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Starting with Connor McDavid, Oilers GM made all the right moves

Even back when he was just a former lawyer whose uncle Bob was about to become the mayor of Ottawa, Peter Chiarelli had an eye for identifying hockey talent. After he was hired by the Ottawa Senators in 1999 to be their director of legal affairs, Chiarelli wanted an opportunity to scout talent, too. And when he got the opportunity, he impressed his colleagues.

“At that time he wasn’t really involved in hockey decisions,” said Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who worked in Ottawa’s front office alongside Chiarelli. “Right away, when you read his reports, you could tell that he was a very good hockey evaluator.”

Now Chiarelli is two years into his stint as the Edmonton Oilers‘ general manager and vice president of hockey operations. His keen eye has helped turn around a club that enters Game 5 of its second-round Stanley Cup playoffs series on Friday tied at two games apiece with the Anaheim Ducks.

Following 15 years of managerial missteps — during which then-Ducks GM Brian Burke once claimed that former Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe, now the club’s vice chair and alternate governor, had run the Oilers “into the sewer” — the franchise officially pivoted on April 18, 2015. Edmonton won the NHL draft lottery that day, securing the right to draft Connor McDavid. Six days later, and just nine days after he was fired by the Boston Bruins, whom he had built into a Cup champion in 2011, Chiarelli was Edmonton’s man with a plan.

He wasted no time making his mark and getting to work building a team around McDavid and fellow center Leon Draisaitl — Edmonton’s top pick in 2014. As the newly-minted Edmonton GM, Chiarelli hired Todd McLellan – who had previously served as San Jose’s head coach and an assistant with Detroit – to be the Oilers’ head coach in 2015. McLellan provided much-needed stability behind the bench for the Oilers, who had gone through five head coaches in the previous six seasons. The last three — Ralph Krueger, Dallas Eakins and Todd Nelson — had no NHL head coaching experience before taking Edmonton’s top job.

“They could see what ingredients they were missing and what they have too much of. They made some smart moves,” said former NHL general manager Neil Smith, who built the New York Rangers‘ 1994 Stanley Cup championship team. “You can’t underestimate the impact of McDavid, of course. Probably their best move was winning the lottery.”

Chiarelli’s Oilers agenda was set almost entirely by McDavid, whom he selected first overall in 2015. Blessed with otherworldly speed and playmaking ability, the 18-year-old — who had been in the spotlight since 2012, when Hockey Canada granted him exceptional-player status to enter the Ontario Hockey League draft as a 15-year-old — was the transcendent star Edmonton had missed out on when it had three consecutive first-overall picks between 2010 and 2012.

McDavid had it all: speed, hands, vision. Everything except a towering teammate who could provide on-ice protection. That was made apparent against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 3, 2015, when McDavid was sent crashing into the boards and suffered a broken collarbone that would force him to miss 37 games.

Sensing an area of need, Chiarelli paid a premium when he agreed to a seven-year contract with power forward Milan Lucic, who was part of the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup-winning team. But the mission to add muscle, providing both protection for McDavid and a net-front presence that could further open up the ice, had actually begun months earlier.

With mere weeks remaining in a lost 2015-16 season, Chiarelli acquired 6-foot-3, 230-pound Patrick Maroon from the Ducks for a fourth-round pick and prospect Martin Gernat. Maroon responded with a career-high 27 goals this season, most of which came skating alongside McDavid.

Two months before the Maroon trade, Chiarelli dealt goaltender Ben Scrivens to the Montreal Canadiens for 6-foot-3, 207-pound winger Zack Kassian, who had battled substance abuse and other off-ice issues and was on his fourth NHL team.

“If you can find somebody who needs a second chance and therefore you can get them at a lower price, that’s obviously huge,” Kekalainen said. “Every dollar is tough to squeeze in.”

Lucic, Maroon and Kassian provided plenty of protection this season in an ultra-physical Pacific Division. They’ve also been key contributors in the playoffs — as has David Desharnais, who added crucial depth at center when he was acquired from Montreal at the trade deadline.

But Chiarelli’s shrewdest play came in June 2015 when he acquired Cam Talbot from the New York Rangers for three draft picks before signing the undrafted goaltender to a three-year extension.

After serving as a backup to Henrik Lundqvist for two seasons, Talbot led all goaltenders this past season with 73 games played. He’s proven just as indispensable during the postseason, particularly during a 39-save outing in Edmonton’s 2-1 victory against Anaheim in Game 2.

“He’s probably been our best player all year,” Maroon said after that game. “He’s had some really good games. He’s been excellent for us.”

No task proved more difficult for Chiarelli than turning one of the NHL’s thinnest blue lines into a competent unit. Beyond Andrej Sekera, whom Chiarelli signed in 2015, and first-round prospects Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, the Oilers’ defense was a mess.

“It’s hard to get a No. 1 defenseman. There are not many,” Chiarelli said at the 2016 draft. “Over half the teams don’t have one.”

After rumored potential trades for P.K. Subban and Kevin Shattenkirk didn’t materialize, Chiarelli traded Taylor Hall, the team’s top scorer in three of the previous four seasons. Edmonton got defenseman Adam Larsson from the New Jersey Devils in return — and the deal earned Chiarelli near-universal scorn.

But with Larsson and Klefbom forming Edmonton’s top defensive unit and Sekera moving down to the second pair, Edmonton found its blue line. Chiarelli further stabilized the group by signing college free agent Matt Benning and veteran Kris Russell six weeks apart. Voila: an NHL-caliber defense.

Of course, it all still hinges on McDavid and Draisaitl, young stars coveted as much for their considerable on-ice gifts as their cap-friendly rookie contracts.

“It’s really important: the entry-level players that can play and make an impact with each team battling against the cap,” Kekalainen said.

Draisaitl is due a major raise this summer, which will be followed by what is sure to be a monster extension for McDavid in 2018. Those deals should be no-brainers compared to the dizzying series of moves Chiarelli made to transform a perennial loser into a battle-hardened competitor now two wins shy of the Western Conference finals.

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