Todd McLellan didn’t know Rogers Place as well as he thought he did.
Having been the Edmonton Oilers’ coach when the franchise’s new arena — a shimmering silver venue that rises from the north end of the Edmonton skyline — opened in 2016, he was the first man to patrol the home bench. He was the first man asked to step down from that post.
For the first time since being fired by the Oilers last November, McLellan returned to the building Saturday morning donning shades of black and silver for his Kings coaching debut. When he arrived, he didn’t know how to get in.
“I’ve never been in the visitor’s locker room here,” he laughed. “I don’t know where to go in a building I should be familiar with.”
Chalk it up as a side effect to the NHL’s coaching carousel, which this offseason concluded with the Kings and Ducks hiring coaches with much in common.
New Ducks coach Dallas Eakins’ last NHL job was also in Edmonton, where the pressure to win is as ever-present as the brisk Alberta breeze. He too was fired in the middle of a season.
As the new Southland counterparts take charge of Kings and Ducks franchises stuck in similar rebuilds, both men are trying to overcome their eerily similar pasts. Time and distance have eased the sting of their failed tenures in Edmonton. But the memory of their disappointments lingers.
The carrot sticks offered the first clue.
It was the first day of Eakins’ first Oilers training camp in 2013. When reporters showed up, they noticed an immediate difference. Usually, the team set out coffee and donuts in the media work area. This time, the food table was filled with fruit, yogurt and plenty of carrot sticks.
It’s unclear if the gesture was a jab or a joke. Either way, it made the juxtaposition clear. Eakins, an eastern Canadian raised in the province of Ontario and coming to Edmonton from a minor-league job in Toronto, was implementing a different philosophy. A first-time NHL coach, he focused on nutrition and conditioning, trying to emphasize the future of a franchise protective of its five-time Stanley Cup-winning past. The table of vegetables became a foreboding metaphor.
When veteran Oilers forward Ryan Smyth was asked about the food selection that day, he laughed, shook his head, and turned toward long-time Edmonton Sun sports columnist Terry Jones.
“What do you think Terry?” Smyth asked.
Jones’ reply: “He better win.”
Despite his attempted culture change, Eakins’ debut 2013-14 season quickly went off the rails. The Oilers suffered losing streaks of at least five games in October, November, December and January. With 67 points, they finished a distant last in the Western Conference.
A grimmer vignette summed up the year: During a 6-0 home loss to the St. Louis Blues in mid-December, a fan threw his Oilers jersey on the ice. By the end of the campaign, entire factions of the community had turned on Eakins.
Amid a 7-19-5 start in 2014-15, Eakins was fired after 18 turbulent months on the job.
“He was just the wrong guy, in the wrong place, making the wrong decisions,” Jones said. “It came to the point where there was no choice. He had to go.”
Eakins landed on his feet that offseason in San Diego as the coach of the Ducks’ minor-league affiliate, the start of a fruitful four-year tenure with the Gulls that led to his hiring as the Ducks’ NHL coach this summer.
“It’s so far gone now,” Eakins said of his time in Edmonton, “that I actually look at it and kind of shake my head and laugh. It’s just like, ‘I’m not sure what you were thinking on that one.’ You fail forward, man.”
The headlines sometimes caught McLellan off guard.
A native of western Canada coming off a successful seven-year run with the San Jose Sharks, McLellan mostly knew what to expect from Edmonton’s hockey-crazed market when the Oilers hired him in the summer of 2015.
But when he saw stories claiming things like, the Oilers are trading Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he’d be puzzled. “Where the hell did that come from?” he remembers thinking, “I’m sitting in this room and we haven’t once talked about it.”
McLellan’s summation of the Edmonton hockey bubble, where intense media coverage is driven by a passionately crazed fan base:
“You’re under the microscope all the time.”
At first, there were few flaws to expose in McLellan’s Oilers team. In his second season, he coached the franchise to its first playoff appearance in 11 years. Behind breakthrough campaigns from young stars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers totaled 103 points, knocked off the Sharks in the first round and took the Ducks to a seventh game in the conference semifinals before bowing out.
“It was something [the fans] hadn’t seen in a while,” Oilers forward Zack Kassian recalled. “Wish we’d went a little further, but that definitely stands out.”
But even popular Oilers coaches can get off to promising starts and still quickly run into trouble. And over the course of McLellan’s tenure general manager Peter Chiarelli backed the franchise into a corner with one maligned move after another. Skilled forwards Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle were traded away for what proved to be pennies on the dollar. Aging forward Milan Lucic was signed to a bloated contract that chewed up salary cap space. Few of the team’s other thriftier free-agent signings panned out.
Chiarelli “plain and simple blew it,” Jones said. “He had a team that was a valid team, and every single move he made … not only backfired, it blew up on him.”
As a result, the Oilers ended up with an imbalanced roster, with elite top-end talent but a mediocre middle of the lineup. McLellan couldn’t mend the intractable gap. The Oilers won just 45 of his final 102 games in charge. Only 18 months after guiding the club to their most successful season of the decade, he was fired.
While the rest of Edmonton might have been willing to point fingers, however, McLellan just wanted to move on.
“That’s in the past now,” he said. “I’m really excited about the group I’m with.”
Indeed, both coaches appear to be in a better place now. Eakins has found immediate comfort in a Ducks franchise he’s grown familiar with. McLellan was handed a five-year contract and seemingly long leash to lead a rebuild with the Kings.
They can now reflect on their Oilers tenures without any frustration or angst.
Said Eakins, during his introductory Ducks news conference this summer: “It was a challenging position and a challenging time for an organization. I think the biggest thing that it taught me was to keep my head down and to keep working, try and get better every day. It’s kind of like being in a fight. Keep your head down and keep swinging.”
Echoed McLellan this week, ahead of the Kings’ season-opening loss to the Oilers: “I enjoyed my time there in Edmonton, I really did. I’m from western Canada, I like the community, I thought the fans were tremendous. There was nothing negative about my experience there.”
While Eakins won’t return to Edmonton until March, McLellan was received warmly Saturday night during a recognition on the Rogers Place video board. He appreciated the gesture, but otherwise wasn’t much eager to relive the past. Like Eakins, he’s looking forward. In the Southland, he’s hopeful brighter days are ahead.
“I have a new home now,” McLellan said. “I’m happy to be part of the Kings’ family now. Coming back was nice, to see a lot of familiar faces. But I felt that this turned into more about me coming back than the Kings playing their first game. That’s not what I wanted.”