Looking at Oilers’ future after firing Chiarelli

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A “be careful what you wish for” scenario emerged late on Tuesday night, as the Edmonton Oilers finally fired Peter Chiarelli as GM.

The following morning, Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson addressed the future, mixing the reassuring (not wanting to blow everything up) with uncomfortable feelings of “same old, same old.” For many who’ve seen this movie before, there’s legitimate concern about sad history repeating itself.

So, what should the Oilers do? Let’s consider the good, the bad, and the Puljujarvi.

First, a quick summary of their cap situation

Thanks to the always-handy Cap Friendly, we know that: the Oilers are basically right up against the ceiling in 2018-19, and are slated to devote about $73M to 15 skaters next season. Yeah, that’s not great.

The most prominent pending free agent is goalie Cam Talbot, who’s almost certain to be gone after the Oilers signed Mikko Koskinen to that baffling extension.

Fresh voices

Keith Gretzky is serving as interim GM, while Ken Hitchcock’s been given very little indication that he’ll be coach beyond next season.

Maybe that’s a good thing. This team needs fresh voices, not situations like the front office being littered with relics from the failed past, like Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish.

Nicholson said that the Oilers will take their time when it comes to such future moves, so here’s hoping they get with the program. After years of attempting “heavy” hockey and getting humiliated in trades, how about being forward-thinking, whether that means playing to Connor McDavid‘s speedy strengths, or finding a savvy GM who will sell-high, buy-low, and actually be ahead of the curve for once? Just a thought.

Assessing the good

As The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis aptly mentions, the Oilers do have a lot going for them. Willis mentions:

So, that list includes two stud centers, one nice forward in RNH, and Klefbom, a 25-year-old defenseman who’s been very effective when healthy.

Let’s consider a few other intriguing players who could provide the Oilers with cheap, useful production in the not-too-distant future. If you’re noticing an omission, that’s because a certain Finn is getting his own little section in this piece.

  • Kailer Yamamoto, the 22nd pick of the 2017 NHL Draft. A promising, smaller forward, even if he’s struggled at the top level this season.
  • Evan Bouchard, the 10th pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, could be a building block defenseman for a team that needs help at that position.

Your mileage will vary on other players, but you could do worse than to start with that mix of proven talent and decent prospects.

Now to what they need to get right, starting with another young player whose future is pivotal for Edmonton, whether he sticks with the Oilers or not:

The Jesse Question

Considering the Oilers’ history of bold moves, it’s tempting to just rubber stamp the word “DON’T” on any talk about trading away Jesse Puljujarvi, the troubled fourth overall pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.

But, as Sean “Down Goes Brown” McIndoe detailed in-depth recently for The Athletic (sub required), sometimes it actually is smart to move a Puljujarvi-type. The key can be filed under “easier said than done,” as it’s all about getting the right trade, if Edmonton chooses to do that.

And, as McIndoe notes, there is some risk in waiting too long.

If your trade bait doesn’t happen to have met expectations, timing is key. Move a guy too soon, and you risk seeing him turn into an Andrew Ladd or Rick Vaive, and you could be left with regrets. But wait too long and he’ll be Andrei Zyuzin or Stanislav Chistov, and you won’t get much of anything in return.

The Oilers have their own painful history when it comes to arguably waiting too long to move on from Nail Yakupov. Could they have gotten more than the weak deal from the St. Louis Blues if they punted sooner?

Look, there are times when I’d trot out advice that should seem obvious, but isn’t. The Oilers have been burned badly not just in trading away skill, but selling low on ice-cold players who were likely to rebound.

Puljujarvi is a little different because it’s difficult to separate his struggles from the Oilers’ own miscues, and to gauge what his ceiling might be. Few can credibly say they know for sure what kind of player he’ll become, but it’s crucial for the Oilers to get this situation right.

Net questions haven’t stopped

It would be irritating but acceptable if the Oilers merely overpaid a bit for Mikko Koskinen, if he was more of a sure thing.

