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It’s the summer of 2015. Against astronomical odds, the Oilers win the draft lottery for the fourth time in six years, earning the right to select hockey prodigy Connor McDavid. It evidently prompts team owner Darryl Katz to finally get serious about the state of his Oilers, as he terminates General Manager Craig MacTavish and Team President Kevin Lowe. He hires Bob Nicholson – a brilliant hockey executive – who in turn hires Peter Chiarelli mere weeks after his termination by the Boston Bruins. The next issue to be addressed is that of a head coach.
With several prominent coaches available, it was a unique summer in the NHL. For perhaps the first time, coaching hires were speculated upon as furiously as pending free agents. The “big fish” of the coaching pool was Mike Babcock, a man widely regarded as the best coach in professional hockey. Several teams were in the “Babcock hunt”, which quickly gained momentum and spanned several weeks.
Oilers fans were salivating at the idea of Babcock coming to Edmonton. After all, everything that summer had gone their way, from the draft lottery to the long-overdue termination of the team’s inept management group. It seemed only logical that the next domino to fall would be Mike Babcock explaining to a media scrum that he had decided to join the Oilers and deliver them to the Stanley Cup.
Instead, Peter Chiarelli did the most logical thing for the team and its fans: he hired the second-best coach available in that summer’s pool. He spared Oilers fans from a lengthy and tumultuous courting process, and secured the services of an exceptional NHL coach. Enter Todd McLellan (a former student of Babcock’s) who in his seven years as the head coach of the San Jose Sharks earned his 300th career win faster than any other coach in NHL history except Bruce Boudreau (who had the benefit of coaching Alex Ovechkin).
Peter Chiarelli spared Oilers fans from an acrimonious process which would likely have ended in disappointment, in hindsight. It took a last-minute $50 million offer from the Toronto Maple Leafs to convince Babcock to join a rebuilding team, and Chiarelli recognized that fixing the Oilers would be such a lengthy, difficult process that the next coach needed to be the right coach more than the “best” coach.
The move was astute from a hockey standpoint but it was also merciful for a group of fans that has been snubbed a few too many times. There was the time that Chris Pronger spurned the city, which still hasn’t been forgotten. There was the time that Michael Nylander pledged to sign with the team as a free agent, only to renege on his agreement when he received another offer. Then there was the time that new owner Darryl Katz pulled out all the stops to woo Marian Hossa, but couldn’t make the sale. Or the time that Dany Heatley vetoed a trade to the Oilers via a contractual clause, despite the two organizations arranging a trade of mutual benefit.
The point is, Peter Chiarelli was barely settled into his new office before he spared his long-suffering fan base from another well-publicized roller-coaster. He resisted the alluring shine of the coach that everybody wanted, and secured the coach that his team and its fans needed.