These were dark years for Edmonton Oilers fans. Since their unlikely run to the 2006 Stanley Cup final, the Oilers are a story of bad management and misused first round picks. Year after year, people would hope that they’d be able to finally get it together, only to be sorely disappointed at the end of the season.
The only thing the Oilers have won in the last decade are several draft lotteries. Despite this unbelievable run of luck in the lotteries, which resulted in drafting the likes of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov, Edmonton has not converted that into success, due to constantly drafting the same type of player, ignoring needs in nets and on the blueline. It's been the old boys club of Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish running the show and even though the Oilers won the lottery this year, going on the clock for Connor McDavid, everyone was still skeptical on their future. There have even been fans making jokes that McDavid would pull an Eric Lindros and refuse to play for Edmonton. The perception has now changed, as the Oilers have found a man who will steer them in the right direction.
This year, the Oilers are finally cleaning house and making changes.
One of the bigger and more considerable changes was bringing a proven general manager in Peter Chiarelli. The recently fired Bruins GM has a large list of goals to achieve in this under-performing Oilers team, but there’s no denying he’s one of the best guys for the job. Chirarelli understands the need for a strong blueline and good goaltending to win a Stanley Cup, as he had both when he won his championship in Boston. Combined with newly hired coach Todd McLellan, who experienced great years in San Jose building a consistent team, there is hope for the Oilers. Here are the top 10 things Chiarelli needs to do to make Edmonton a cup contender.
10 Veterans with a winning pedigree
The Edmonton Oilers have a gifted young core, with only three guys over 30 on their roster. Their veteran Andrew Ference is a good leader, but another older player with experience in being part of a rebuild and in winning would be a good person to have in the Edmonton locker room. If the Oilers coaching staff and ownership really want to change the culture in the room and succeed, they need a few character guys that have experience winning, and that can lead the way for that talented young core.
9 Coaching Stability
A change of culture in Edmonton means a new coach. For Edmonton, a team riddled with young players that have no idea what it takes to win.
It just so happens it was a great time to be coach shopping in the NHL, and Chiarelli opted to go for Todd McLellan, who recently parted ways with the San Jose Sharks. Most importantly though, Chiarelli needs to believe that Todd McLellan is the coach than can handle the mountainous task at hand with the Edmonton Oilers rebuild. For a team that has gone through four coaches in five years, having some continuity and stability with McLellan will go a long way in building a contending team.
8 Limit the roles of Kevin Lowe and Craig Mctavish to a bare minimum (or just fire them)
I, along with any knowledgeable hockey fan, believe that Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish were an enormous failure for the Edmonton Oilers. A lot of the teams woes in the past decade I think are directly correlated to decisions made by MacTavish and Lowe, and making Mctavish GM was just another head scratching decision in which we can now look back and laugh. What these two men did is install a losing culture in Edmonton. On a team with so many young, talented players coming forward, those are very dangerous waters.
But it seems CEO and vice-chair Bob Nicholson has learned from the past, and has given the reins to a seasoned GM in Chiarelli. The years that Mctavish and Lowe were in charge are over, and with it the losing mentality – as long as they stay far away from hockey operations, that is. It seems now that Lowe will only be involved in business operations, while MacTavish's role on the hockey side is small, and still unclear.
7 Get the best out of Connor McDavid
Connor McDavid, as many analysts like to say, is the type of player that comes around once in a generation. His speed, skill, stick handling, and all around game are quickly making him the most exciting first overall draft pick since Sidney Crosby came in to the NHL. McDavid is the player that can bring the Oilers to the next level, and Chiarelli needs to surround him with a decent team.
Moreover, it had greatly influenced his decision to choose Edmonton, meaning he really believes he can make him a franchise-turner. Here’s Chiarelli on McDavid before and after he knew the Oilers had the first pick: "I said to my wife, it's like when we went out and got our second dog. We weren't planning on bringing that dog back with us, but when we saw it in the cage, we're like, 'We've got to take it back with us.' I kind of knew that was going to be the same thing."
