“I want to be better than that, and where we are now is not good enough,” Peter Chiarelli said at season’s end.
The Oilers finished the 2015-16 campaign last in the Western Conference with 70 points. With changes and improvements assuredly on the way, the Oilers GM set out to conquer an off-season checklist.
At the top of his list: fix the defence.
Chiarelli has never held back in his open declaration of needs on defence. When he wrapped up the 2015-16 season, he said he was on the hunt for defencemen and he was looking at all avenues to acquire them. That meant being open to trading out a top player, in exchange for a right-shot blueliner who could play high up the lineup and log significant minutes.
|Peter Chiarelli speaks to the media after signing Milan Lucic in free agency. |
“As a manager, you look at every option,” Chiarelli said back on April 10. “When you look to make changes, you look at significant players, core players, you look at minor players, you look at staff, you look at internal, philosophical changes. There’s a whole bunch of ways to make changes, and I guess no one is untouchable, except maybe a couple guys. I’ve got to look at everything. As a manger, you have to look at everything and it’s unacceptable to be where we’re at.”
As it would turn out, Chiarelli would indeed move a significant player to fill the defensive need. On June 29, Chiarelli shook the team’s roster by trading 2010 first-overall pick Taylor Hall to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for defenceman Adam Larsson. It was a move, in concept, that Chiarelli alluded to at his season-end press conference.
“We have a surplus of forwards and we’ve got a lack of defencemen,” he said. “So that’s probably the easiest formula.”
It’s clear Chiarelli was willing to deal from a position of strength to fill a position of weakness. The trade for Larsson, although heated up following the draft, was actually sparked more than a year ago.
Ray Shero was named the general manager of the New Jersey Devils on May 4, 2015. Chiarelli was just beginning his job in Edmonton as president of hockey operations and general manager. Chiarelli took over the reins on April 24.
It was at this time that the two colleagues reached out to one another and discussed many things, one of them being their respective rosters. At that time, according to Shero, Chiarelli expressed interest in Larsson.
“We were talking in the summer and trying to get to know our own teams,” said Shero. “I was trying to get to know Jersey players and him with Edmonton. We just talked about different players and one of the names he had mentioned was Adam Larsson. Of course, a lot of teams were mentioning Adam Larsson anyway. But it was just conversation.”
A conversation that happened more that a year ago, but one that showed Chiarelli was at least mildly, if not very interested in the young player. But no trade talks commenced that day, just exploratory discussions and fact finding.
Then came the 2015-16 season, and with it a chance for Chiarelli to really evaluate his players for the first time. A disappointing, injury-ridded campaign was enough to show Chiarelli the need to bolster depth and talent on the back end. It also gave him an idea of what it might take to acquire said help.
The leg work really began during the season and picked up, as it does, near the trade deadline.
As the deadline approached, Chiarelli and his staff set up a large whiteboard with many trade scenarios and needs scribbled across it. They traded Anders Nilsson, Justin Schultz and Teddy Purcell in the lead-up to the deadline, acquiring picks along the way. They also acquired forward Patrick Maroon from Anaheim, giving them a big body in their top six, one who produced good offensive numbers down the stretch and shows promise.
With each move, something was crossed off the board. Some things that Chiarelli didn’t move on were crossed off as well, but that still left some items.
The big, franchise-altering trades don’t often happen at the deadine. Those are more reserved for the summer, when teams have more time to talk and build momentum to the handshake. However, just because the bigger deals didn’t come to the Oilers doesn’t mean Chiarelli and company didn’t talk about them.
“I guess an advantage of completing a day like (the deadline) is you have two days to dig down on some of the other stuff that may not be stuff that gets done at the deadline, but you get a little better sense of where teams are going into the summer.”
A big part of the deadline was discussions, and exchanging ideas and gathering information on where other managers feel their team is headed or what players may become available down the road. The content of those conversations is often times kept under wraps.
A trade did come for Chiarelli and the Oilers in the summer, and more may come later.
THE LOTTERY TICKET
The Oilers have had plenty of luck
when it comes to the NHL Draft Lottery, securing the first-overall pick four times in six years.
Given the talent at the top of the 2016 NHL Draft, the Oilers were hoping to slip no lower than third. Auston Matthews and two Finnish stars made up the “consensus” top three. Finishing fourth in the draw would mean slipping past those three, although that would provide flexibility with Edmonton then being at the top of the second tier.
As (lack of) luck would have it, the Oilers would indeed finish fourth, despite Edmonton having the second-best odds at nailing down the top pick (13.5%).
“I was a little disappointed,” Chiarelli said of the Oilers placing fourth.
|Jesse Puljujarvi celebrates being selected by the Oilers. Photo by Getty Images. |
The GM was hoping Edmonton would hold at two, but was still convinced at four the team would be getting a good player. But the second tier didn’t hold a player who Chiarelli felt would be NHL-ready in year one. So the impact of that player on the roster was likely to be delayed a season.
