(NOTE: This article, the second of two focusing on Todd McLellan’s past head coaching stints, will closely follow the format of an article we wrote after the hiring of Willie Desjardins. Enjoy!)
Last week, we decided to dig deep into the past to figure out what Todd McLellan’s San Jose tenure might tell us about his chances of success in Los Angeles. Now, let’s talk about his second tenure, the one that actually got him fired rather than dismissed “by mutual agreement.” Now, history looks on McLellan’s Sharks tenure more kindly than it does on his time as the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. So as we break down what went wrong, can we find anything (other than “Edmonton was a tire fire” that allows us to be hopefully for what McLellan will bring to the Kings bench?
Last week’s breakdown of McLellan’s time in San Jose focused primarily on his final season. McLellan’s final season was only 20 games long, as he was fired on November 20, 2018. Unsurprisingly, his former Sharks players defended McLellan in the wake of his firing. So did Connor McDavid:
“Todd was a guy that everyone liked, but ultimately, we’re a team that’s underachieving,” McDavid said. “We’re all to blame here. This obviously isn’t on Todd at all. It’s on us as players. That’s just how the business works sometimes.”
The problem is that underachieving is Edmonton’s brand. So let’s focus on how they underachieved under McLellan, and keep an eye on how Edmonton went from being a near-conference finalist in 2017 to a 78-point team in 2018.
McLellan has been criticized for riding his goaltenders in the past, and we saw this develop fairly quickly in Edmonton. When Ben Scrivens failed to pan out, the Oilers went and got Cam Talbot for draft picks, anointing him as the team’s starting goaltender. Talbot had never been a full-time starter before, and in a low-pressure 2015-16 season, Talbot started 56 games. McLellan didn’t mind giving Talbot a normal workload with little at stake, but when the Oilers found themselves in contention in 2016-17, McLellan started Talbot in an astonishing 73 games. No goalie has started that many in a season since. Talbot survived that workload and was somehow even better in the playoffs, but he was far shakier in 67 starts the following season, and his numbers fell off a cliff in 2018-19. Jonathan Quick is a notorious workhorse — when healthy — but in the wake of a rough season, McLellan will almost certainly need to shake off this tendency.
As for forwards, we previously discussed McLellan’s desire to play Joe Pavelski on the wing of Joe Thornton or Logan Couture, rather than rolling with three excellent centers on their own lines. A similar phenomenon was seen in Edmonton with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid, of course, is extraordinary. Draisaitl is very good in his own right. In recent seasons, it became apparent that the two players were better as a pair, leaving McLellan with an unenviable decision: place the two on a single line and leave other nine forwards to fend for themselves, or split them up and balance the load a bit? McLellan generally chose the latter, with mixed results. While Draisaitl thrived on McDavid’s wing, the team often struggled to maintain decent possession numbers with those guys off the ice. The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis noted after the 2017-18 season that this trend wasn’t limited to those two; McLellan generally chose to load up his top three centers, and while the Oilers enjoyed some runs of good goalscoring when that happened, the Corsi figures were less ideal.
There’s an easy parallel in Los Angeles, and I think it’s actually a positive one. The Kings’ second and third centers are Jeff Carter, who had a brutal campaign, and Adrian Kempe, who had a decent one. Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter have not skated regularly together in several years; the last time they spent more than 100 minutes of 5v5 time together in a season was 2014-15, while Nate Thompson got more time with Carter last year than Kopitar did. Meanwhile, Carter and Kempe skated as linemates (with Tyler Toffoli) for exactly 4 games. (Thanks to Hockey Viz for those figures.) The Kings might not have the center depth to play 2 of these 3 together yet, but with Jaret Anderson-Dolan, Rasmus Kupari, Akil Thomas, and ohpleaseohpleaseohplease Gabriel Vilardi in the pipeline, McLellan will eventually have that option. If anyone will try that, he will, especially if Carter shows early on that he can’t carry a line anymore.
