Edmonton Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli wasted no time in his end-of-season press conference. Chiarelli immediately jumped into questions from the media and faced the fire for the disappointing season Edmonton had in 2017-18. The Oilers took a 25-point step back in the NHL standings after coming within one win of the Western Conference Final a year prior.
Heading into the NHL Draft Lottery on Apr. 28, the Oilers hold the ninth-best odds and have a five percent chance of winning the lottery. Regardless, there are going to be fans clamoring for Chiarelli to be fired this summer. It’s not going to happen. Judging by the tone and format of all press availabilities of Chiarelli, Todd McLellan, and Bob Nicholson, it looks like the GM and coach will be back for 2018-19.
Whether that’s the right move will remain to be seen, but it’s still possible changes will be made to the supporting staff behind the bench and within hockey operations. It just might not be the sexy changes some fans would want. Here are the Coles Notes on what you can expect as the summer months unfold.
Will Nugent-Hopkins Be Back Next Year?
Chiarelli was asked if his intention was to bring back Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who’s had his name in the rumor mill all season long. There was speculation Edmonton’s GM was dangling RNH earlier in the year in hopes of landing a scoring forward or a top-pairing defenseman. For the foreseeable future, it seems as if Chiarelli does intend on bringing RNH back next year if you take what he says at face value.
The question now becomes, do you play RNH at left wing next to Connor McDavid, or do you have him center his own line? Judging by how things went this year, you’d probably be guessing right if you thought the Oilers would yo-yo RNH between the two positions as need be. From a selfish perspective, you can’t ignore the chemistry between RNH and McDavid. The former is a great complement to the style the latter plays.
The 25-year-old put up 24 goals and 48 points in 62 games and had 15 points in the 13 games he played alongside McDavid to end the year. RNH finished the year with a 0.77 points-per-game average (PPG). The focused sample size next to McDavid suggests the Oilers might finally have a way of unlocking the more offensive side of RNH’s game.
It probably would be best for the intention to be to start RNH off on McDavid’s wing. Chiarelli can then address what to do with the remaining offensive depth and possibly find a more proven option on right wing for his top line than Ty Rattie. To his credit, Rattie finished the year with nine points in 14 games. From what Chiarelli said in the presser, there’s been an open discussion on Rattie returning. Where he plays in the lineup is a different story.
Chiarelli Admitted He Made Oversights With Roster
Fans were fairly upset with how little Chiarelli did last summer to get the roster ready to be a major contender in the Western Conference this season. Chiarelli overvalued the roster, plain and simple, and he admitted that in his presser. It was a clear oversight not to add a stopgap on defense while Andrej Sekera was out with an injury. His thought was that Darnell Nurse or Matt Benning would fill the void.
It took some time for Nurse to finally step into that role, and to his credit, he emerged as a true top-four defenseman this season. Still, you’re left to wonder how this team would’ve fared in the standings had Chiarelli added someone to fill the Sekera void through the first 34 games. Judging by his play this year, he wasn’t the same defender he was a year ago, mainly because he wasn’t 100 percent. Adding someone to make up for that shortcoming likely would’ve helped this team’s transition game.
Chiarelli did hold some accountability throughout the presser but also spread some of the blame to the organization as a whole. In his eyes, outside of two or three players, the team’s performance in 2017-18 was subpar. There’s one quote that really stands out about his over-evaluation or over-projection (see below). But at the end of the day, would you rather have a GM who doesn’t admit fault or one that comes out and faces the music?
“I’m certainly trying to be accountable here, but the players, I think but for two or three, their performances were subpar. I’m not saying my performance was above par. If you want to dissect the player personnel moves. There were a number of veteran players we didn’t bring back, or traded. That was born out of necessity. Could we have done a better job in replacing those players? Maybe. Did we over-project on a couple of young guys? Maybe early on we did.”
Other Notes From Chiarelli Press Conference
When it comes to scoring, Chiarelli stated he felt the scoring this season was more than adequate. Not sure that’s a shared sentiment among most prognosticators, though. The team scored 14 fewer goals this year (229 total), and saw their offense dip to 23rd overall in the NHL. More than adequate? No. Less than adequate? Yes. The offense didn’t exactly get the job done. But there’s a huge asterisk next to this whole scoring dilemma.
