Nobody thought that Peter Chiarelli’s career as a General Manager was over when he was removed from his position by the Boston Bruins at the end of the regular season. However, few expected him to take up a new post so quickly. Less than a month after his firing, Chiarelli has travelled from Eastern USA to Western Canada. It won’t be an easy transition.
When Chiarelli arrived in Boston in 2006, he took over a franchise and a fan base that was fed up with mediocrity. The Bruins hadn’t made any serious noise in the postseason for since the Ray Bourque era, despite having some pretty good teams, and an Original Six franchise had lost its way and its identity.
Chiarelli re-introduced an identity of being a physical, character driven and tough to place against team. The Bruins achieved that and eventually went on a remarkable run winning three game 7s on their way to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011.
For all the criticism that Chiarelli has received, he still built a roster that returned to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2013 only losing to the dynastic Chicago Blackhawks, and won the President’s Trophy as the regular season champion in 2013/14.
Ultimately, the Bruins fired Chiarelli for failing to draft and bring through young players and for failing to manage the salary cap.
Neither of those elements are immediate concerns for an Oilers’ team with three first overall picks on their roster and a fourth (likely Connor McDavid) this year. They’ve also got cap room to spare because of the number of young players on their roster.
One of the more interesting storylines related to Chiarelli’s move is the number of young forwards on Edmonton’s roster. Besides winning the Cup, Chiarelli garnered most attention in Boston for a pair of slightly controversial trades moving Phil Kessel to Toronto and Tyler Seguin to Dallas in blockbuster deals.
Those two players had a couple of things in common. Both are among the NHL’s most gifted offensive players in terms of their combination of skating speed, stickhandling and offensive ability. However, they both faced questions about their “character” and they both had deficiencies on the defensive end, which was out of character with the Claude Julien coached Bruins.
It’s probably worth noting that the trade involving Kessel is unanimously considered a great trade. Kessel has faced similar questions about his all-round in Toronto and the Bruins got a couple of first round picks that turned into Seguin and Dougie Hamilton in that deal.
However, it’s hard to see Chiarelli being successful in Edmonton unless he is willing to build a team around some dynamic young forwards that don’t necessarily play elite level defense. That probably rules out a reunion with Julien by the way.
There’s no Zdeno Chara this time. Shutdown defenseman isn’t the most glamorous role and perhaps that’s why Chara doesn’t always get the full credit he deserves. However, there’s no questioning that the veteran defenseman has made constructing a competitive blue-line significantly easier over the last eight seasons. Chara is also a natural born leader and a player who played a big part in that change in identity.
Of course, there could be far worse situations. There are a lot of teams that would love to have just one of Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov to build an offense around. That’s all before the likely addition of McDavid, who is highest rated prospect since Sidney Crosby.
Finding the right balance will be Chiarelli’s biggest challenge. It starts with a blue-line that is currently led by Andrew Ference. Jeff Petry was arguably the best defenseman on this team and he was dealt for a second round pick at the trade deadline. There’s nothing wrong with Mark Fayne, Oscar Klefblom, Nikita Nikitin and Justin Schultz, but it’s obvious that the Oilers do not currently possess a well-rounded defensive group.
Dealing some offensive talent for a couple of pillars on the blue line might just be Chiarelli’s number one priority.
Adaptability was one of the other major criticisms of Chiarelli. He was accused of rewarding his cup winners too richly in terms of their contracts and for failing to adapt his roster to the changes in the NHL.
He’ll be forced to demonstrate that immediately in Edmonton with an unfamiliar core group and in a very different organization. The Oilers are a team associated with run-and-gun hockey – not that this fan base wouldn’t settle for a less exciting brand of hockey in exchange for consistent playoff appearances. Still, unexciting mediocrity definitely won’t fly in this city.
Besides the upcoming draft, Chiarelli’s first major decision will be selecting a head coach. Comments about the team’s effort level would already seem to doom interim head coach Todd Nelson. Since removing Craig MacTavish in 2009, Edmonton has had five head coaches in six seasons. There have been some bench bosses with good reputations among that group of coaches as well including Pat Quinn and Tom Renney, and some of the more promising rookie minds to enter the league in Ralph Krueger and Dallas Eakins.
No one has found the right combination for this team. Quinn and Renney tried to make a young group play tough and emphasized defense, while Eakins was supposed to utilize the strengths of the roster offensively.
Chiarelli arrived in Boston with a plan and a vision. He’ll need to bring the same plan and vision. Edmonton needs exactly that now. Just as the Boston fan base was re-invigorated in part thanks to Chiarelli’s work. For the sake of the NHL, we hope he can do something similar in Edmonton.