Handing a three-year extension at $4.5M per year gets more reckless when you consider Koskinen’s unsightly combination of unprovenness (just 32 NHL games) and age (he’ll be 31 when the extension kicks in). His .910 save percentage this season doesn’t exactly kick down doors, either, even if Koskinen’s been respectable enough.

That previous paragraph is a procession of bummers, but the Oilers can at least do their best to put themselves in a position to succeed. It’s perfectly plausible that Koskinen could end up a great bet – he’s had his moments, and also goalies are extremely unpredictable – yet Edmonton would be wise to arm themselves with Plans B and on.

Keep an eye on prospects, in the draft and otherwise. Try to identify a free agent bargain, even if you’re unlikely to hit a grand slam like the Islanders managed with Robin Lehner.

Messing up with goalies can sometimes be luck of the draw, but Edmonton should look at, say, the Blues with Jake Allen and realize that contingency plans are crucial.

Shedding dead weight

Let’s be honest: barring a trip to the LTIR, it’s unlikely that the Oilers will get relief from Milan Lucic‘s $6M cap hit anytime soon. (Question: does Lucic have any rashes?)

Keith Gretzky or the Oilers’ next GM should do everything in their power to find creative ways to get rid of any bad contracts other teams might take off their hand, even if it means giving up a little bit of a bribe in return.

Would someone take Kris Russell (31, $4M through 2020-21) or Andrej Sekera (badly injured, $5.5M through 2021-22) off their hands? Maybe a rebuilding team would throw away Brandon Manning‘s $2.25M next season to try to reach the floor?

Sometimes an incumbent GM won’t admit past mistakes, which means bad contracts rot on their rosters for too long. With Chiarelli gone, the Oilers could at least make greater efforts to shake that Etch-a-Sketch. We’ve seen a ton of examples of seemingly untradeable contracts being moved, so it wouldn’t hurt to try.

Bargain hunting

If there’s an area where Chiarelli was passable, it was occasionally targeting some quality, cheap scorers.

To varying degrees, players like Alex Chiasson, Tobias Rieder, and Ty Rattie have served their purpose, at least for stretches. Even if the Oilers alleviate some cap concerns, chances are, they’ll need to be wizards of the bargain bin. On the bright side, McDavid is the sort of guy who should fatten the bank accounts of the Chiassons of the world, so that’s a workable aspect of this team.

One of those “fresh voices” might be especially adept at gauging who might be a diamond in the rough.

Pulling a reverse-Chiarelli

That brings up another point: maybe the Oilers can do to other teams what savvier GMs constantly did to Chia?

By that I mean: a) trading for players who are slumping, but are almost certain to get it together and/or b) determining supposed “lack of character” guys who can help them win.

It’s not just the Oilers who’ve done this with Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall. The Hurricanes traded Jeff Skinner after a cold shooting season. Dougie Hamilton may once again be an underappreciated asset.

Buying low on a talented player won’t necessarily be easy for the Oilers, considering their cap predicament, so this advice may be more pertinent if they can shed some of the Russells and Mannings. But if the opportunity arises, the Oilers could really start to turn things around.

***

Again, this isn’t the easiest situation. Chiarelli (and others?) really made a mess of this situation after getting the Lottery Ticket on Skates that Connor McDavid is.

Yet, even considering the cavalcade of mistakes this franchise has made, they’re not that far from being a more balanced and competent team.

It might be awkward to ask powerful front office executives to change the way they do business, but winning is worth more than a few ruffled feathers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Something in the water: Oilers’ issues go beyond Chiarelli

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The Edmonton Oilers have been sending a lot of mixed signals before and after the firing of Peter Chiarelli, but it’s difficult not to make this read from Bob Nicholson’s press conference on Wednesday: “We still don’t get it. We still don’t know what we’re doing.”

Of course, that’s not what Nicholson said while addressing the media.

No quick fix

On one hand, it’s promising that Nicholson emphasized that the team doesn’t want to make the type of panic moves that many (PHT included) feared that Chiarelli might make at the trade deadline with his job on the line.

“We’re not going to trade away any of our assets for a quick fix,” Nicholson said. “We’ll make some trades at the deadline, if they’re the right trades to get us in the playoffs, but not giving away the future.”

