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Todd McLellan's approach pays off with Oilers

Coach guides Edmonton to playoffs in second season

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

It didn't take long for Todd McLellan to show the Edmonton Oilers he was raising expectations. 

Frustration, disappointment and pointed criticism from McLellan followed a handful of poor games last season and left little doubt that the new Oilers coach wasn't budging from high demands, even though Edmonton had 62 points the previous season.

"We set some standards at the beginning of that year and we believe we needed to live up to them," said McLellan, who, in his second season, has the Oilers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2006. "Every time they slipped, it wasn't always about talent. A lot of times it was about our attention to detail or commitment to work ethic and that was frustrating.

"They needed to see, and they still do, emotion from certain people, whether it's the coaching staff or the leadership group, management.

"We're not raving lunatics but they need to know that somebody's looking out for them and somebody has expectations for them. They've been able to respond that way. Maybe that's how I was brought up. You give them an opportunity to respond. A lot of times our group has taken that opportunity and run with it, which has been good."

The native of Melville, Saskatchewan, has pushed the right buttons this season. The Oilers (47-26-9) finished second in the Pacific Division, and he is a candidate for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL's top coach.

McLellan's family history provides some insight into why the 49-year-old held the Oilers to a higher standard. 

McLellan's father, Bill, was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for 38 years. McLellan's brother Trent, 48, spent 24 years with the RCMP.

"I have a big belief that when you're a police rat, which we were, kids of police officers, you tend to be in a very controlled environment," McLellan said. "They have a life of upholding the law and my dad was old-school. He'd make his bed and there were no creases.

"It wasn't a strict environment but it was a detailed one. I found that kids my age that lived in that environment went one way or another. They'd either follow and fall into line with no problem or some others went off the deep end because they couldn't handle the regimen of it every day, the expectations."

McLellan pondered a career in law enforcement, but says he didn't want to follow. "I saw (my dad) do it and I wanted to do something different," he said.

McLellan tried to be a hockey player, and even appeared in five games for the New York Islanders during the 1987-88 season as a 20-year-old. A shoulder injury cost him two seasons, and in 1991-92 he went to Europe to resume playing. His team in the Netherlands fired its coach halfway through the season and brought in Doug McKay, a Canadian, to take over.

"We began to plan practice together and evaluate the team and pre-scout and do tactics and all that type of stuff," McLellan said. "I always liked that part. And he got me really into it and we won a championship."


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In the summer, McLellan was preparing to return to Europe to play when he saw an ad in a Saskatoon newspaper. North Battleford of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League was looking for a full-time coach.

He interviewed and was offered the job. 

"I remember hanging up the phone and my wife said, 'So?'" McLellan said. "I said, 'I got the job and I don't know what the hell I'm doing.' Those were my exact words.

"I was 24 and in the Saskatchewan junior league, you had unlimited 20-year-olds. They were doing some of the things I wanted to do but I had to mature really quickly. I was responsible for that group. That was a quick grow-up year for me."

After two seasons, McLellan moved up to coach Swift Current of the Western Hockey League for six seasons. The Minnesota Wild then hired him to coach their minor-league affiliate in Cleveland, then the one in Houston.

In 2005 he went to work as an assistant to Mike Babcock with the Detroit Red Wings, and in 2008 the upward path continued when he was hired to coach the San Jose Sharks.

The Sharks made the playoffs the first six of his seven seasons in San Jose, where McLellan won 311 regular-season games and went 5-6 in playoff series.

He said he believes his growth was immense over that period.

"First, it was an incredible opportunity, for (Sharks general manager) Doug Wilson to have confidence in me as a young coach coming into a well-established team," McLellan said. "I owe a lot to him for giving me that opportunity. A lot of young coaches end up in unstable situations where if it doesn't work for you right away, you're never heard from again.

"I was lucky enough to be in a really good situation with a lot of talent. I learned a lot of lessons along the way.

"(At the end) it was time for the staff to find a new challenge and it was time for them to have a new leader. That's all it really was. I can't say enough good things about the organization and the city and the players there. It was a tremendous seven years."

The sum of it all has created the right approach with the Oilers, who have been rebuilt and retooled around Connor McDavid, the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.

McLellan has benefited from being true to his foundation, sometimes tough and direct but always focused on the details.

"I think coaching is like being a father," he said. "You have high expectations for your sons or daughters and they show you the ability to meet those expectations and even push the bar up, and then there are days when they just crash again and they're humans. They have to be reminded that they're capable of pushing the bar and being elite.

"That's the same with our team."

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