Oilers Close to Landing Golden McLellan?

Team Canada coach Todd McLellan, left, discusses strategy with his players during the world championship in the Czech Republic that wrapped up with Canada winning gold in a resounding 6-1 victory over Russia on Sunday. Rumours suggest McLellan will return home to be introduced as the Edmonton Oilers’ new coach. His assistant Jay Woodcroft, right, would also be joining the fold, according to McLellan. | gettyimages.com

Is Todd McLellan destined to be the next coach of the Edmonton Oilers? It is sure sounding like a done deal.

Fresh off guiding Canada to gold at the world championship — with Oilers wingers Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle flanking Sidney Crosby on the top line — it wouldn’t be surprising to hear of an Oilers press conference as early as Tuesday to introduce McLellan as head coach. His flight home from Prague might even be rerouted to Edmonton for that announcement, to get started on his next role alongside the Oilers’ overhauled front office full of Hockey Canada connections. Bob Nicholson and Peter Chiarelli zeroed in on McLellan soon after joining forces in Edmonton and now appear on the verge of getting their man.

Assuming this comes to fruition, McLellan is looking like a solid choice — gold medal and all — and a good fit to lead the Oilers going forward. His familiarity with Hall and Eberle should help seal the deal had there been any hesitation on behalf of the former San Jose Sharks bench boss. The Connor McDavid factor might be the kicker, with McLellan able to pencil the projected first overall pick — a phenomenal, generational talent — into Crosby’s spot for quite the mental image of future championship glory. With a silver lining, of course, in the form of that giant trophy four teams are still competing for — the Stanley Cup.

2 Todds Are Better Than 1?

What that means for Todd Nelson, who had been serving as interim coach, promoted from the AHL after Dallas Eakins was fired in December, remains to be seen. Nelson, who just turned 46 on the weekend, has two years left on his contract with the organization — a three-year extension he signed last June while coaching the Oklahoma City Barons. By all accounts, the returning players like him, or evidently favoured him to Eakins. It is entirely possible that Nelson could be retained as an associate coach providing he hits it off with McLellan.


It seems less likely Nelson would want to return to the minors and there could certainly be other NHL teams with coaching vacancies interested in his services, especially if Mike Babcock decides to stay in Detroit, which is also sounding more and more likely. Babcock said he’ll make up his mind by week’s end and, as of Sunday, the Oilers weren’t among the teams granted permission to speak with him on the condition of draft pick compensation for the Red Wings should he be hired elsewhere.

Therefore, it would be wise for Edmonton to lock up both Todds — McLellan and Nelson — as soon as possible if that potential is there. Chiarelli met with McLellan in the Czech Republic just as the worlds were getting underway and Nicholson had a lengthy meeting with Nelson back in Edmonton since then. As long as Nelson is willing to accept a lesser title and assuming he can get on the same page with McLellan in terms of coaching philosophy, then it makes sense to keep Nelson on board for continuity and to help make McLellan’s transition a smooth one. It is also safe to assume — if these wheels were in motion — that McLellan probably picked the brains of Hall and Eberle to get a better feel for Nelson’s approach and whether that partnership could work going forward.

Woodcroft Would Be Assistant

Jay Woodcroft
Jay Woodcroft

McLellan has also indicated that Jay Woodcroft, his assistant in San Jose and with Team Canada, would be staying on his staff wherever he lands next. Given that they come as a package deal, it might make Nelson’s role less defined or less substantial, which might make him a sitting duck — and better off seeking other employment opportunities if they exist.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all shakes down and a lot of this will depend on the — presumably pending — conversation between McLellan and Nelson. On the surface, they seem to be likeminded men, so that trio — with Woodcroft included in the fold — might just work wonders in Edmonton.

Nelson, to his credit, did have the Oilers trending upward and making strides in various areas — the power play, for example, went from putrid to the league’s best after the all-star break — albeit without much pressure and the playoffs already out of reach. Nelson took over right around the time the rest of the hockey world stopped paying attention to the Oilers, so his efforts went largely unnoticed outside of Edmonton, but he made a positive impression on the team’s loyal followers.

Rounding Out The Staff

Should that trifecta become a reality — McLellan-Nelson-Woodcroft — that would almost certainly spell the end of current associate coach Keith Acton’s tenure in Edmonton. He was Eakins’ right-hand man who survived that axing but will probably be the next to go. Acton was hired by former GM Craig MacTavish — who is still working under Chiarelli — but he may not have a leg left to stand on. That is, unless Nelson is willing to go to bat for Acton.