Hey, that’s good. Nicholson later stated that he wants prospects to be developed until they’re “over-ripe.” There are pitfalls to waiting too long to develop young players, yet when you realize how many times Edmonton’s bungled rookie contracts and otherwise struggled to bring talent along, the slow-and-steady approach sure beats one step forward, two steps back.

But, again, there’s this tug-of-war between acknowledging reality, while also emphasizing that this front office sees things differently than many others in the hockey world.

While high-end organizations tend to weather storms and stick with plans, the Oilers often feel all over the place. After all, Nicholson himself indicated that the Oilers would allow Chiarelli to sink or swim based on whether or not Edmonton made the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Then he reversed course and fired Chiarelli soon after stating his preferences.

While Nicholson doesn’t seem to have his finger on the pulse of the actual problem, it’s at least a small victory that he recognizes that something’s wrong.

” … There’s something in the water here that’s not right,” Nicholson said. “And we got to get that figured out …”

Yet, moments later, Nicholson railed on about finding “chemistry” and “character” in the locker room, not exactly taking a much more scientific approach than Chiarelli, who hammered the old-school hockey term “heavy” 23 times during his introductory news conference.

Look, it’s great to have strong chemistry and hearty, gregarious folks in your locker room, but it would have been far more promising if Nicholson lamented, say, the lack of skill around Connor McDavid and a select few other useful players.

Don’t ask the old boys’ club about the old boys’ club

Then again, how much can anyone cope when exact problems are placed under a magnifying glass?

Nicholson bristled at the (very reasonable) criticisms of the Oilers organization being an “old boys’ club,” one that’s still dominated by relics from their past glories in the ’80s. While Nicholson said that such talk is “not true at all,” the bottom line is that Keith and Wayne Gretzky are both prominent in the organization – with Keith serving as interim GM – and maybe most troublingly, Kevin Lowe remains a high-ranking figure. Lowe’s titles have changed over the years since becoming GM in 2000, but either way, it doesn’t exactly send a message of front office accountability when failed executives merely seem to be shuffled off to different positions.

It says a lot that Craig MacTavish remains with the Oilers, while they also employ Scott Howson, who didn’t exactly set the world on fire as Blue Jackets GM.

Chiarelli’s history shows that he’s had a terrible knack for trading away high-end talent for dubious returns, with mistakes stretching back to giving up the likes of Tyler Seguin and Blake Wheeler during his Bruins days. So Chiarelli wasn’t just a scapegoat; he made some big, forehead-slapping blunders. The punchlines were justified over the years.

Yet he’s not the only problem in Edmonton, and what evidence is there that this team is really learning from its mistakes? Do they even think they’re making any mistakes?

On one hand, it was nice that Nicholson said:

  • This isn’t a rebuild. (Oilers fans can’t be expected to endure another stitled reboot.)
  • That there are some good elements to this team. That’s not untrue.

But it would have been nice if Nicholson mixed in:

  • That the Oilers fundamentally failed to embrace both Connor McDavid and the larger trends in the NHL by emphasizing speed and skill. It was frustrating not to hear much of that, but a lot about the “real good” elements of the team and front office. (Warning: do not take a shot every time Nicholson says “real good.” If you do, you will not feel real good.)
  • At this point, it would be refreshing for the Oilers to explicitly state a greater interest in analytics, rather than merely saying that this isn’t an old boys’ club, and that they’ll listen to other voices. Maybe there’s a soft subtext there, but in desperate times, sometime you want people like Nicholson to flat-out state “we’re going to get fancy with our stats.”

Nicholson’s press conference wasn’t all doom and gloom, but only a few comments inspire confidence that this organization is learning from its mistakes. After all, things were messy long before Chiarelli became GM, and there’s an unsightly mess to clean up now that he’s gone.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: yes, people are running with that “something’s in the water” line.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

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(UPDATE: It’s now official. No replacement has been named with Keith Gretzky taking over in an interim basis.)

It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from being a win away from reaching the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Hertl, Ovechkin trade hat tricks in 13-goal game

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Three stars

1. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

In a game that featured 13 goals and two hat tricks, it was Hertl’s night that stood out amongst his peers.

