Potential disconnect

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The hierarchy of authority is pretty obvious when examining any large organization. There’s typically a president, who oversees a group of executives that are in charge of specific areas. Under each executive are teams with managers that report to them, and under the manager you have various employees with well-defined roles. Individual actions are directed by their superiors and need to align with the corporate goals and mandates to ensure long-term success.

Without clearly defined roles and responsibilities for each individual, things can easily go astray for an organization. While many individuals collaborate and can influence a specific area of the business, there’s typically one manager or an executive type that has final authority. And the only way a group can progress is if the decisions made across the organization align together in a collaborative manner.

This of course applies to hockey as well, especially around the relationship between the general manager and the head coach. Strong collaboration is required as both roles have a direct influence on the team’s overall performance; each exerting a certain level of control over the roster that is iced.

With any of the Oilers general manager-coaching tandems in the past, it was clear that the general manager had the stronger authority and made decisions accordingly. The head coaches had some flexibility with how they deployed players, but their decisions were typically being influenced by the management team. Rarely would an Oilers head coach make a decision that wasn’t in line with the general managers vision.

Today things appear to be a little different.

The Edmonton Oilers added significant experience to their organization in the spring of 2015 when they hired Peter Chiarelli as the general manager and Todd McLellan as the head coach. Both individuals had previous experience in the positions they were hired for, with Chiarelli serving as the general manager in Boston for nine seasons, while McLellan was the head coach in San Jose for seven.

There’s now a growing body of evidence that indicates that the general manager and the head coach aren’t exactly on the same page. What Chiarelli has said about certain players and the rationale behind his signings and acquisitions, and how McLellan actually deploys the players isn’t exactly in line with one another.

The risk here is that the Oilers need to allocate their dollars efficiently, and if there’s a disconnect between the decisions made by the general manager and the decisions made by the head coach, it could cost them financially and hinder their chances of winning a championship.

Leon Draisaitl

The 2014 first round pick has quickly become  a key piece of the Oilers roster. After an outstanding 2016/17 season where he finsihed 8th in NHL scoring and posted 16 points in 13 playoff games, Chiarelli signed the German to an 8-year, $68 million contract. Where Draisaitl would fit on the roster was a little unclear as he had played a considerable amount of time on right-wing with Connor McDavid but also centered a successful line with Taylor Hall the year before.

The coach didn’t seem to mind having Draisaitl at wing or center depending on the situation, and even had success with him as a centerman during the 2017 playoffs. Chiarelli on the other hand indicated in his pre-season interview with TSN’s Bob McKenzie  that the reason why he paid what he did for Draisaitl’s contract was because he viewed Draisaitl as a center.

“As a manager, I like Leon in the middle because he’s strong and he’s heavy and he’s good on faceoffs. He’s more than that, but that’s why I like him in the middle. That doesn’t mean that Connor and Leon won’t play together because you saw them playing together last year. Leon will take some draws and Connor will be on the wing, and they trade coverage down low sometimes. But as a manager, I think you’re winning a Cup, at the end of the day, on the average, with both of those guys in the middle.” (Source: TSN)

Over the first 21 games of the 2017/18 season, we’ve seen that McLellan has a different vision than his general manager, remaining adamant that Draisaitl play on the top line with McDavid as a winger. Of the 264 minutes Draisaitl has played at even-strength this season, 214 have been playing alongside McDavid. This is a pretty significant issue as it doesn’t make a lot of sense from a cap perspective to have an $8 million player on McDavid’s wing. If a player is getting paid that much, he has to be a driver and give the team secondary offence. Ideally a cheaper winger should be on the top line, as most of the work is driven by McDavid anyways.

Kris Russell

After Kris Russell was signed by the Oilers to a one-year term right before the start of the 2016/17 season, he quickly became an integral part of the Oilers defence core. Russell finished the season as a top four option, playing alongside Andrej Sekera for the most part. He earned the coaches trust, regularly being deployed in key situations and often starting in his own zone. While the shot-share numbers took a dive with him on the ice, and the offence of his teammates disappearing, the coach clearly valued Russell’s conservative style and skillset.

This past summer, the Oilers signed Russell to a four-year contract worth $16 million, including a no-movement clause. This level of over-payment indicated that Russell would continue playing as a top-four defenceman. It was also forecasted by the team that Russell would have the same level of success as last season, even without Sekera as he recovered from a knee injury.

After 21 games, it doesn’t look like Russell is being deployed the way the general manager had envisioned. Until very recently, Russell was averaging the fifth highest time on ice among defencemen, playing predominantly on the third pairing. His ice time has gradually increased over the last few games, but it should be concerning to the Oilers that they’re spending $4 million on a player the coach chooses not to deploy as a top four.  That decision is fine, considering that Russell is well-suited as a third pairing option. The problem is the general manager invested heavily in Russell as a top-four option, using the money saved by trading away Jordan Eberle. This leads us to our next case. 

Ryan Strome

At the cost of Jordan Eberle, the Oilers acquried a relatively unknown asset. Strome has had some success as a winger in New York playing with Tavares. But he’s also been deployed as a bottom six center, with the results being poor.

