Does the Atlantic Division have a true favorite?

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Every year, sportswriters face tough choices when they make predictions. Can a surprise team find lightning in a bottle once again or will they prove to be one-hit wonders? Will the splashiest moves create a “Dream Team” or an expensive, embarrassing nightmare? Should you tab the best team on paper or try to chart intangible things like chemistry?

While most decisions are tough, there are certain situations that stand out by being unusually difficult to gauge. In my mind, the Atlantic Division race is far more difficult to forecast in 2011-12. You could make an argument for almost every team to win the title, although I don’t think the New York Islanders are “there” yet. (Expect significant strides from that young bunch, though.)

Let’s take a look at what makes each Atlantic team confounding.

New Jersey Devils

The Devils were expected to collapse like they did in 2010-11 during just about every season since the lockout. That’s the natural assumption when you keep losing great (Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer) and very good (Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin) defensemen while your star goalie slides further away from his prime.

New Jersey has burned many pundits for counting them out over the years, though. Before 10-11, they ranked high in the standings more often than not, even when they looked thin on paper. They’re a deeply flawed team, but it’s tough to count them out completely considering their organizational guile (not to mention the fact that they employ Zach Parise, Martin Brodeur, Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias).

New York Islanders

Again, I don’t expect them to be in the division title chase, but counting this rising team out of the playoff picture is foolish. The Isles could turn some heads, especially if Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo are healthy.

New York Rangers

Click here for a post full of questions about the team, but to play my own devil’s advocate, they have arguably the best goalie in the world (Henrik Lundqvist), one of the league’s best passers (Brad Richards), a fiery coach (John Tortorella) and a ton of worker bees to drop in front of shots and hustle for loose pucks. It’s not outrageous to put them in the mix.

Philadelphia Flyers

Not many division title winners trade away their captain (Mike Richards) and a potent, affordable sniper like Jeff Carter. Then again, the Flyers march to the beat of their own stone-faced drummer.

They still have a nice variety of forwards to work into the lineup, although that group won’t be as good in all three areas of the ice (especially on the penalty kill). It’s hard to tell what to expect from Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek this year, in particular.

Oddly enough, public sentiment seems to be that Ilya Bryzgalov will be a bust. I disagree, even if I firmly nod my head when people discuss the risky nature of his contract. For all that’s been made about Dave Tippett’s defensive system, the Phoenix Coyotes allowed the third most shots per game (32.6) last season. Bryzgalov kept them afloat and should be able to clean up some messes for Philly, which is promising since Chris Pronger’s health is unclear – at best.

Pittsburgh Penguins

A lot of people – and at least one prominent video game – picked the Penguins to win the Stanley Cup, which probably means that they expect them to take their division as well. Two factors make that a risky proposition, though:

1. Obviously, Crosby’s health is a big question mark.

2. The Penguins earned just one division title since Crosby’s debut.

The team should be commended for its work without Crosby and Malkin last season, but they played with a tiny margin of error and scrapped out a lot of charity points in that time. Geno could indeed be explosive next season, but the Penguins’ aren’t a lock to win the Atlantic by any means.

Then again, who is?

The Buzzer: Oilers give Hitchcock winning start behind the bench

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Three Stars

1. Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers: It was the captain’s second assist of the night that helped set up the overtime winner during a 4-3 victory over the San Jose Sharks. It was his goal that started the scoring for Edmonton that was the 100th of his NHL career. With three points, McDavid now has 31 on the season.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers: Along with a pair of helpers, Draisaitl scored his sixth career overtime winner 51 seconds into the extra period. He now has 13 tallies on the year.

3. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton Oilers: His goal early in the second period knotted the score at two and gave him three points in his last four games and 20 on the season.

Highlights of the Night

• In his 230th NHL game, McDavid hit the 100-goal mark in his career. Per the NHL, he’s the second-youngest (21 years, 311 days) player to achieve the feat, behind only Wayne Gretzky (20 years, 40 days).

 

Joe Thornton’s assist on Marcus Sorensen’s goal tied him with Mario Lemieux (1,033) for 11th on the all-time NHL list.

Logan Couture notched his seventh on the season, thanks to a sweet dangle around Adam Larsson. He now has 19 goals against the Oilers in his career, the most versus any team.

Factoid of the Night

Per the NHL, “McDavid became the fifth different player in franchise history to reach the 30-point mark in a season in 21 or fewer team games and first since Mark Messier in 1989-90 (19 GP). The franchise record for fewest team games to record 30 points in a season is 10, a mark set by Gretzky in 1984-85.”

