in 2016. Hockey Canada chose Brad Marchand over Hall for the World Cup team.

Hall said himself last year that he wouldn’t have a discourse with 5 coaches in Edmonton. We’ve all heard stories from people suggesting Hall wasn’t the most likable kid. Chiarelli traded Seguin out of Boston because he didn’t fit with the culture… We’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think that Hall’s personality didn’t have anything to do with why Chiarelli was willing to part with him. Make no mistake about it, John Hynes has done a great job with Hall in New Jersey. Hall would not be the player he is today if he were still in Edmonton. Yes, Hall is a great player, but it wasn’t the loss most Oilers fans think it was. I don’t think that trade happens if McDavid weren’t around, but I will defend the Hall trade until I’m blue in the face.

Then there was the Eberle trade, another one-for-one deal for Ryan Strome. The anger towards this one gets me every time because the fans basically ran Eberle out of town in his last season. I digress. Chiarelli could have waited until this past summer to trade Eberle because the team had the cap space to hold on to him last year. However, look at this from an asset management perspective. Chiarelli’s mandate is to build a team around McDavid as quickly as possible. Eberle had 2 years left on his deal when Chiarelli made the trade. If Chiarelli had traded Eberle this past summer with one year left on his deal, then the return would’ve been picks and prospects. Picks and prospects don’t help the team for three or four years, if they end up contributing at all at any point. Instead, Chiarelli got an asset that could contribute to the team instantly. Obviously, Strome was just traded for Spooner… but Spooner is still a tangible asset that can help the team now rather than later. Eberle’s $6 million would not have fit under the cap this season. “Overpayments” for Koskinen, Caggiula, Kassian, and Russell wouldn’t change that because they really aren’t over paid by much at all if you look at their comparables with the tool on CapFriendly.com. Eberle would have been moved by now regardless. I’m glad the return wasn’t picks and prospects given the need to improve the team quickly.

THAT is the plan that Bob Nicholson was speaking of this spring when defending the decision to keep Chiarelli on board. The plan is to acquire young players that can help now instead of picks. The plan is to acquire prospects that are closer to NHL ready than not. Larsson and Strome are both young players that can help now and in the future. Spooner fits the bill as well despite being a year older than Strome. Look at the trade deadline last year. Mark Letestu was traded for Pontus Aberg. Aberg had 8 points in 16 games in Edmonton last season. He was waived this year after putting himself in the organization’s doghouse last year and not having a great camp, but he’s leading the Ducks in goal scoring right now! It sucks that he’s not here scoring for us, but the bet on Aberg was a solid one. Patrick Maroon was traded for JD Dudek and a pick… that pick was later flipped for Cooper Marody, who is currently on the Oilers roster.

I’m not going to include McDavid here because that was a gift that Chiarelli inherited. Since then, his 1st round picks have been Jesse Puljujarvi (who was doing well playing against men in Finland in his draft year), Kailer Yamamoto (late birthday), and Evan Bouchard (late birthday). Playing against men in your draft year and having a late birthday put you closer to being NHL ready than other prospects. Sure, Puljujarvi hasn’t worked out the way we wanted him to yet, but that’s a bet I would’ve made standing on the draft floor in 2016 as well. Yamamoto has seen NHL hockey in each of his first two years. He’s not ready yet, but he is closer than others that were drafted near him that year. Bouchard saw NHL hockey this year too. He also isn’t ready, but watch that kid succeed up here next year. Even 2018 2nd rounder Ryan McLeod has a late birthday. He was impressive in camp this year, and he could potentially make the team next year.

Make no mistake about it: Peter Chiarelli was tasked with embarking on a REBUILD when he got to Edmonton in 2015, and it needed to happen fast because of McDavid. People are frustrated that the rebuild is taking this long, but here’s the thing:

THE TEAM WAS A FUCKING DISASTER FOR TEN YEARS BEFORE CHIARELLI GOT HERE!!!!

People forget just how BAD this team was prior to Chiarelli getting here. 4 1st overall picks in 6 seasons. Last season’s 78 points was considered a disaster… that was better than any team prior to 2015-16 had done since 2006. Chiarelli was left with a MASSIVE hole to dig this team out of. McDavid has been here for 3.25 years, not 4. The team isn’t growing as fast as McDavid has, and I understand the frustration over not winning all of the time right now. We all want things right now! The reality is that this will take time.

Here is Chiarelli’s check list for things to do when he got here:

IMPROVE GOALTENDING: Check. Talbot is struggling, but Koskinen is playing well. It’s an IMPROVEMENT over Scrivens, Fasth, Oilers Dubnyk, Khabibulin, LaBarbera, Bachman, Bryzgalov, and Danis.