Hertl scored one of the hat tricks and added an assist for his four-point night. Hertl was instrumental in the third period, scoring the goal to bring the Sharks to 6-5 and then assisting on Evander Kane‘s second of the game with one second left in the third period to send it to overtime.

In the extra hockey portion, Hertl finished the hat trick, scoring the game-winner at 1:48. It’s his second hat trick of the season, and second this month.

The Sharks won 7-6.

Here are the highlights:

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

It’s almost as if Ovechkin dangles the thought of someone catching him in the goal-scoring race, only to separate himself every time someone gets close. He’s just playing with those chasing him down.

Ovechkin notched another hat trick on Tuesday, scoring goals No. 34 thru 36 in the Capitals sixth straight loss. That’s 23 career hat tricks for Ovi, which are broken down here:

3. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings will head into their mandated week off on a high (and not in last place in the NHL) after Glendening scored a brace in a 3-2 win over the embattled Edmonton Oilers.

His first of the game came as he slipped in behind the Oilers defense and tapped in a shot past Mikko Koskinen. His second, the game-winner, came on a nice move to the net, slipping the puck past Koskinen.

Highlights of the night

The Hands of Kane:

Talk about cutting it close:

Factoids

Scores

Sharks 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Coyotes 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 2 (SO)
Flames 3, Hurricanes 2 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Oilers 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

New contract, same result as Koskinen, Oilers fall to Red Wings

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A shiny new $4.5 million contract couldn’t help Mikko Koskinen stop the puck any better, nor could it help the Edmonton Oilers outscore their opponent on Tuesday night.

A day after the most puzzling contract extension in a long time, Koskinen allowed a couple softies to the basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings as the Oilers lost 3-2 in another miserable effort on NBSCN.

All eyes were on Koskinen and the Oilers after Monday’s developments. After 40 minutes on Tuesday, Oilers fans were booing their team off the ice. Not a good sign, but perhaps not one that was all that surprising or unfamiliar.

Allowing goals like this was a big part of the problem for the Oilers, and Koskinen — despite the big-money deal — hasn’t been preventing too many of them lately.

Just listen to Ray Ferraro’s reaction on this one:

Koskinen actually made a couple of quality saves in the game, but then there was this sort of thing where he just chucked sound goalie positioning out the window.

After two periods, it was so bad that NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick put the Oilers on blast.

“I’m just sitting here watching this game and shaking my head,” Roenick said. “I’m boggled that this is a professional hockey league team. The Edmonton Oilers are so bad. They can’t put two passes together. Their passing decisions. Their positioning defensively. They look, in all three zones, they looked confused. They have no idea where they are going. They are throwing hope-for passes up the ice hoping that they catch somebody in a rush where they can get an out-numbered situation. They might have good skaters, fast skaters, but their feet and their hands go so much faster than their brains. They have no idea what they are doing out there and it shows so much.

“You’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, and God bless them, the worst team in the National Hockey League by points [with] 43, and they look like the Stanley Cup champions compared to this Edmonton Oilers team. I can understand why Connor McDavid is as frustrated as he is. He’s on the only guy that’s working, the only guy doing something smart with the puck.

“We talk about hockey IQ, and some players with great hockey IQ. This team might have, from 18 players, the lowest hockey IQ I’ve seen in a long time, the way they’re playing this game. It’s embarrassing. I can understand why there were boos for this team going off the ice after the second period. It’s just awful to watch.”

The Oilers responded, scoring twice in the third period, including this one from Leon Draisaitl to give fans some hope.

It wouldn’t be enough, however.

Jimmy Howard continued his dominance against the Oilers, now 14-2-0 in his past 16 starts against Edmonton after making 32 saves.

Koskinen finished with 24 saves on 27 shots for another sub-.900 save percentage outing — his third straight. Koskinen has a .910 save percentage on the year and is .905 in his brief NHL career.

The Red Wings moved out of the NHL’s basement with the win while the Oilers lost their third straight and sixth in their past 10. The crazy thing is Edmonton is just three points back of a playoff spot as of Tuesday night.

The saga continues…


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck