Hindsight is 20/20 as we all know. Really though, it’s just so painful. “If I had just done THIS, then I wouldn’t be in THIS position”. It’s so rare that we ever have hindsight and say “good thing I did THIS because then I wouldn’t have THIS”. So for sports fans, it’s likely not healthy to do the hindsight game. And the worse the franchise you pull for is, the more you do it. Take the Oilers for example. Oilers fans could go down this road just about any point and time since June 19th, 2006, but for this let’s just focus on the Peter Chiarelli hiring. Had he not been hired, then the Oilers likely land Dougie Hamilton because I’m sure they would have overpaid or at least paid more than the Flames did, and the Bruins wouldn’t have refused to deal with them. That likely would have kept Taylor Hall in Edmonton because they would have had their top pairing RH shooting D-man. Of course who knows how or if they could have landed both Hamilton and Talbot (and I’m well aware of Talbot’s start to the season, but he’s been terrific in his Oilers tenure), but seeing the price wasn’t ridiculous I’m sure they could have found a way. Another thing a Hamilton trade may have done is kept Justin Schultz in town because he wouldn’t have had to be the number one D-man in 2016 and there for could have been sheltered a lot more than he was. Perhaps he then becomes the D-man he’s become in Pittsburgh. They likely don’t go hard after Milan Lucic then because there is no reason to replace something you have to ship out. A lot more likely that off season they go after Jason Demers who could have gave Schultz even more sheltering. See, it’s depressing! And lately it’s been so easy to look at what Peter Chiarelli has done in his Oilers tenure and beat it to death.
But the one that nobody ever brings up is the one that just might be the biggest misstep by the Oilers in the last three years, and that is failing to go after tonight’s opposing coach.
Let’s go back to maybe April 25th, 2015. Maybe not that EXACT date, but somewhere in there. Just eight days prior, the Oilers were in complete shambles. Craig MacTavish was seemingly not going anywhere as GM, they were realistically looking at the 4th pick in the draft (which turned out to be Mitch Marner, but it would have been either Noah Hanifin or Ivan Provorov depending on how the top three picks played out) which would be a nice piece but nothing which would plug all the holes in that sinking ship. They literally didn’t have a top four defenceman on the roster (a few potential top four’s, but none as of that date), they didn’t have a goaltender, sometimes I feel as though we truly don’t appreciate what a mess it was! As bad as this season’s gone thus far, this team is extremely well setup moving forward.
But things were now different. The Oilers had won Connor FREAKING McDavid! Just two days after that, Bob Nicholson kind of sort of demoted Craig MacTavish and Kevin Lowe. Four days after that, Peter Chiarelli, a guy who was actually respected and had accomplished something as a GM was hired. With Mike Babcock poised to hit the open market, all the connections to Babcock through Team Canada, Edmonton being the closet NHL city to home for the Babcock family, and of course McDavid, all the pieces were seemingly falling into place for the Oilers to have one of the best off season’s in NHL history. Babcock to Edmonton seemed like a SLAM DUNK, and getting him to work with the other talent like Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Schultz, and even Yakupov at the time….sky could be the limit for a team that talented with that great of a coach.
I wish I could find the clip, but I believe it was from Prime Time Sports on May 20th, 2015. Elliotte Friedman was on, and being interviewed about how Mike Babcock ended up in Toronto. It was early in the interview and Friedman says (paraphrasing) he believed what happened with Babcock is that he wanted the Edmonton job, but once it was gone he wasn’t sure where he wanted to go. Now this doesn’t mean Babcock was going to come to the Oilers, but Friedman doesn’t say things of that nature unless he has some solid information.
Now, maybe Friedman wasn’t right. Maybe Edmonton wasn’t where Mike Babcock wanted to be. But are we seriously going to suggest that he would have preferred Buffalo? Because that’s who the Leafs were bidding against. And for how shitty the Oilers were at the time, they not only were about to draft McDavid, but they were also better positioned (and in the standings, though that’s not saying much) than the Sabres. And I can’t see it being a case where the Oilers weren’t willing to pay him what the Leafs did, because if Daryl Katz has done one thing right as the Oilers owner, it’s been his willingness to spend whatever he’s needed to pay in an attempt to bring this team out of it’s darkness. This one isn’t hindsight for me. I fully believed they were making a massive mistake at the time, and obviously that’s played out, which always makes me a little more edgey on these matters.
And this is not a piece where I’m making the case for McLellan to be fired, far from it in fact. But in his three years here I believe it has become plain as day that McLellan isn’t an above average coach. Again, please do not confuse this with bad coach or needs to be fired. That’s not the case. But for example, did the Sharks ever get better under McLellan than they did under Ron Wilson? Did they get any worse under Peter Deboer than they did under Todd McLellan? He’s not a bad coach, but he’s not an elite coach, he’s a JAG (just another guy). Obviously this is more so highlighted by the job he’s done this season. I wouldn’t say McLellan has been the biggest issue for the team, but he’s been up there. The PP, the PK, the lack of quality scoring chances this team produces five on five, he’s just in the last two games used McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins on three different lines. Definitely not calling for the man to be fired, but he’s done a very poor job this season.
The league is littered with coaches like McLellan. There are basically three types of coaches in the league. Ones which make you worse (Dallas Eakins), ones which get nothing more or less out of their teams (too many to name but McLellan is one of these), and then the elite who always get everything there is to get out of their teams (Mike Babcock).
Babcock’s track record, pre Toronto, was ridiculous. Cup final his first season in Anaheim after they were in the gutter for three seasons prior. Then he goes to Detroit and those Wings teams were a couple bounces away from quite possibly winning three straight Cups, but more impressive than that run from 07-09 might be the job he did from 2013-15 where he seemingly willed that team to the playoffs every season. The Detroit playoff streak should have ended long before it did, and only kept going because of Babcock. 2013, that team damn near made the Western Conference final! 2015 they took Tampa seven games, and if they win that seventh game who knows how deep they end up going (remember, the Lightning went to the final that year).
In fairness to the Oilers, it wasn’t clear that McLellan was a middle of the pack coach in 2015. He came in as a very highly respected coach in league circles, and we didn’t have the track record of how the Sharks would do after he was gone. But again, we all knew how great Mike Babcock was, which is why that was the only time in league history we’ve seen an actual bidding war between teams for his services. You just can’t pass on a chance at hiring Bill Belichick, or Greg Popovich, or Mike Babcock. Can’t do it. They had a solid guy in Todd Nelson as a fall back plan. If you miss on Babcock, other options were out there who were at least close to what McLellan is.
This all brings us to tonight. And the biggest reason I believe that the Leafs have surpassed the Oilers as Canada’s next great team is because of Babcock. No doubt, Auston Matthews is elite, and the supporting cast is tremendous. But this Leafs team are skipping phases of growth. Hell, even once Shanahan and company had things completely torn down, the Leafs, despite finishing 30th in the league, had one of the most impressive 30th place finishes you’ll ever see! Last year, that team was supposed to be nowhere near the playoffs, and yet they got in and made life miserable for the Caps. I had them to miss the playoffs this season mainly because I thought “this team can’t just continue to skip these growth phases”, yet here they are! It’s unreal, and it’s because of Babcock! I’m not saying they would suck without him, but I believe you’d see a normal growth pattern from them.
And perhaps that would be the Oilers situation. Perhaps it would be the Oilers near the top of the standings and continuing to get better. But management decided to go the easy route. Again, who knows if they would have got him. But to not try? That decision REALLY stings, was really head scratching, and could end up stinging especially hard tonight as the red hot Leafs roll into Edmonton.
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