Todd McLellan No Longer the Oilers “Protector”

The job of an NHL coach is multi-faceted. He’s to lead, he’s to assign, he’s to direct, organize and structure. He’s also to reward for work well done and hold accountable those who don’t perform. Todd McLellan is all those things to the Edmonton Oilers. The one thing he’s not, at least any longer, is the team protector.

There was a time that McLellan would go to bat for his guys, even in the face of poor play. He was a coach that clearly understood the issues but made sure to stand up for his kids, even if they didn’t always deserve it. To say he won’t defend his roster isn’t necessarily fair, but when it comes to cushioning his team, he may have changed his tune.

Higher Expectations

Why would a coach no longer protect his team? Simply put, the Oilers no longer need it.

What this team needs is a demand for more, higher expectations and tough love — something McLellan seems to have no qualms handing out. The coach’s press conference after Monday’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets sent a quick and concise message: he’s not waiting to let his players know they need to be better and he’s not shy about letting the media know, putting more pressure on his stars to turn things around. It’s pressure he must believe his guys can handle.

(Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

“We’re not near competitive enough. We’re not out-working teams,” McLellan emphatically admitted. He went on to add that structurally the team is about as loose as they can be, missing assignments and that it all starts with the star players. McLellan called out his top guys, suggesting they weren’t being superstars on both sides of the puck. They didn’t quite get it done.

Individual Performances

McLellan isn’t limiting his criticism to the entire team or a small group, he’s calling out individuals. Cam Talbot has already felt the wrath of his head coach and this is after opening the season with a shutout in the very first game.

Oilers Benefit World Championship Success
(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Jim Matheson wrote in the Edmonton Sun that McLellan noticed Talbot’s poor play in the second game and wasted no time in giving backup Laurent Brossoit the nod. “He’s part of our team…we can flip forwards in and out and change D around but goal is the most obvious (position). Making the change (net) was a jolt and a chance to get LB in. He was tremendous,” said McLellan.

Talbot’s immediate response was a little “non-Talbot-like”:

“I look at some of the goals in Vancouver and I don’t know what I would have done differently. I’m not overhauling my game because of that. We (goalie coach Dustin Schwartz) watched the replay of the Horvat goal (slid under his pads). I was up against my post and the puck kind of slid down my pad and made it in between my skate and the post,”

Cam Talbot after the loss to the Vancouver Canucks – Edmonton Sun

But, come practice the next morning, Talbot was right back to his Talbot-self, taking responsibility and focusing on the fact that he needs to be better so his team can be confident, thus better, in front of him.

Even Matt Benning, who has just 65 NHL games on his resume was called out for being off as it pertains to his game. McLellan called him uncertain and admitted he’s often fumbling the puck between his stick and his feet. But, McLellan also said Benning is an honest kid, ready to put in an honest effort to improve.

This is the kind of reaction McLellan believes his entire team will have.

Related: Oilers Top Prospects: Laurent Brossoit

No Longer Kids

Last year was a growing year. The Edmonton Oilers were good, making it as far as the second round of the NHL playoffs, but the year was also a period of maturity. The organization didn’t add players at the NHL Trade Deadline because they wanted this particular group to prove something to themselves. The season ended in disappointment, but it taught this version of the Oilers a valuable lesson. It’s hard to win in the NHL.

With that growth year done (of course, every team still grows), the time for showing growth is now. No longer will the team tolerate excuses. This is the team that will sink or swim to start the year and if they can’t do it now, they’ll find themselves in a boat with no paddle.

McLellan is a coach who is going to push the buttons of his players until something clicks.

The Oilers will play their fourth game of the season on Saturday. They’ll have had multiple-days to stew over and get past their two poor performances. The coach may not say it publicly yet, but his actions so far show he’s got the confidence in his guys, even in the face of dangerously poor play, to turn things around.

These kids players no longer need a protector. What they need is a kick in the butt. McLellan is already shining up his boots and that’s the right approach at the right time for this group.