<
>

Debate: Is Todd McLellan best choice to coach Team North America?

Todd McLellan led Canada to gold at the World Championships. Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

Craig Custance and Scott Burnside evaluate whether Oilers coach Todd McLellan is the best choice to lead Team North America at the 2016 World Cup.

CUSTANCE: Well, Scotty, we can stop guessing now. You and I have gone back and forth about who should coach Team North America in the World Cup and we no longer have to wait. The NHL and NHLPA made the news official that Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan will be the head coach of Team North America, our favorite U-24 team.

If I remember correctly, I was firmly on Team Jon Cooper for the coach of the Young Guns and you seemed to be leaning towards Patrick Roy as the best candidate, so clearly our influence with Peter Chiarelli and Stan Bowman isn’t as high as it should be.

First impression? I like the pick, for a couple of reasons. One, McLellan proved he can make a team a winner in a short period of time after leading Team Canada to a gold medal in the World Championships. The team was stacked, but Canada hadn’t won gold there since 2007.

He also received rave reviews from the players. Here’s Tyler Seguin on playing for McLellan in the Worlds when we chatted at the NHL Player Tour: "He was so detailed. His message across to guys was very easy to understand. He was clear that you go from playing 18 to 20 minutes on your regular team and coming here and maybe playing 13 to 15 [minutes] and having to play different positions. I was playing wing, I understand on the national team I probably have to play on the wing. He was clear it was the whole versus the part."

Factor in his growing relationship with Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, potentially the top two centers on Team North America, and it makes a lot of sense. You?

BURNSIDE: Oh, you know I have zero problems with McLellan being head coach of this team, especially based on his success at the World Championships last spring. I just think the Team North American powers could have gone a little outside the box on this one. And who knows what McLellan’s coaching staff looks like. Hard to imagine that Cooper, a guy who took a young Tampa Bay Lightning team to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals last June, wouldn't have a place.

And while I still think that the sheer audacity of having Roy coach this young squad (Colorado Avalanche star Nathan MacKinnon could be the captain) would have been off the charts, it's hard to quibble with McLellan. Still, it’s interesting timing given that his Oilers are currently winless and struggling to escape the cloak of despair that has enveloped the franchise for most of a decade.

Also, I thought it was interesting that Pat Verbeek, Paul Fenton and Adam Graves would join Chiarelli and Bowman in the management group. Interesting mix to say the least.

So, who would you add to the coaching staff? And any early surprises in terms of young players that could have a place on the team?

CUSTANCE: It’s an interesting mix and there are some serious talent evaluators in that group. Think about the success Fenton has had running drafts in Nashville. The guy has an eye for talent and I know he’s excited about this opportunity.

I do have to admit that I’m surprised it isn’t Cooper, all things considered. I can’t imagine him being left out of this tournament in some capacity on one of the teams. He’s a dual citizen, considered one of the best young coaches in the league. He should have options if this is something he wants to do.

I noticed Verbeek at a recent Detroit Red Wings game, so to answer your question about young talent, Dylan Larkin is a player who is very much on the Team North America radar. It’s a roster loaded down the middle, but you could certainly move MacKinnon and Jack Eichel to the wing if you wanted to open up space at center. Larkin also has the versatility to play on the wing as he has in Detroit to start the season, playing with center Henrik Zetterberg. It’s a long season but he’s certainly looked capable.

I get the sense that Auston Matthews is a bit of a longshot because of his age, but he’s lighting it up in Switzerland. You’ve talked to a lot of people about him, you think he deserves a look?

BURNSIDE: I don’t think people get how difficult it is going to be to pick this team from top to bottom, and especially up front. You look at Anthony Duclair and Max Domi lighting it up early for the Arizona Coyotes. I know you mentioned them on your shadow roster, but throw in Larkin (and I think you have to give him consideration given his early play), Jonathan Drouin's strong start playing mostly with Steven Stamkos in Tampa, and the competition for forward spots is going to be intense.

I know Chiarelli was lukewarm on the idea that Matthews had a shot at a roster spot when he was asked about it in Toronto in September. And I think it’s still going to be hard to find a spot for him among the 13 forwards (if McLellan takes 13 as opposed to maybe loading up on eight defensemen and going with 12 forwards). Still, we are talking about a rare talent who is tearing it up as an 18-year-old in the Swiss Elite League. Maybe the question isn’t whether Matthews will make it, but rather can you leave him off?

So, I will leave you with this thought as the Oilers still search for win No. 1 and McDavid has been just a little slower off the mark than some would have imagined: Are we guaranteeing McDavid a spot on Team North America? Seems inevitable, but with so many talented under-24s vying for contention, let’s just say McLellan and Chiarelli are going to have their hands full.

CUSTANCE: I’d put Matthews on. This is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? Here’s the other thing: We all have no issues putting McDavid on the team, right? McDavid is eight months older than Matthews. Eight months. And Matthews will have spent a year playing with older players in the Swiss League.

If he continues to produce at his current pace in Switzerland and also has a strong performance at the world junior championship, he needs to be very much in the conversation. As it stands right now, he has eight goals in nine games.

That’s a choice for down the road but ultimately I like the one Chiarelli and Bowman made today. And it got the seal of approval from McDavid when he was asked about it this afternoon by Edmonton reporters.

"If I’m lucky enough to be on that team," McDavid said, "there’s no one I’d rather play for than him."