Tuesday’s result
Oilers 4, Sharks 3 (OT)

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Draisaitl, McDavid lead Oilers past Sharks in OT

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Ken Hitchcock’s debut behind the bench with the Edmonton Oilers was a winning one as they edged the San Jose Sharks 4-3 in overtime.

The win gave Hitchcock his 824th career victory, putting him 66 behind Joel Quenneville for second all-time in NHL history.

It was an impressive win for the Oilers who were playing for a coach who was hired 12 hours earlier. They went into SAP Center and didn’t allow the game to get away from them, overcaming three deficits en route to the two points..

Connor McDavid, who finished with three points, recorded his 100th career goal to open the scoring for the Oilers in the first period.

The score was even at two and was looking to stay that way heading into the final period, but Logan Couture took Adam Larsson to Dangleville with 56 seconds left to give the Sharks their third lead of the game.

But again the Oilers responded as Drake Caggiula’s seventh of the year would force overtime. It was there that McDavid, who played 23:57 and was double shifted at times, continued to be a force and helped set up Leon Draisaitl’s winner.

Edmonton now has two full days off before their next game at the Anaheim Ducks. That’s plenty of time to get familiar with what Hitchcock will demand out of them as they look to salvage their season. It’s a long road to where they want to get to, but Wednesday’s win was a good start.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

WATCH LIVE: Oilers visit Sharks as Hitchcock returns behind the bench

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Ken Hitchcock makes his return to coaching Tuesday night hours after the Oilers announced that Todd McLellan had been relieved of his duties. There’s a lot to be fixed in Edmonton.

• After starting the year 8-4-1, the Oilers have lost six of their last six games, with all six losses coming in regulation.

• Edmonton is allowing 3.30 goals per game this season (t-24th in NHL)

• When Connor McDavid scores 2 or more points, Edmonton is 6-1-1

• When McDavid scores 1 or fewer points, Edmonton is 3-9-0

It’s a top heavy team, as evidenced by the 28 goals and 70 points recorded by McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The other 22 skaters? 29 goals and 81 points.

“It seems like when we get down we get down too much,” said defenseman Adam Larsson. “The lows seem to be really low right now. If we can just get that out of our game and keep it an even keel we should be good…it’s Game 20 and we’re right in the hunt. I don’t sense anything like the team we had last year. This is a hungry group.”

[WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at San Jose Sharks
Where: SAP Center
When: Tuesday, November 20th, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Sharks stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS
Drake Caggiula – Connor McDavid – Leon Draisaitl
Ryan Spooner – Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Alex Chiasson
Milan LucicCooper MarodyTy Rattie
Jujhar KhairaKyle BrodziakZack Kassian

Oscar Klefbom – Adam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Kevin GravelMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

[Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?]

SHARKS
Evander KaneJoe PavelskiJoonas Donskoi
Tomas HertlLogan CoutureTimo Meier
Marcus SorensenJoe ThorntonKevin Labanc
Barclay GoodrowAntti SuomelaMelker Karlsson

Joakim RyanBrent Burns
Marc-Edouard VlasicJustin Braun
Brenden DillonErik Karlsson

Starting goalie: Martin Jones

Randy Hahn (play-by-play) and Bret Hedican (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will call Oilers-Sharks from SAP Center in San Jose.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

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Continuing a staggering run of coaching changes around the NHL this month, the Edmonton Oilers put Todd McLellan out of his misery on Tuesday, replacing him with … Ken Hitchcock?

No, it’s not surprising to see McLellan out of a job; yes, it’s a little bewildering to see Hitchcock come out of “retirement” to get this shot with the Oilers. Will the gamble pay off, though?

Band-Aid solution?

At the moment, it seems like a short-term fix, which makes sense since Hitchcock is 66 years old.

Actually, it’s amusing to see several of the positive spins revolve around “hey, the Oilers put themselves in a great position to maneuver in the likely event that GM Peter Chiarelli gets fired.” It’s yet another painful reminder of how low the expectations have sunk for a team that employs hockey superhuman Connor McDavid.

In trotting out a longer argument for why Hitchcock was a smart hire, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector hit on a lot of the notes you’d expect, such as experience, which makes sense since Hitchcock is third all-time in coaching wins.

Of course, Hitchcock’s willingness to ruffle feathers is maybe the standout quality of this decision:

Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make.

Then again, one person’s “experience” is another person’s clue that someone might be behind the times. Being a “strict disciplinarian” can also mean that you’re making players miserable, and failing to connect.

Those who respond with something along the lines of “tough luck” or “rub some dirt on it” should consider that Hitchcock crashed and burned with the Dallas Stars, and saw his Blues teams mostly disappoint in the postseason. His lone Stanley Cup win came in 1998-99. McDavid was born in 1997. It’s tough to imagine many key Oilers being in awe of Hitchcock’s accomplishments if he’s barking at them over and over again.

