Happy Thanksgiving to everyone reading in America! The NHL is taking the day off in terms of games played, but there’s a full schedule tomorrow, including a lot of afternoon contests so hopefully you’ll enjoy that.
In the meantime, I wanted to talk about coaching changes because there have been more of those since my last Fantasy Nuggets column. The Edmonton Oilers fired head coach Todd McLellan and replaced him with Ken Hitchcok. On the surface, McLellan being dismissed makes a lot of sense. He was in his fourth season with the team and the Oilers have been mediocre during his tenure with them only making the playoffs in 2017. For a team that has Connor McDavid, that’s simply unacceptable.
But is that really McLellan’s fault? While he had McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to work with, he was never given a lot else. A lot of the blame has been directed at GM Peter Chiarelli and frankly, he’s an easy target for a reason. So many of the moves he’s made with Edmonton has blown up in his face.
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He traded Taylor Hall-for-Adam Larsson one-for-one and while Larsson has been a top-four defenseman, Hall is the reigning Hart Trophy winner. He traded Jordan Eberle-for-Ryan Strome one-for-one and Strome flopped with Edmonton, to the point where the Oilers recently dealt him for Ryan Spooner. It could be argued that those trades were in part motivated by cap savings, but Chiarelli has also made signing missteps like giving Milan Lucic a seven-year, $42 million contract. Lucic struggled mightily in 2017-18 and so far this season he has just one goals and five points in 22 games. Taylor Hall has the same cap hit as Lucic, in case Oilers fans needed more salt in that wound.
There was also Edmonton trading two picks to the Islanders for Griffin Reinhart. Reinhart ended up playing all of 29 games with the Oilers and hasn’t played at all in the NHL since the 2017 playoffs while one of the picks the Islanders got turned into Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal.
Maybe Hitchcock can be the answer in Edmonton. He’s third on the all-time wins list for head coaches and has 1,537 regular season games on his resume, so he certainly brings with him a wealth of knowledge. He’s also seen as a more defensively-minded coach so there are questions as to whether he’s the right fit for a team led by McDavid. Either way, I am pessimistic about Hitchcock being the answer. I could see Edmonton scraping into the playoffs, but I’m not convinced that this team is capable of doing more than that. I’m in the camp that sees Chiarelli as the problem here and I think it will be better for the Oilers in the long run if he’s replaced.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues replaced head coach Mike Yeo with Craig Berube. Yeo was in his third season as the Blues’ bench boss and hadn’t done much with the team. He did help spark a turnaround in 2016-17 – coincidentally replacing Hitchcock – that resulted in the Blues making it to the second round, but lightning didn’t strike twice as St. Louis fell just short of the postseason in 2017-18.
St. Louis added Patrick Maroon, Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and Ryan O’Reilly over the summer, so the expectation was that the Blues had enough to push themselves back into the playoffs, but Yeo wasn’t leading them there and was consequently fired after a 7-9-3 start. Berube dropped his debut as Yeo’s replacement.
It will be interesting to see how the Blues’ fare going forward. Despite the sluggish start, St. Louis does seem to have all the pieces necessary to be a contender except for one vital piece: strong goaltending. Jake Allen was a question mark in 2017-18 and that’s one thing the Blues didn’t fully address over the summer, which is costing them now. Allen has a 5-6-3 record, 3.31 GAA, and .896 save percentage in 15 starts.
Carter Hutton was a superb alternative to Allen last season, but he’s in Buffalo now. Chad Johnson was brought in to be the new backup goaltender. Johnson has been somewhat hit-and-miss over his career, but we’ve certainly seen examples of him being a strong backup and so far this season he’s been just that with a 2.41 GAA and .916 save percentage in seven games, but his decent results in limited use doesn’t mask Allen’s struggles.
We’ll see if this coaching change breeds results. Berube’s results in Philadelphia weren’t special – he had a 75-69-28 record in two seasons with the Flyers – but it’s been three years since then. Ultimately I think that St. Louis would need to acquire a goaltender to be a serious contender, but that’s so much easier said than done. You tend to see many starting-caliber goaltenders traded during the season so for better or worse, the Blues might simply be stuck with Allen for now. It’s also worth noting that Allen is only in the second season of his four-year deal, but at least his cap hit is a liveable $4.35 million.
Speaking of goaltending, I wanted to touch on one piece of news that did come out today. Matt Murray is out with a “longer-term” lower-body injury. Beyond that just being generally bad news for the Penguins, one interesting tidbit is that this is a problem that’s been apparently bothering him for weeks. Murray has been struggling this season and more specifically has a .830 save percentage over his last four games, so perhaps his health can at least partially account for his performance to date. In the meantime, Tristan Jarry is up with the Penguins and will likely get some playing time given that the Penguins’ next four games include a pair of back-to-back sets.