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Damien Cox: Chiarelli’s Oil spill no quick cleanup job

Damien Cox: Chiarelli’s Oil spill no quick cleanup job
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Peter Chiarelli’s Oilers haven’t surrounded Connor McDavid with the talent it takes to contend, despite a raft of high draft picks.  (Dave Sandford / GETTY IMAGES file photo)

“We’re not going to out-skill anyone,” Oilers captain Connor McDavid said on Monday.

A franchise that drafted first overall four times from 2010 to 2015, and in the top five slots two other times (2014, 2016), doesn’t have the requisite skill in its lineup in 2019 to put on a show?

Those priceless draft opportunities were supposed to create another run-and-gun dynasty in Edmonton, not a mediocre team that believes scoring more than two goals on any given night is reason for a celebration.

Incredible. It’s also why firing Peter Chiarelli right now isn’t going to save the hockey season in Edmonton.

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You’d get more out of NHL headquarters sending in a forensic investigation team to undercover how Edmonton’s franchise could have possibly screwed this up so badly than by firing Chiarelli at this point.

The die is essentially cast on this season. Moves could be made, sure, but the Oilers have already made moves. On Monday, they made more, sending Caleb Jones to the minors, placing Ryan Spooner and Ty Rattie on waivers, and officially making 30-year-old Mikko Koskinen the new No. 1 goalie by signing him to a three-year deal worth $4.5 million U.S. based on 31 NHL appearances.

Edmonton’s not out of it yet. The Oilers will make the playoffs this spring if McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can carry them there, and if Koskinen can bedazzle the league for the next three months. Apparently Cam Talbot, the last Oiler goalie to warrant a big contract, is no longer part of the conversation.

Chiarelli could, theoretically, make more of an impact deal that he has already this season, but unless Edmonton wants to trade away its 2019 first-round pick (insane), Evan Bouchard (absurd), Darnell Nurse (risky) or Jesse Puljujarvi (premature), Chiarelli can’t substantially alter the roster.

So why fire him now?

The time to fire Chiarelli was at the same time Todd McLellan was cashiered as head coach Nov. 20. There was ample evidence at that time that together they had failed to create the kind of contending team the Oilers should have had after beginning a rebuild with the selection of Taylor Hall first overall nine years ago.

NINE YEARS AGO.

A new GM in November would have had adequate time to assess the team and make some acquisitions. Instead, just McLellan was relieved of his duties, Chiarelli was kept and Ken Hitchcock was brought in to coach and force the boys to play some defence.

Hitchcock had retired, saying he was done after a hall of fame career. But he was beloved in Edmonton hockey circles and just about the best friend any media person could have, so he was a perfect choice to quieten the wolves, at least temporarily.

Hitchcock delivered a short-term boost, but on the weekend the Oilers demonstrated in losses to Calgary and Carolina that they are no further ahead than they were with McLellan because the personnel is insufficient. They are thin on the back end and slow for a league that rewards speed above all else.

Chiarelli’s acquisitions over the years haven’t changed those realities. None of them demonstrated the Oilers understood that the league was getting quicker and they urgently needed to address the situation. Edmonton started trying to play “heavy” hockey at about the same time the Los Angeles Kings were demonstrating that while they may have won a Stanley Cup that way, it wouldn’t work any more.

Valuable time and money was wasted responding to media cries for McDavid to be “protected” by bringing in muscle. In true Oiler ridiculousness, the circle was completed this month when they acquired Brandon Manning, the player who first injured McDavid and began the chorus that it never would have happened if Dave Semenko was still around.

All that can’t be changed in Edmonton before next month’s trade deadline. So why dismiss Chiarelli now? To accomplish what?

Many of his detractors will say Chiarelli can’t be trusted not to make another bad trade. Harsh, but not unfair. But who in that organization can be trusted to make only excellent deals this winter? Hitchcock? Bob Nicholson? Assistant GM Keith Gretzky? Oilers Entertainment Group executives Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe? Of that group, only Lowe has any experience making a trade at the NHL level.

If not Chiarelli, who?

Right now, the Oilers appear to be contemplating the most dangerous thing a young team can do, and that’s just about anything to somehow make the playoffs. There’s lots of talk about season-ticket renewals in Edmonton, and about how they might be negatively impacted by the combination of a difficult Alberta economy and the Oilers missing post-season play again.

Getting rid of a GM is hardly a rallying cry to customers.

The truth is, Edmonton owner Daryl Katz does have big decisions to make, but not right now. That time will be in June after the Oilers claim one of the Western Conference playoff spots, or after they don’t. At that time, Katz, who as owner got a rink built and not much else, will have to decide whether there’s enough of a viable core — McDavid, Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Puljujarvi — to continue to move forward.

The final 33 games of the season will provide a great deal of information on that.

The once-promising Oiler rebuild was injured, probably fatally, when a first overall pick was wasted on Nail Yakupov, one of the biggest busts in NHL history, and Hall was traded for Adam Larsson. A new GM can’t alter those facts in time to change this season.

It’s easy to paint Chiarelli as a lame duck who shouldn’t be permitted to be anywhere around a phone with an Oilers logo at the trade deadline. But remember, they were saying exactly the same — or worse — about Marc Bergevin in Montreal last winter. Instead, Geoff Molson chose stability over change, Bergevin focused on getting quicker (Max Domi, Tomas Tatar), Carey Price and Shea Weber got healthy and now the Habs are challenging in the uber-tough Atlantic Division.

If Edmonton cans Chiarelli now, sure, it will make some folks happy. It will appear to be a decisive move.

It will also be just more evidence of an organization that continues to make important decisions at the wrong times for the wrong reasons.
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