Inconsistency mixed with incompetence

Let’s not forget, either, that many of these Oilers have been given a long span of instructions over the years.

To recap this run of ineptitude and misery, ponder this list of Oilers head coaches since 2009-10:

  • Pat Quinn (2009-10)
  • Tom Renney (2010-11 to 2011-12)
  • Ralph Krueger (2012-13)
  • Dallas Eakins (2013-14 to 2014-15)
  • Todd Nelson (remainder of 2014-15)
  • Todd McLellan (2015-16 until Tuesday)
  • Ken Hitchcock

That list is almost as embarrassing as Peter Chiarelli’s record of trading, or the Oilers’ run of biffing just about any prospect who isn’t a no-brainer. (That trembling you felt to the point of almost hearing was Jesse Puljujarvi‘s anxiousness regarding inevitable trips to Hitchcock’s doghouse.)

Diminishing returns?

The thing is, the disciplinarian angle might be where all the gains are made, because it’s really difficult to imagine that Hitchcock can get much more out of this team from a schematic standpoint.

The Oilers haven’t been an outright-terrible team from various puck possession standpoints, as you can see from sites like Natural Stat Trick. For the most part, Edmonton’s slightly positive in areas like shots for versus against, Corsi For %, and have generated a bit more high-danger chances for than against.

Could Hitchcock goose those numbers up a bit? Sure, but it’s difficult to imagine Edmonton making a quantum leap.

In other words, this isn’t exactly like the Penguins going from a stuck-in-quicksand nightmare of a bland team under Mike Johnston to an attacking team that accentuated its strengths (and survived its weaknesses) during Mike Sullivan’s best moments.

Instead, this feels like the Oilers are replacing a quiet, defensive-minded, somewhat old-school guy in Todd McLellan to … a defensive-minded, old-school guy who has a reputation for yelling a lot in Hitchcock. How much of a difference will that really make, aside from allowing people to soundtrack sad Connor McDavid moments with Simon & Garfunkel?

Bright coach, but more of the same?

Look, Hitchcock is a bright hockey mind. He really deserves credit for adapting to the game as much as anyone could reasonably expected, as he did particularly well when he experienced a lull between his time with the Blue Jackets and taking over the Blues.

Hitchcock had some fascinating things to say about the game back in 2012, as you can see from this piece in The Globe & Mail.

“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day,” Hitchcock said. “Not the game day, the next day.”

Again, it’s possible that Hitchcock could be a nice tactical upgrade over McLellan, for all we know.

Sometimes you’ll also see teams get a quick burst from making a coaching change, something that might be easier to see in a younger, seemingly less-optimized team such as the Oilers than an older team that might just be out of gas, like the Kings.

A bump for goalies?

One thing that could be intriguing: maybe Hitchcock could get Jake Allen on the right track?

Say what you will about the old coach, but several goalies have enjoyed their best years under his watch. Steve Mason was a sensation. Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts during one season.

(No, you didn’t just dream that back in 2008-09.)

Could this be a boon for Cam Talbot and/or Mikko Koskinen? Stranger things have happened, and if nothing else, Edmonton’s goalies should be motivated.

Chia’s growing mistakes

While it’s plausible that Hitchcock might find solutions where McLellan could not, this also feels like an organization stuck in its ways. Saying all the right things really rings hollow when Kevin Lowe is still receiving a high-level paycheck, and Chiarelli’s actions aren’t those of someone who’s learned from mistakes.

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said, via TSN’s Frank Servalli. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Chiarelli is allowed to keep swinging despite strikeout after strikeout. That defense that can’t pass well? He signed them, let Jeff Petry go, and believed guys like Kris Russell were the solution. Chiarelli hired McLellan. He thought Milan Lucic was worth adding, even if it meant trading away Taylor Hall. And on and on.

Now, Chiarelli’s gambling that a sage-like (but also sage-aged) coach can swoop in and save Edmonton’s season. Oh yeah, it also feels like a pretty slap-dash solution:

[Can the Oilers keep going on like this?]

Hitchcock’s walked into rocky situations before, and in several instances, he left them better than when he came in.

The Blue Jackets were a mess, and Hitchcock brought them to their first-ever playoff berth. He seemed to provide a nice boost to the Blues, at least in a brief way. He’s forgotten more about hockey than we’ll likely ever know.

This Oilers gig seems like mercenary work, and might be the toughest bounty this old hand has ever experienced. Hitchcock is bright enough to possibly make it work, but it all still feels like a longshot.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.