Craig Ramsay
Craig Ramsay

More likely, the Oilers will attempt to keep Craig Ramsay in the fold as a veteran presence. The 64-year-old was just hired last off-season and has past head-coaching experience, so he’d be perceived by McLellan as the most valuable holdover — reminiscent of San Jose’s Larry Robinson, who also turns 64 next month. Woodcroft, 38, is another up-and-comer, so Ramsay’s wisdom could be invaluable.

Rocky Thompson’s enthusiasm, on the other hand, may no longer be necessary. He too was added last summer as an assistant coach — filling the eye in the sky role, plus cheerleader duties — but the 37-year-old Thompson could benefit from more seasoning in the AHL if there isn’t room for him on the big-league staff. The former tough guy comes across as a real team player and somebody who would take that demotion in stride. Thompson isn’t a guy that will have other teams banging down his door any time soon, so there is no real risk — or down side — to sending him to Bakersfield.

Why McLellan?

In McLellan, the Oilers would be getting a guy who led the Sharks to four 100-point seasons, three division titles and two conference finals over seven years. San Jose’s core couldn’t win it all for some reason — they were playoff chokers in the eyes of most — but it’s not believed to reflect negatively on McLellan’s coaching ability. He parted ways with the Sharks after missing the playoffs for the first time this spring, feeling he needed a change of scenery as much as the team needed a new voice.

Prior to his stint with San Jose — where he became the winningest coach in franchise history — the 47-year-old McLellan won his only Stanley Cup as an assistant to Babcock in Detroit in 2008 and also won a Calder Cup AHL championship with the Houston Aeros in 2003. And don’t forget that gold medal he just won Sunday, getting an all-star cast of NHLers to buy into the team concept for a three-week tournament overseas that Canada dominated from start to finish — going undefeated in 10 games and routing Russia 6-1 in the final to top the podium for the first time since 2007.

McLellan is still relatively young by coaching standards, but he’s been manning benches for a long time. He got his first full-time gig back in 1993 — when he was just 26 years old — and led the Swift Current Broncos to the playoffs in all six seasons as their head coach and general manager, winning executive of the year honours in 1997 followed by coach of the year in 2000 before graduating to the pro ranks at the age of 33. McLellan did an admirable job with the small-market Broncos, especially as the successor to Graham James, who was a legend in Swift Current back then before his career crumbled in shame with the sexual abuse allegations and conviction brought forth by former NHL players Sheldon Kennedy and Theoren Fleury.

Also worth noting, McLellan hails from small-town Saskatchewan and would seemingly welcome a return to the Prairies. His wife, Debbie, has been by his side since his playing days — he was a grinding forward who played five NHL games with the New York Islanders in the late 1980s — and they have two teenaged, hockey-playing sons, Tyson and Cale, who would obviously enjoy Edmonton’s hockey-mad environment. McLellan, for his part, has expressed interest and seems to understand the challenges that come with this golden-ticket opportunity.

Why Not Babcock?

Babcock is the biggest fish in the coaching market right now — with that aforementioned Stanley Cup, two Olympic gold medals, a world gold and a world-junior gold all on his impressive resume — but Edmonton apparently opted not to pursue him and instead focused its energy on McLellan. That suggests the interest from Babcock wasn’t mutual, and there is a growing sense that his — or his family’s — preference is to stay in Detroit or stick to the east coast, which has Toronto and Buffalo emerging as the other frontrunners in this episode of ‘Babwatch’. A team like Philadelphia, San Jose or even St. Louis could still make a last-ditch pitch, but don’t expect the Oilers to come calling again.

With the relationship between Nicholson and Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, another member of Hockey Canada’s inner circle, there had to be some communication surrounding Babcock’s availability. It could have been as simple as a text message exchange that indicated Babcock’s intentions.

By no means was this a money issue, as Oilers owner Daryl Katz could have — and probably would have — matched any financial offer had the 52-year-0ld Babcock wanted to call Edmonton home. The Oilers wouldn’t have been outbid by other deep-pocketed teams like Toronto or Buffalo — $5 million annually for five years, Katz would have went to those extremes had both parties pushed for a deal of that nature, making Babcock the league’s richest coach by a wide margin. So, reading between the lines, this is clearly a Babcock decision — for whatever reason(s) — more than it ever was an Edmonton decision.

Nevertheless, the Oilers will be moving onward and upward if and when McLellan is named their new head coach. Expect that to be sooner than later.


Larry Fisher is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.