6 Shelter Cam Talbot as he adjusts to starting role
The Oilers did about everything they could to address their goaltending issue in a single offseason by trading for Cam Talbot. Talbot had a strong run in New York this past season, keeping the Rangers on top of the Eastern Conference during Henrik Lundqvist's absence. Talbot went 21-9-4 this past season with a .926 SV% and a 2.21 GAA.
Granted, this was all while Talbot had arguably the best blue line in the league in front of him. While Edmonton has upgraded its defence corps this offseason, it will take time for them to gel and they won't be as good as that of the Rangers. The Oilers will have to do what they can to get the best out of Talbot if he's to be their solution, be it playing a more conservative game, or adding some defensively responsible forwards.
Talbot will likely be getting more starts than Ben Scrivens. They didn't give up three picks for Talbot to ride the bench, but he'll need some help in adjusting to now (hopefully) becoming a full time starting goaltender.
5 Change the culture
This is a bit of an obvious one. The Oilers have had some very rough years. For their young stars, it’s a most difficult rut, never being able to find their stride as a team after so many years and so much talent. Hiring Chiarelli was the first, big step in changing Edmonton’s culture. This is a GM that built a strong and dangerous Bruins team, taking them to a Stanley Cup Championship in 2011, and going to the final again in 2013. There’s no denying that Chiarelli in himself is a culture change, and good on Nicholson for locking him up quickly.
Chiarelli has gotten off to a strong start in Edmonton, but culture change takes time to instill and this might be Chiarelli's greatest challenge.
4 Embrace change
The Edmonton Oilers are in desperate need of change. This year finally looks like it’ll be the year they finally embrace that change. It’s quite simple. The Oilers have a massive offence moving forward. With the right coaching and a winning attitude, they can be one of the most productive teams in the league.
Defensively, they've upgraded tremendously, all while leaving their core of top forwards untouched. The Oilers brought in Andrej Sekera and traded for Griffin Reinhart, still developing. In addition to that Darnell Nurse might make the jump to a bigger role on the blue line.
Chiarelli didn't subtract any of his offensive talent, yet still upgraded the defence corps. This is a great start for the Oilers' turnaround.
3 Manage the salary cap
Even the best GMs make mistakes that can eventually lead to a firing. For Chiarelli, his miscues handling the salary cap in Boston led to him having to trade away the likes of Tyler Seguin and Johny Boychuk, as well as losing Jarome Iginla in free agency, ultimately leading to his firing. Handling the salary cap can be a very tricky business as Chiarelli has already learned, but I believe the new Edmonton boss can learn from his mistakes and make the right decisions in Edmonton.
When we look at Edmonton, managing the salary cap on this star-studded team won’t be an easy ride. We have Hall, Eberle and Nugent-Hopkins all rocking long-term contracts worth $6 million a year. We have McDavid joining them on an entry level deal, we have the curious case of Nail Yakupov, not to mention Leon Draisaitl and we also have the influx of defencemen. Chiarelli just has to make sure not to make the same cap miscues he did in Boston.
2 Keep building the blueline
When looking at the Edmonton Oilers as a whole, the main issue the team has had is their defence. A succession of first round picks in the past few years have certainly provided the Oilers with very talented and gifted forwards, but the Oilers failed to pick or trade for any legitimate NHL defencemen. Of course, most of their picks would have been difficult not to choose first, but the consequences now are clearly evident in a team that finished last for goals against with 283 goals allowed.
The good news is that they’ve begun to address this issue with their acquisitions, but they'll still have to make it a priority going forward to stack their defence corps through prospects, and further acquisitions, be it through a trade or a future free agency periods.
1 Find a team identity
The Edmonton Oilers have simply not been able to find themselves lately. An important and what I believe somewhat underrated part of every hockey team is their identity. Grit, character, sheer determination is something that has been missing from this team in years. Once they get a taste of winning and hit their stride and actually fight through adversity to be victorious, that’s when the Oilers will become a contender.
That’s where Chiarelli comes in. There’s exciting things going on in Oil Country and the entire world of hockey is watching. Chiarelli has had a great offseason but we won't really know the Oilers' identity until the season starts and rolls on.