The Oilers actually finished 11th overall when it came to five-on-five goals (163). They finished dead last in power-play (PP) goals (31) and operated at 14.8 percent. A year prior they were running a PP at 22.1 percent and scored 56 goals with the man-advantage. Add that difference of 25 goals to this year’s overall total (229), and this team actually scores more goals and once again ranks 11th in the NHL. So is the PP to blame here?
The emphasis heading into next year will be building around the centers: McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Strome, and Jujhar Khaira. Edmonton got a lack of output from their wingers this year, so if there’s an area that likely gets addressed (judging by what we’re talking out of this presser), it’s likely the wing. Chiarelli admitted he has to do a better job finding players, and most fans would agree with that statement.
It was rather odd, not for Chiarelli to defend Milan Lucic but to try to tell folks he liked his skating and to try to remind everyone Lucic is still young. The 29-year-old has seen a steady decline and scored just one goal in his last 46 games. As much as Chiarelli is willing to eat a crap sandwich for Edmonton’s downfall this year, it still doesn’t look like he’s ready to admit that the length and term of the Lucic signing were a mistake.
If he bounces back in the third year of his deal, good on the GM for having faith. If he doesn’t, what do the Oilers do with that negative value contract?
Offseason Takeaways for Oilers
The odds and ends of the press conference stated that this team needs to get faster in all areas. Look for Chiarelli to try to address that issue when he’s rummaging through the trade market. If the Oilers stay the status quo and come in next season with Kailer Yamamoto and Jesse Puljujarvi as the top two right wingers, this team might be in trouble. Puljujarvi looks to be a long-term project, but Chiarelli’s confident he can be a player.
Chiarelli didn’t shy away from the lack of foot speed on defense. He’d be a smart man if he looked for a proven offensive defenseman that could help one of the PP units next season. Ethan Bear is still a year or two away from potentially being that guy. Maybe Matt Benning gets dangled to help bring in that type of defender. The team can’t come back with the same defense group next season, especially if they get hit with the injury bug again.
Chiarelli’s a big fan of the whole notion of left- and right-shot guys playing on a pairing together, so maybe a left-shot offensive defenseman is brought in via trade or free agency. Make no mistake about it; Chiarelli expects this team to be in the playoffs next year. Maybe that means they find a backup the coaching staff can have confidence in, and one that can lessen the workload on Cam Talbot, who’s played 140 games over the past two seasons.
When it comes to the Oilers’ first-round pick (currently ninth in odds), Chiarelli said he wouldn’t rule out trading the pick. If that pick can bring Edmonton back a top-pairing offensive defenseman, you’d have to consider moving it, no?
Lastly, Do the Oilers Make a Coaching Change?
“I have to look at the personnel that they were given, I have to look at how they handled adversity throughout the year as far as system changes or personnel changes. So I gotta dig deep.” – Peter Chiarelli, Oilers GM
Chiarelli stated he’s evaluating the coaching staff, and from reading between the lines, he wants to take a good long look before jumping the gun. The team has Paul Coffey in the fold but still isn’t sure where they’d slot him next year. Todd McLellan, as predicted, got an endorsement from Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson, so he’s not going anywhere. We might get a decision later this spring on the fate of Jay Woodcroft and Jim Johnson.
Either way, it’s been talked about at length how this team needs to fix its special teams. Call it poor execution, challenging, or a lack of personnel; both were bad this season. The PP did show some improvement slightly as the year concluded (18 percent after March 1), and the penalty kill improved (same timeline) to the second-best in the league (90.2 percent). So have they already found a solution and now it’s just about tweaking which players go in? Maybe.
If wishes and buts were candy and nuts, and this team didn’t have as many injuries to key players, maybe it would’ve done better. Maybe Chiarelli should’ve used some of the cap space he got as a byproduct of the Jordan Eberle deal to find a short-term fix on an expiring deal. Regardless, you have to state the fact that the coaches didn’t have adequate wingers to support their centers.
Related: 5 Questions for Oilers Management
If you’re going to play armchair GM after listening to Chiarelli’s press conference, the needs are starting to become clearer. It would be interesting to see how this team does next year with a consistent offensive defenseman who can help the PP. The team needs another 20-goal scorer to add to its top-six. Sprinkle in some good health, and maybe this team turns a corner. Either way, the Oilers will need their GM to make immediate changes this summer. Otherwise, we could be in the same spot next spring.