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Edmonton Oilers laying the foundation for success

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Completion of the new arena going up in Edmonton is still more than 300 days away, but there's a level of activity going on right now that suggests opening night is barreling in frantically.

Everywhere you look, there is someone hard at work: a guy rolling paint on a wall, sparks flying as someone else works near a giant metal beam, guys spraying purple insulation on the outside, others muscling their way through a job with handsaws. A smashed can of drained energy drink lies on the floor, giving the impression that some arena construction worker downed it, smashed it and got back to work.

It's all starting to take shape at this mammoth, state-of-the-art arena.

"This is Peter's office," says a guide giving a tour of Rogers Place, the Edmonton Oilers future home starting next season, replacing the aged Rexall Place. "This is Todd's office."

The future workplace of Oilers general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Todd McLellan are nothing more than studded-out walls, but at this relentless construction pace, there will be drywall and family photos up before the tour is completed.

It's remarkable, really: the pace. The plans. The vision of Oilers owner Daryl Katz. The giant oval dressing room. The attached practice rink. The parking for players and staff that will go under the ice. The 25 acres of land in downtown Edmonton being transformed into the Ice District at just about the same time the team is supposed to be transformed from an annual loser into one that can do great things.

The off-ice plan looks flawless.

If only building a Stanley Cup winner were as easy as designing a blueprint and turning loose an army of tireless construction workers, ideally fueled by pride, ambition and the occasional energy drink.

"This city wants a competitive team so badly," said Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson, appointed to his current position in April, one that gives him full authority over business and hockey operations for the Oilers.

"It's been a long time," Nicholson said. "Now expectations are way up there. We're still working on the foundation. We want to make sure this team is more competitive this year. We're not going to do anything that takes us out of the focus of building slowly and doing it right."

Arena construction can be rushed. Building a Stanley Cup winner, as the Oilers have found out all too well, cannot.

So much has been made lately about the addition of rookie phenom Connor McDavid to the Oilers that the bigger picture in Edmonton is lost at times. Plugging McDavid into the chaos and indecision that wracked this franchise in the past would have ended no better than adding Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov or Taylor Hall. To the credit of Oilers ownership, that didn't happen.

The Oilers won the draft lottery on April 18. The news of Nicholson's promotion to CEO two days later didn't generate quite the same buzz but could end being just as influential to the Oilers' success.

Nicholson brought swift action and decisiveness to an organization that desperately needed it.

The Bruins fired Stanley Cup-winning GM Chiarelli on April 15. The Oilers announced his hiring less than 10 days later.

"The [GM] list was just a couple people, otherwise Craig MacTavish probably would have stayed," Nicholson said of his GM change from MacTavish to Chiarelli. "Peter Chiarelli in my mind was at the top of the list, and when he became available, we struck quick."

They also struck quick at head coach. Both Chiarelli and Nicholson made trips to Prague to visit with former San Jose Sharks coach McLellan while he guided Team Canada to a gold medal performance at the IIHF World Championship in the spring.

Chiarelli had never met McLellan, though he appreciated him from the distance between Boston and San Jose. He liked the brand of hockey the Sharks played under McLellan. He liked the way McLellan intelligently handled postgame media scrums. He liked that he came up through a successful system with the Detroit Red Wings. He liked how engaged he was during games behind the bench.

Last spring, McLellan and Chiarelli sat down in the back of a smoky Prague café near the hotel Team Canada was staying at during the world championship and immediately got down to business. Chiarelli isn't one for much small talk anyway, and, in this case, he felt the pressure of time, the pressure of other teams that would soon come calling for McLellan.

"It would be nice to have all the time and do the due diligence. Sometimes you can't and I couldn't," Chiarelli said. "I wanted to make sure he knew my thoughts, principles and approach in general."

The meeting, as McLellan recalls, lasted a good four or five hours, but McLellan knew fairly quickly that their belief systems aligned almost perfectly.

"He believes that things need to be done the right way. There are no shortcuts to doing it the right way," McLellan said. "There has to be progress shown day after day. You don't get through adversity without dealing with it and then moving on. You don't get to skip steps. I found that interesting. He did that in Boston. He built and built and he built. They finally got to where they were and they won. I liked the idea that you can't get ahead of yourself."

McLellan's hiring was all but sealed right there in Prague.

"We had him nailed down a lot sooner than what was publicly out there," Nicholson said. "Then we agreed to keep it quiet to respect Team Canada."

Team Canada won gold on May 17, beating Russia to finish a perfect 10-0 in the tournament. It was Canada's first gold in the tournament since 2007.

The Oilers announced the McLellan hiring on May 19.

If only a new arena, new management, new coach and a new superstar were enough to turn things around immediately.

For the Oilers, these steps are just the foundation. There might be some studs showing the shape of walls, but the drywall isn't up. The finishing touches haven't even been started.

The Oilers began this season of high expectations at 0-3, with losses on the road to the St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars -- an immediate reality check showing the distance between the Oilers and true Western Conference contenders. The Oilers have been outscored 9-3 so far this season. They've controlled just 44.5 percent of the even-strength shot attempts.

It would be easy to lump this group with the bad starts in the past. Not only are they struggling to score, but it's also been a struggle to generate any kind of consistent time in the offensive zone. It's an old story.

But there are differences. Cam Talbot, the goalie Chiarelli acquired to be the starter, has been great. The Oilers are winless, but he has a .929 save percentage in two starts. If he keeps that pace up, the wins will come.

There's a structure McLellan is putting in place that opposing teams are seeing. It's not all being executed perfectly, but the progress is apparent.

"We see all the stuff that's going to be in place. We can see bits and pieces of it already," said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. "We can see where he's trying to take the team, and they're going to be a tough team to play against in short order."

And then there's McDavid. On Tuesday night in Dallas, he deflected an Andrej Sekera shot past Kari Lehtonen for the first NHL goal of his career. Through three games he's showing the glimpses of the rare skill that has drawn comparisons to the best players ever to play the game. With all the pressure that is following him city to city, he's making his impact while playing within the team game McLellan has laid out, a nod to the respect he has for the coach and for the league he's entering.

"He's a guy who has thought long and hard about every aspect of the game of ice hockey and it's impressive," Hitchcock said. "The way he presents himself is very impressive."

In the AHL, high-end prospects Darnell Nurse and Leon Draisaitl are making an impact for Bakersfield. The Oilers desperately wanted a fast start but not so bad they would alter their belief system. No shortcuts: that meant players who needed development are getting it in the minors.

The Oilers return to Edmonton for their home opener Thursday against the Blues. The buzz the team felt at training camp in front of standing room only crowds at the training facility in Leduc, Alberta, will return, the home fans so eager for any positive sign the home team is headed in the right direction. They can see the progress of the arena downtown. It's very tangible.

Now they yearn to see it on the ice. They, like the players, can take only so much losing.

"It wears on you," said forward Jordan Eberle. "Losing kills you. It wears on you. For these fans and especially the expectations we have this year, we want to fulfill that and start winning hockey games."

It would be a start.