EDMONTON — They are serial worriers, these National Hockey League head coaches.
You see the light at the end of the tunnel? They see the speeding locomotive behind it. It’s just their way.
So to get an idea of what Todd McLellan is thinking this morning, his team off to a 1-2 start, its work ethic buried somewhere deep in the press clippings and Stanley Cup predictions they’ve been pouring over for a month or two, we take you back to his Kelowna, B.C., patio on Sept. 7.
There, over a morning coffee and a smoky Lake Okanagan, McLellan answered a question about the perils of expectation. What he feared might happen to a team that had its first taste of success in a decade last spring, and spent a summer hearing about how good it was.
“Complacency comes into play. You rest on your laurels and you get stung for it,” he said. “I don’t expect any of our players to be like that, but we have to be aware of it.”
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He was only getting started that morning.
“The stress that’s on the team is different now, because of expectations. So, when things aren’t going well — and we will have those times — how does the group react, behave, and treat each other?
“Players have to remember — and they will be reminded daily — how hard it is to win.”
Adversity took a red-eye flight into northern Alberta this October, arriving in full force after only three games of an NHL season that was supposed to be a crowning run for Edmonton. There is no evidence of finger pointing or infighting after a 5-2 whipping by the Winnipeg Jets Monday, but that part of being reminded on “how hard it is to win” is about to be tattooed on to 23 rear ends.
After a mandated day off Tuesday, these Oilers can count on a three-day master class on the subject.
Work Ethic 303, professor McLellan at the lecturn.
“I don’t think we remember how hard it is to win. I’ve experienced this in the past,” he said post-game Monday, a reference to a San Jose team he once coached that was good, but never found greatness. “You have to understand how hard it is. Our guys don’t get that yet.”
On a night when the Jets line of Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers (hat trick) and Blake Wheeler far outperformed the several versions of Connor McDavid’s line that McLellan sculpted, McLellan called out his best players.
“We’re not near competitive enough. We’re not outworking teams. Consistently from minutes one to 60 the last two games we haven’t come close to outworking teams,” he said. “Structurally we’re about as loose as we can be. We’re missing assignments. Our responsibility level (isn’t good).
“It starts with your star players. Your stars have to be superstars every night on both sides of the puck. We didn’t quite get it done with our star players.”
The risk here is to mitigate the Jets’ influence on Edmonton’s play. Winnipeg was desperate after a pair of heavy defeats to open its season, and the Jets played a superior brand of hockey. Connor Hellebuyck was fantastic — something not said often enough about a Jets goalie — on precisely the evening the team needed a superior performance in goal.
And across the way, Cam Talbot was faced with a pedigree of scoring chances that was far too high, yet still found his own game lacking.
“They’re saves you’ve seen me make before, that I expect to make and my teammates expect me to make,” he said. “I have to give us a chance. Tonight I didn’t do that, again.”
Through three games, Talbot’s save percentage is .896.
“Once the guys start to have confidence in me back there, then they’ll start to have confidence playing in front of me,” he said. “It starts from the net out. I have to be better.”
Eventually we will figure out if last spring’s Oilers were an aberration, if they’re a top team simply having a rough start, or if acquiring another top defenceman to replace the injured Andrej Sekera will turn the former into the latter.
In the shorter term however, we’ll expect Ryan Strome to up his game considerably from its current, subterranean level. We’ll see if Jussi Jokinen has anything left, and if young Matthew Benning can handle top-four minutes.
“There wasn’t enough. Not enough players, not enough push,” said veteran Mark Letestu of this very sad defensive effort. “It’s a problem. It’s been two games that way I have no doubt we’ll fix it. But we have to fix it soon.”
Or as Talbot put it: “After that (Calgary) game we thought that maybe it was going to be a little bit easier because we played so well. That’s not the case.”
Ottawa is in Saturday. Class is in session.