Aside from that, we can guess who might be happy with McLellan based on how 2017-18 went. Milan Lucic struggled mightily but (according to Hockey Reference) played at least 12 minutes in the first 70 games of the season despite that; Ilya Kovalchuk dreams of that kind of trust. Oscar Klefbom (age 24) and Darnell Nurse (age 23) were McLellan’s most-used defenseman on his (admittedly thin) blueline, so Matt Roy, Paul LaDue, and Sean Walker could find themselves with increased responsibility. And after starting off 2018-19 with Ty Rattie on the first line, any number of forwards might get lucky and end up on Anze Kopitar’s wing.
There’s not much to say here that wasn’t in our San Jose roundup. Recall:
I think Rob Blake’s relationship with McLellan might actually help here in terms of presenting a unified front to players and an organized philosophy, but again, early results will be key. If the Kings struggle out of the gate and end up out of contention by January 1, it’s crucial that they find some results and keep the troops interested, in order to avoid another lost season and set up for a decent 2020-21. The legendary “Kings culture” took a massive hit last year; is McLellan up for reconstructing it?
McLellan built a winner in Edmonton after a hopeless first season. It didn’t last, but there’s something to be said for the bounceback from a rough start, right? Concerning notes appear in October 2018, though, from Oilers Nation’s “Making a case for and against Todd McLellan” piece:
SLOW STARTS = LACK OF MOTIVATION: At the NHL level, I don’t think it’s a coach’s responsibility to motivate his players. These guys are pros and they should be ready to go, from the second the puck drops, every single night. Still, some fans use the continued slow starts as a knock on McLellan. I believe it’s unfair, but that’s just my opinion.
Yikes. That’s been a consistent problem for LA too. Having said that: I find it hard to believe after giving up the first goal more than 50 times in each of the last three seasons, the Kings could get worse McLellan’s 2017-18 Oilers got on the board first in 37 of 82 games. That’d be a sizable improvement. And if motivation appears to be an issue, we’ve got much bigger problems than McLellan.
Here’s where I find more room for optimism. 2016-17 was a breakthrough season for McLellan and the Oilers, even after McLellan lost future MVP Taylor Hall. Though the squad was very top-heavy, he managed to form guys like Mark Letestu and Zack Kassian into a reasonable supporting cast. The next season, McLellan would lose Jordan Eberle and Pat Maroon to trade, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to injury, and Milan Lucic to a steep decline. Things got worse.
McLellan’s tumultuous 2018-19 began (and ended) with 20 games against a tough schedule. His Oilers went 5-3-0 against eventual non-playoff teams in that stretch, offset by a 4-7-1 record against eventual playoff teams. McLellan’s fate was sealed by his final seven games, and while the Oilers lost six, that included a back-to-back with Washington and Tampa and a back-to-back with Calgary and Vegas. With the PK flailing and the goalies struggling, the Oilers got run over despite largely playing solid hockey.
Under Ken Hitchcock, the Oilers haven't demonstrated any improvement in expected goals-for percentage. They had a better stretch under McLellan in October and have been breakeven under Hitchcock until a recent dip. pic.twitter.com/tfYcDWEZpm— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) December 17, 2018
In the six months since McLellan lost his job, blame for the Oilers’ situation has shifted towards management, well above McLellan’s head. LA didn’t exactly buy low on McLellan, because $25 million isn’t low. But LA would have loved to get McLellan when Darryl Sutter lost his job in the 2017 offseason; should 100 additional games of Oilers hockey have soured us on McLellan as much as it did?
Todd McLellan is undoubtedly a retread, and he’s not the most exciting hire. LA could have done much worse, though, and we don’t have to go back too far to see some success from McLellan. You might have already decided that McLellan’s failure to excel with Connor McDavid doesn’t bode well for his success in Los Angeles, or that this team is too far gone for the coach to make a difference. Having said that, I think this guy’s got a shot to help the Kings exceed some rather low expectations. How’s that for optimism?