After days of rumors, the Edmonton Oilers confirmed Tuesday they were hiring former San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan as their new bench boss. And in his introductory press conference with his new employer, the veteran coach wisely played down playoff expectations, instead talking about a new start – both for the freshly-remade front office, and for the roster itself.
"We're not going to talk about playoffs here," McLellan said. "We're going to talk about building a foundation."
That's a savvy a way to phrase it, because it leaves ownership of the team's failures to past administrations, and gives McLellan and new GM-president Peter Chiarelli a clean start. Although their fans will remember the Oilers' struggles and ache to get into the post-season right away, Oilers brass can't start making shortcuts or taking high-risk gambles to accelerate the process.
Whatever the Oilers have now – and in the likes of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, among others, they have a lot – won't be seen by management as the core that's to be boosted into the stratosphere by the arrival of 2015 consensus No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid. They're almost assuredly going to make moves in the weeks to come that change the makeup of the team and address some serious deficiencies. And that new group of players likely won't perform well if there's a sense the season will be a failure if they don't make the playoffs.
Let's not forget, for as good as Edmonton's collection of forwards look at the moment, their defense and goaltending situations remain a pronounced (needs lots of) work-in-(very slow)-progress. That's one reason for McLellan's downplaying of making the 2016 post-season. After spending the past season trying to make the most of a less-than-ideal Sharks blueline and inconsistent goaltending from Antti Niemi en route to missing the playoffs, McLellan knows full well deficiencies in your own zone can negate even the most talented forces on offense.
By the time training camp rolls around, there's every chance one or two young Oilers forwards are traded for help on 'D' and a new goalie is brought in to challenge Ben Scrivens for the starting job. And it won't be easy for all the new pieces to gel in a short period of time. That's McLellan's job, of course, but never forget that a bad month or two in the parity-riddled NHL is all it takes to knock a team out of playoff contention. An injury here or there, and Edmonton could be (a) fighting once again for one of the final post-season berths, and (b) unsuccessful in that fight.
And remember, Pens superstar Sidney Crosby didn't make the playoffs in his first season in hockey's top league. McDavid is a guarantee of nothing other than an intense spotlight. So you can see why McLellan wasn't speaking boldly, as he might if he were accepting the head coaching job in Chicago or Los Angeles. He's no fool. He understands how many different ways things can go squirrelly, and all he can focus on is putting his competitive structure and expectations in proper context for a group of young players who've been flopping around without much success.
In all the euphoria of the Oilers winning the McDavid sweepstakes, some have forgotten how awful things had gotten in Edmonton. The fan jerseys falling to the ice, plucked up by an Oiler's stick and deposited off-ice in disgust. McDavid will make things more positive as soon as he hits the ice, but if McLellan intends to fumigate the entire dressing room of its toxic elements, he has to begin his tenure with more modest expectations. He does that not by leaning on players to make the post-season at all costs. He does that by insisting on doing things the proper, professional way, and stressing process over everything else.
In that sense, the coach's first day on the job was a success.