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McLellan is Still the Coach - What it Means

Edmonton Oilers v Buffalo Sabres

We’re past the halfway point of the NHL season and the Oilers are terrible. They had a nice four game win streak around Christmas, but it’s been almost all down hill from there. The Special Teams are awful, the team has scored 3 goals in the past five games, and yet, Todd McLellan is still the head coach of this team.

Because the #FireChia and #FireTodd camps have been fully established by now, I can actually hear some of you yelling at the computer, already. “Yeah but, Chiareilli...!” you’re saying. Well, I’m not here to defend Chiarelli or his moves. First, because that’s not going to be the subject of this piece, and second, because no one can defend those trades. The point of this is more along the lines of what— all GMing aside — Todd McLellan has done with this team, and what him still being employed, suggests.

Todd McLellan has his team sitting at 39 points in 43 games — good for 6th last in the NHL. I understand that this team was never going to be as good as it was last year, especially on paper, but I looked at preseason rankings and although a lot of people had this team finishing lower than they did last year, no one had them in the running for the draft lottery. What this tells me is that plenty of astute analysts were very capable of seeing glaring holes in the lineup, and still didn’t think they were going to be this bad. When a roster is preforming this much lower than the expectations, regardless of circumstance, attention shifts to the coach.

What I find very surprising isn’t so much that McLellan hasn’t been fired, but the fact that it’s January and not a single NHL head coach has been fired. I can’t think of the last time that’s happened, and yet, I think this is going to be the norm. I like to think of myself as a bit of a market forecaster, and given that sports teams have a finite number of teams, it’s a lot easier to analyze what’s happening than financial markets. My interpretation of what’s happening is that, after years of firing a coach and regretting it, teams are no longer viewing coaches as disposable assets anymore. Before making rash decisions and firing for the purpose of a shakeup, they’re asking tough questions like: Where are we going to get a better one?

Mike Babcock making it to free-agency as the undisputed best coach in the NHL seemed to be the start of this trend. Teams like St. Louis were very willing to hire Babcock despite already having Hitchcock, because they viewed it as an improvement, and not just a shakeup. Since the Salary Cap dictates what teams can spend on players, teams have to look to other areas to improve their organization. Things like coaching, scouting, and analytics. We also saw a situation last year, where days after Canadiens GM, Marc Bergivin, gave Michel Therrien a vote of confidence, he fired him when Claude Julien became available. He didn’t just make a shakeup to spark the team, he did it to improve it. All we’re waiting for here, is the first shoe to fall. Which team is going to make a regrettable firing first? If Minnesota misses the playoffs and fires Bruce Boudreau, I don’t imagine the Oilers don’t make him an offer regardless of if they were comfortable with McLellan. Thinking of a coach as part of your team and not just a guy to fire is a market shift that probably should have happened years ago. It didn’t seem to until recently, and finally, it’s here in full force. I imagine that as soon as one coach goes down, a bunch do.

Another interesting thought about McLellan not yet being fired, is that maybe, just maybe, it’s because Peter Chiarelli is on the hot seat. If OEG has already made the decision to fire Chiarelli at seasons’ end, or is at least looking at it as a real possibility, it would make no sense to bring in a new coach at the moment. They’d likely be fired together. If you hire a new GM, you’d want him to be able to make his own decisions involving coaching. I’m not sure you’d find a good, experienced, NHL coach who would be willing to take a job without knowing the future of his boss. That’s the Ralph Krueger mistake. Keeping this in mind, I would suggest that Chiarelli being fired at the end of the year becomes more and more likely, the longer McLellan keeps losing behind the bench. Not because he refuses to fire a losing coach, but because it implies he doesn’t have the power to do to fire anyone.

Firing a coach is a pretty easy thing to do in the middle of a season. There are lots available to step into that role right away, but not a lot you would consider an improvement to a good coach like McLellan. Firing a GM in the season (Or at any point, really) is a much harder thing to accomplish. If you do it now, you almost have to hire from within or an amateur. Forgive me if I don’t have much confidence in the Oilers abilities to hire an amateur. Because the GM is responsible for hiring scouts and analytics guys, firing a GM implies that the team has no confidence in any of the current ones. That makes it very difficult to come out ahead at the draft or during free agency. Other teams aren’t willing to part with their employees prior to the draft, and if the Oilers don’t have faith in their GM, they most certainly won’t let him make draft and free-agent decisions. It would set us back at least a year unless OEG has consultants willing to step in right now.

When it comes right down to it, I think there are only really three possible reasons Todd is still the coach of this team. Either Chiarelli is gone at the end of the season, they’re just waiting for a better coach to become available, or McLellan has convinced the team that this season’s result is cause by nothing but variance and luck. The last option isn’t out of the question, either. Given what we know today though, I would predict that McLellan will not be back next year, and that if he is still the coach on game 82, neither will Chiarelli. It’s going to be an interesting development. I just hope the GM — whoever it is — gets some new Pro Scouts.