What Chiarelli didn’t know was that the team would win another “lottery” when the Draft opened June 24 in Buffalo, NY. But of course, the Oilers had no idea that was to come.
After landing prized college free agent Drake Caggiula, who signed a two-year entry-level contract with the club on May 8, and adding another in Patrick Russell the following day, the Oilers turned their sights on the NHL Scouting Combine. This was Chiarelli’s next big opportunity to explore trades.
With his phone already ringing with calls for the fourth-overall pick, Chiarelli entered the trade-talk crucible that is the Scouting Combine.
“The Combine is another useful tool for a general manager because most general managers are here,” Chiarelli said at the Combine in Buffalo the first week of June. “We’re all in the rink, we’re all within walking distance of each other. It’s a very casual environment so it’s a good, casual breeding ground for those decisions.”
Back to Buffalo the Oilers went for the Draft. It was no secret Chiarelli was still attacking the trade market in search of a defender. At the Draft, Chiarelli openly declared the real pursuit was for, specifically, a right-shot defenceman. He fielded lots of calls from around the League inquiring about the availability of Oilers players, and their top-four pick.
One of those people Chiarelli chatted with was Shero, who said they had brief discussions a few days prior to the Draft. Chatter between those two teams didn’t heat up until after the selections were made, however.
Day one of the Draft began like any other, with the management teams of all 30 clubs gathering on the arena floor. A cacophony of trade conversations and friendly banter filled the First Niagara Center in the lead-up to Toronto officially being on the clock.
As the Draft commenced, Chiarelli was spotted speaking with Flames GM Brad Treliving and Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen. What we do know is these conversations pertained to movement up and down the draft board within the first group of picks. Kekalainen had his eyes set firmly on drafting a particular player, and Columbus was willing to move down a pick or two to get him.
That’s when Chiarelli realized the player Columbus was targeting was likely not one associated with the third-overall pick, which the Blue Jackets had. Could Jesse Puljujarvi, the third-rated prospect and one of the star Finnish players, become available to the Oilers if they held at four?
The Oilers had strongly considered taking a defenceman or even moving back to select a defenceman. But with this new information, Edmonton decided they had to stay put and wait for the Draft to unfold. The excitement of the talks between the general managers faded slightly as the show was about to begin.
The first two picks went down as predicted: Matthews to Toronto, Patrik Laine to Winnipeg. Columbus was on the clock.
That’s when a very audible gasp rippled through the arena. The Blue Jackets went with their board, taking Pierre-Luc Dubois third overall. Puljujarvi slipped to Edmonton.
“Since Dubois is the guy third on our list, we didn’t want to take any chances not getting him,” said Kekalainen. “So we tried moving back. The only safe pick was to move back to four, knowing that Edmonton would take Puljujarvi at three, probably. We tried. We were on the phone all morning before the Draft started to see if we could do something like that, but Dubois was our guy at number three. We didn’t want to take the chance to lose him.”
And with that, the Oilers won their mini “lottery” and selected Puljujarvi fourth overall, without giving up any additional assets to get him.
“Yeah, I feel a little fortunate because we had him high but other teams may have other guys higher,” said Chiarelli. “We have a lot of centremen so to have a winger come is nice, to be able to play with our centremen.”
What fans may not have known at the time is Puljujarvi dropping to the Oilers may have helped facilitate the Oilers trade to come in the next few days. Although it wasn’t the spark, nor did it have much effect on the trade itself, it does make it easier to deal a winger when one falls in your lap, especially one who may be ready to contribute this season.
“Yes, it did make it easier,” Chiarelli said. “You don’t want to say this guy is filling this guy’s role, because he’s a young player and he’s growing and he’s just beginning his career, but it did make it easier.”
DEAL WITH THE DEVILS
With Puljujarvi in the fold,
trade talks continued at the Draft – productive talks that would continue to evolve over the next few days.
In the days following the Draft, Chiarelli and Shero rekindled talks. Larsson was always the target, but the Devils weren’t going to part with their young top-pairing, right-shot d-man for anything less than a big return.
|Adam Larsson was acquired by the Oilers in exchange for Taylor Hall. Photo by Getty Images. |
“It’s quite obvious (Chiarelli) was looking for a defenceman and it’s quite obvious how hard it is to get a defenceman, let alone under term,” said Shero. “With getting Adam Larsson, Adam is 6-3, 220 pounds and he is a heavy player. He’s young, he’s an incredible pro. Outside of Connor McDavid, I’m not trading him for anyone else.”
It was clear that it was Hall or bust for the Devils as the return for Larsson, and to both teams the deal made sense. The Devils were in need of scoring, while the Oilers were very much in need of what Larsson could bring. The Oilers were sacrificing a top-notch scorer to bolster the back end.