IMPROVE DEFENCE: Check. Love it or hate it, Adam Larsson improves our defence over what it was upon Chiarelli’s arrival. Andrej Sekera was vital to the Oilers making the playoffs in 2016-17. Kris Russell is an extremely valuable contributor on defence despite what analytics guys think of him. That’s half of the top 6 right there.

IMPROVE PROSPECT POOL: Check. Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Bouchard, McLeod, Jones, Bear, Benson, Marody, Maksimov, Safin, and Skinner are all prospects that are trending upwards. The team hasn’t seen prospect depth like this in decades.

Bitch about the Hall and Eberle trades if you want to. Cry over not getting Barzal if you must. The reality is that the body of work from Chairelli has been a net gain for the Oilers. Chiarelli’s strategy of acquiring young assets that can help now (Larsson, Strome/Spooner) or in the near future (Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, Bouchard) is the best strategy for a team building around two star players making $21 million/season.

Some things haven’t worked out in Chairelli’s favour despite the strategy being correct. I would sign Milan Lucic in 2016 after making the Hall trade again if I were in charge. He has an NMC that modifies to allow for a potential trade at the age of 32, which is typically the end of a player’s prime. No one could have foreseen just how rapidly Lucic’s production has declined. That’s the risk you take with a free agent. Puljujarvi hasn’t developed as quickly as anyone would have liked. Shit happens. Development isn’t a linear thing, and it is unpredictable. Yes, his development should have been handled differently… but even if he had been in the AHL for a longer time, there’s no guarantee that he would be scoring like Patrik Laine is now. Those are two guys that were expected to be contributing in the Oilers’ top 6 right now that aren’t, but both of them were the right moves at the right times. Guess what… if Eberle wasn’t going to fit under the cap this year (McDavid’s first with his $11.575 million raise), then no other top 6 winger would fit under the cap this season either.

The reality is that this is a development year for some important players: Puljujarvi, Yamamoto, and Bouchard. The Oilers’ weaknesses right now are secondary scoring and a lack of a true right-handed offensive defenceman. Those three players will fill those needs for the Oilers, but they aren’t ready to do so right this second, and that is okay. There is enough to suggest that they will be as soon as next season. Hell, Puljujarvi could come up and start producing this year after a stint in the AHL and a new coach. It is honestly okay if the Oilers happen to miss the playoffs this season.

Next season though… I will be singing a different tune. This summer lends itself to the Oilers having the ability to make some moves. Bouchard will be a full-time Oiler next year, which means one of the current defencemen will need to be moved. Andrej Sekera and Kris Russell both have NMC’s that will be modified this summer, which will allow them to be moved. My eyes are locked solely on Sekera, the man who will be 33 years old in June and will be coming off of 2 consecutive seasons with serious injuries. His $5.5 million needs to be moved. If not all of it, then a significant chunk of it. It will be a hard contract to move, so there is a scenario where Russell could be moved instead. Either way, one of them can be moved and will need to be moved to make room for Bouchard and to create cap space to add a top winger. Both goalies are free agents, so there will be some cost-cutting there, I can assure you.

The Oilers are in a place where they finally have prospects that they can afford to trade. If Puljujarvi continues to flounder at the NHL level this year, then he could be moved. The emergence of Bouchard has made Ethan Bear expendable. Caleb Jones could be moved since the Oilers’ left side is going to be tough for him to break into with Klefbom and Nurse in top 4 roles for the foreseeable future. They could move any of Benson, Maksimov, Safin, or Marody as well if it meant getting a top 6 scoring winger in return.

If you look ahead to what is coming, you can see that the future has the potential to be even brighter in Edmonton than it already is. Chiarelli is a couple of moves away from getting there, and he has positioned himself to be able to make the moves necessary to become a contender in 2019. If you look ahead and back at the strategy that Chiarelli has employed to this point, you can see the “plan” that Nicholson referred to last spring. The team may not make the playoffs this year. Chiarelli may still keep his job unless the team falls to the bottom of the standings this season, and that will be okay with me because of what can possibly happen in 2019.

However, there is a limit to how much patience one has in professional sports. I clearly have more than 99.9% of Oilers fans, but my limit will be reached next season if one of Sekera or Russell isn’t moved and a top scoring winger isn’t brought in. If the Oilers are in this situation again next year, THEN I’ll jump on the “Fire Chiarelli” bus. Until then, I’m content to let this play out.

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