Hiring Todd McLellan as coach enhances Oilers' great potential

After hiring Todd McLellan as their new head coach, the Edmonton Oilers' future's so bright they'll need to wear shades.
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The next club that Todd McLellan coaches won’t be quite as good as the last one. That team, after all, just went 10-0 and won gold for Canada at the World Championships.

But the Oilers, immersed in an off-season of dramatic change, do have a chance to be pretty good next season and maybe great beyond that. And McLellan, who was officially announced as the team’s new bench boss on Tuesday afternoon, could be a big part of that push.

For the Oilers, adding the former Shark is the latest coup in a remarkable summer that began with the astute hiring of former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson to run hockey operations. Nicholson then put an end to the Good Ol’ Boys on the Bus Club, shoving Craig MacTavish into a support role and signing Peter Chiarelli as the team’s new general manager.

Oh, and there was that bit of good fortune that saw the Oilers beat the odds and win the NHL Draft Lottery, giving them the opportunity to select Connor McDavid with the first pick. You know, the player who Wayne Gretzky described as the best NHL prospect in 30 years.

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Adding McLellan, a highly regarded veteran coach smack in the prime of his career, was the logical next step. The 47-year-old led the Houston Aeros to the AHL’s Calder Cup in 2003, then served as Mike Babcock’s associate coach in Detroit from 2005-08, capturing the Stanley Cup in his final year with the Red Wings. That earned him his first NHL head coaching opportunity with San Jose where during the next seven seasons he amassed 311 victories, a .637 points percentage, three Pacific Division titles and one Presidents’ Trophy.

That’s a solid record of success. Of course, things didn’t go perfectly with San Jose. There was that 30-32 record in the playoffs with just five series wins and not a single trip to the Stanley Cup finals. The last two seasons were particularly tough. In 2014, there was the 3-0 series lead the Sharks blew in historic fashion to the Kings. This spring they missed the postseason cut for the first time in 10 years.

But the end of his tenure, which was arrived at mutually according to all parties involved, came not because of those failures but because he’d run out of ways to convince his players to do what he needed them to do. The Sharks needed a different voice.

That happens. He’s still an excellent coach. He’s widely regarded as having outstanding interpersonal skills. He’s someone who knows how to offer support while he demands accountability. That’s what makes him the right choice for a team that is so heavily invested in youth. He builds confidence and consensus.

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But even he can’t be expected to succeed with this team as-is. There’s plenty of young talent in Edmonton, including Team Canada members Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall, but the team remains a work-in-progress, a point he reiterated several times during Tuesday’s presser.

That means time is needed for the maturation of some of the core pieces. It also means filling in some obvious holes. The Oilers desperately need a proven goaltender to shore up their back end. Maybe Detroit’s Jimmy Howard fills that role, or perhaps Brian Elliott of the Blues. Both could be available after being relegated to the backup role during the playoffs. And they need at least two veteran defenders who are capable of limiting the own-zone chaos that characterized too many Oilers losses last season. Don’t be surprised if Brent Burns, who starred for McLellan with both the Sharks and Team Canada, ends up being one of them.

But those are problems to be solved another day. For now, Edmonton’s fans can focus on another offseason victory and the promising season that lies ahead.