“Peter has been doing this for a lot of time and he’s smart,” said Shero. “I can’t speak for him, but he’s trying to build a team. In the salary cap system, it’s not about if you trade two for one the best team won the deal by getting the best player. It doesn’t happen anymore. It’s about a team, it’s a team game, a salary cap and you have to have the assets. With Peter, he’s got more margin for error in this deal than I do because of all the guys they’ve got coming up front and now drafting a pretty good Finn fourth overall.
“I don’t have the margin for error on defence by trading Adam Larsson. I don’t have that depth yet. Then, for Taylor Hall, I’ve got to take that chance in terms of where we need to go and become a successful team. But again, now I’m faced with a hole on defence that I didn’t have a couple days ago. At the end, a little pain for both teams probably but that’s why it should pay off for both.”
For Chiarelli, the general manager is adding a player he truly believes in and one he’s had interest in for some time.
“(Larsson) is a younger player, not by much, by a year,” said Chiarelli. “It’s a need-based trade. I feel very strongly about this player. I think he’s only scratched the surface. He was really excited when I talked to him. He felt the same thing.”
For the Oilers, Larsson has the potential to be a top-pairing guy, and a good one at that. Since that was a team need, it was a price Chiarelli had to pay.
“(He’s a) very smart player and it took him a little while to get going but he had a terrific year this past year,” said the GM. “He moves the puck, he defends well, he can log a lot of minutes, he can play 25, 27, 28 minutes. He can match up against all the top forwards, he can move the puck, he has more skill to show also. It’s unfortunate in these deals that this is what you have to do. But I felt it was a player that I’ve watched very closely this year and I can see his game trending up and it was time to act on it.”
After tireless pounding of the pavement, and after weighing trade options, Chiarelli got his defenceman.
There is a notion that the Oilers made this trade expecting to land their big free-agent target, which was not true according to the GM. Chiarelli said the team would have made the trade regardless. Without a doubt, though, Chiarelli’s next add did soften the blow of Hall’s exit.
THE BIG FISH
As free agency opened,
the Oilers were expected to be in on Milan Lucic. The former Los Angeles winger came to Edmonton for a visit with the team during the free-agent shopping period.
Signing in Edmonton was no guarantee for the hulking winger. There was plenty of interest.
“There were 12 teams, and he told me some of the teams that were the finalists and they were good teams with good people, good managers and good players and all that stuff,” said Chiarelli.
There were even clubs who offered Lucic a longer term or more money. But Edmonton’s pitch won out in the end.
“He was offered a longer term, I think you could probably guess who did that,” said Chiarelli. “He was offered more money. He told me he didn’t want to hamper us too much with building a team. Everything about this guy is terrific.”
Lucic said the main reason he signed in Edmonton for seven years was a particular player: Connor McDavid.
“Getting a chance to play with a player like Connor McDavid doesn’t come around too often,” he said. “I think that’s what it ultimately got down to in making this decision. It was a chance to play with one of the best players in this generation.”
But it was also Lucic’s relationship with Chiarelli, which began in Boston in 2006 while both were employed by the Bruins, that also helped the Oilers land the top free agent available.
“Having a past with him and having loyalty to him and knowing what he can do as a builder is something that I really trust and really look forward to,” he said.
The City, the downtown development, the new arena Rogers Place and the bright future were all key points Lucic hit on when explaining his decision to sign in Edmonton. The importance in signing with the Oilers is not only that the team gets a good player in a position where they lost a piece, but also the Oilers continuing to build a competitive team as a whole — one with a vision.
“When you’re looking at the Pacific Division that we’re in, you have to play that big, heavy, grinding type of game,” said Lucic. “You have to have that team toughness and that attitude that you’re feeling going into every game that you’re going to win. Knowing that you’re not going to be pushed around and being able to win those battles that happen throughout the games is definitely huge. I think, like I said, I know Peter’s commitment to making a change is something I don’t question at all. I have full confidence he’s going to put the best product he possibly can on the ice to win. I think this city and these fans deserve a winning team.”
It’s like what Shero said when discussing the Larsson trade. General managers need to focus on building a team, not just the one-for-one value. Bringing in Lucic and Larsson will help the team be more competitive in areas they’ve determined were in need of help.
“We’ve added Milan Lucic, who is going to help lead this team,” said Chiarelli. “He’s going to play a physical style of hockey, he’s going to score, he’s got a really nice set of hands.”
Leadership and experience are also important characteristics Lucic can bring to Edmonton.
“He wants to win and that’s the big thing,” said Chiarelli. “I’ve seen him in winning situations and he’s what we need in that sense.”
With a few additions to the roster, Chiarelli has altered the make-up of his team. It’s something he’s satisfied with and excited about, although the work isn’t done.
Chiarelli has adhered to a script. He’s added size, toughness, skill, grit and passion for the game. He’s begun addressing defence and he’s still open to making deals to benefit the club, should those deals come to light.
This off-season started with a statement. It was one declaring the need for improvement. The Oilers weren’t good enough in 2015-16. By this time next year, Chiarelli hopes the team has made a different statement: that they are good enough. The work done this off-season will lay the groundwork for that hopefully coming to fruition.