Chiarelli didn’t seem to know where Strome would fit with the Oilers and sounded like he was going to leave it to the coaching staff to decide.

“I think naturally he is a centre. I’ve talked to him three or four times in Chicago (at the draft) and at the airport in Toronto and I think he prefers to play centre. Based on what I’ve seen of his play in junior and in the NHL I think he is probably a centreman. Having said that, he has the skills, shot and stick sense to play on the wall. We will see what we have at the time (start of the season), but I have spoken to Todd (McLellan) about Strome playing centre and/or wing.” (Source: OilersNation)

Ideally, at least from the general managers perspective, Strome would be on the top line with McDavid, he’d put up some points and at least try to replace the offensive minutes left vacant by Eberle. But after 21 games, Strome has been largely unnoticeable. He’s been deployed mostly as a center in the bottom six by the coach, and hasn’t had any real impact on the team. There’s already speculation that the Oilers  are ready to move on from the player.

Mark Letestu

The 32-year old forward found himself playing in the top six for a brief stretch this season, raising eyebrows considering that he’s played in the bottom six for most of his Oiler career. His promotion to the top line indicated that McLellan wasn’t happy with the assembled forward depth, which remains young and unproven but has the support of management. McLellan provided additional thoughts on Letestu prior to a game against Dallas:

“I trust him. I trust him. I trust him. There’s nothing more valuable. Whether you like Mark Letestu or not as a fan or a media person, trust goes a long, long way between a player in a coach. And I trust him. I believe that when he steps on the ice that he’s going to try and at least attempt to do things the right way within structure. He has the ability to check and play  and play fairly well defensively.” (Source: Edmonton Journal)

And speaking of trust.

Laurent Brossoit

Prior to becoming a restricted free agent in the summer of 2016, Chiarelli signed the goaltender to a 2-year deal worth $1.5 million. Up until that point, Brossoit had played 94 games at the AHL level and six with the Oilers. It was a relatively small deal with the idea being of course that he would serve as the team’s back-up behind Cam Talbot.

Brossoit subsequently beat-out Jonas Gustavsson, who the Oilers signed in the summer of 2016, for the role. And it sounded like the general manager had plenty of confidence in him. When the trade deadline rolled around, it was expected the Oilers would look to add some goaltending experience for the playoffs. Instead Chiarelli stood pat, making it clear he envisioned Brossoit as the short-term and long-term option in goal.

“I haven’t given up on L.B.. He’s going to get a chance.” (Source: Sportsnet)

“We decided we’re going to go with the goalies that we have, Part of our kind of overriding philosophy here, and I said this earlier in my press conference prior to this last road trip, was we wanted to give these guys a chance, the guys who got us here, and that includes (Brossoit).” (Source: NBC Sports)

The head coach, however, doesn’t appear to have the same level of confidence in the young netminder.

Last season, Brossoit played only eight games, with Cam Talbot playing the most minutes among all NHL goalies. And this year, it looks like the trend will continue. Brossoit has only made two starts and filled in mostly as relief for a total of 174 minutes, while Talbot ranks third in the league when it comes to ice time. The concern here is that the Oilers starting netminder isn’t getting any type of break like most goalies do and is at risk of injury. And even with the team currently getting sub-par goaltending from Talbot, McLellan refuses to give Brossoit a chance.

Other notables

The Oilers signed Jujhar Khaira to a two-year extension this past summer, and was expected by management to replace Matt Hendricks on the fourth line and possibly the penalty kill. As of today, Khaira has played well, but he’s only dressed for 11 of the 21 games. The rest of the time he’s been a healthy scratch as a demotion to the minors would mean he would have to clear waivers. Something management obviously doesn’t want to risk.

The Oilers acquired Jussi Jokinen this past off-season to a short-term, low-risk contract after he was bought from the Florida Panthers. The veteran forward was penciled in to be a utility-type player who could fill in different roles and had a good track-record when it came to point production and on-ice shot differentials. However, McLellan didn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the player, gradually reducing his minutes and scratching him for a few games.

Management eventually traded Jokinen to Los Angeles for Mike Cammalleri, another veteran forward on a short-term, low-risk contract. McLellan sounded like he valued Cammalleri’s skill set when he was acquired, but thus far, has deployed him mostly in a bottom six role.

Thoughts

While it’s normal and healthy to have differing opinions within an organization, it can derail things especially when there’s conflicting authority. The problem for the Oilers is that the general manager and the coach don’t appear to have the same vision for the roster, and their individual decisions are conflicting with one another. How the team has been built by management isn’t translating to how the team is being deployed by the coach.

The problem is that the dollars and opportunities being allocated for specific players by management could go to waste if the coach isn’t on board with the decisions. Players could end up being overpaid for what the coach actually wants them to do. And on the flip side, a players value could drop if a coach doesn’t want to play them or put them in favorable positions for success. All of these things can have negative ramifications on the Oilers cap, which is going to be an issue for them going forward.

It’s great that the Oilers have experienced individuals in key roles, but it won’t help the Oilers contend for a championship if the general manager and coach don’t share the same vision for the roster.

 

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