Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

7 Comments

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.

NHL Bubble Wrap: Stunning Game 3 upsets for Penguins, Oilers, and more

Game 3 upsets NHL scores Penguins Canadiens Shea Weber Blackhawks Round Robin standings
Getty Images
Leave a comment
  • There were some serious NHL Game 3 upsets, and even the way the upsets happened must have been extra-upsetting for the favorites.
  • It wasn’t always pretty, but the Panthers live to fight another day.
  • Breaking the underdog trend, powerful round-robin teams the Avalanche and Lightning won. (Then again, the Presidents’ Trophy winners won’t be the East’s top seed, so maybe that underdog trend still tracks …)

NHL Scores

Panthers 3, Islanders 2 (NYI leads series 2-1)

For the first time in more than four years, the Panthers won a playoff game. They avoided being swept by the Islanders in the process, riding some quick strikes in the third period. Florida protected Sergei Bobrovsky reasonably well, and may feel a little more confident after Wednesday. Of course, it would help if Jonathan Huberdeau can play in Game 4 after being shaken up by a collision with a Panthers teammate.

Coyotes 4, Predators 1 (ARI leads series 2-1)

Despite carrying much of the play — especially when the “JOFA” line of Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and Viktor Arvidsson were on — the Predators could only beat Darcy Kuemper once. Kuemper bounced back from a bumpy Game 2 to hold down the forth for Arizona. Taylor Hall ended up scoring the insurance goal and added an assist to give the Coyotes a chance to advance in Game 4.

Lightning 3, Bruins 2 – Round Robin Game

After losing their first two games of the Eastern Conference Round Robin, the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins won’t be able to secure the top seed in their conference. Tough break for the only NHL team to reach 100 standings points, but that’s the nature of the beast as COVID-19 disruptive both life and sports. The Lightning, meanwhile, won their first two of three round-robin games, so they have a strong chance to take the top seed.

Avalanche 4, Stars 0 – Round Robin Game

Following a buzzer-beat win against the defending champion Blues, the Avalanche didn’t leave their second round-robin game to chance. Cale Makar kicked off the scoring with a power-play goal 3:19 into the game, and the Avalanche never really looked back. So far, the Avalanche look as speedy and scary as hockey diehards were hoping.

Canadiens 4, Penguins 3 (MTL leads series 2-1)

This time around, this wasn’t about Carey Price standing on his head (or nearly doing so). In a dramatic affair, the Penguins built a 3-1 lead early in the second period. That lead, and the Penguins themselves, would absolutely fall apart. The Canadiens surged back to win Game 3, and did so convincingly. Yeah, wow.

Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3 (EDM leads series 2-1)

The Oilers and Blackhawks raise that “Yeah, wow” to … I don’t know, a “Super wowzers?” Wednesday featured some lower seeds stunning favorites, and while the Penguins carry far more clout than the Oilers, Edmonton still lost in a more staggering way. In another game of swings, Connor McDavid gave the Oilers a 3-2 lead in the dying seconds of the second period. The Oilers protected that lead for a decent portion of the third, until it all fell apart with two late Blackhawks goals. Just like that, Edmonton is on the brink of elimination. Hockey can be pretty wild, gang.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

NHL Round Robin Standings

Eastern Conference Round Robin Standings

Tampa Bay Lightning (2-0-0, 4 points)
Philadelphia Flyers (1-0-0, 2 points)
Washington Capitals (0-0-1, 1 point)
Boston Bruins (0-2-0, 0 points)

Western Conference Round Robin Standings

Colorado Avalanche (2-0-0, 4 points)
Vegas Golden Knights (1-0-0, 2 points)
St. Louis Blues (0-1-0, 0 points)
Dallas Stars (0-2-0, 0 points)

NHL’s Three Stars from Wednesday

1. Darcy Kuemper, Arizona Coyotes

As Wednesday went along, NHL Game 3 upsets became a pattern, and the results became increasingly shocking. A higher seed Predators team falling to the Coyotes feels less jarring when you compare it to the other stunning NHL Game 3 upsets of the day.

Still, this was the standout effort.

Kuemper helped the Coyotes author a familiar version of this one, an upset far more typical than the Blackhawks and Canadiens more or less matching the Oilers and Penguins respectively. In the case of the Coyotes beating the Predators, much of the result had to do with a goalie standing on his head.

After a tough Game 2, Kuemper stopped 39 out of 40 shots to snare Game 3 from the Predators. Kuemper’s best work came early, as the Coyotes took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission despite Nashville managing a 19-9 SOG advantage.

2. Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

You can definitely ding Weber a bit when he might have let up a bit during a delayed penalty, which would have been called on him if Patric Hornqvist didn’t bury a beautiful assist by Evgeni Malkin. But, overall, Weber was fantastic in Montreal’s flabbergasting 4-3 win against the Penguins. Along with scoring one goal and two assists for three points, Weber was stout defensively. That included two goals for and zero against at even-strength. Weber likely played a prominent role in the Habs making sure the Penguins’ third-period comeback attempt was generally, shockingly feeble.

3. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers

If you feel like Jonathan Toews should get the nod, that’s understandable. Toews scored two goals, and played a big role in the Blackhawks’ win. (So did a torrent of deflections, but still, Toews was great.)

Toews will feel fine taking the win and being a victory away from the formal 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Yet, Leon Draisaitl looked like the 2020 Art Ross winner out there. Draisaitl factored into all three Oilers goals (two goals, one assist) and carried the sort of underlying stats he doesn’t always generate.

Hockey Twitter might want to “free Connor McDavid,” but some sympathy should be saved for Draisaitl, too.

2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers — top highlights from Monday

Honestly? It’s probably wise to plunk down those Oilers – Blackhawks highlights, wholesale:

If you need a single highlight, the decisive goal from Predators – Coyotes could do the trick. Derek Stepan made a fantastic pass, then Conor Garland completed the highlight-reel-game-winner by stupefying the Predators:

What a fabulous, unexpected breakout season from Garland …

Factoids

  • By grabbing an assist in Game 3, Sidney Crosby broke a tie with Doug Gilmour and Joe Sakic for eighth all-time in scoring with his 190th playoff point. Telling him that after Game 3 would probably mainly earn you a frown, though.
  • Jeff Petry already has two postseason game-winning goals for the Canadiens. Via NHL PR, he’s the sixth Canadiens defenseman to generate at least two in a single playoff run.
  • Avalanche goalie Pavel Francouz carried his sneaky-strong regular season into the Round Robin. By pitching a 27-save shutout, Francouz is the first Avalanche goalie in franchise history to earn a shutout in their playoff debut. Take that, Peter Budaj.

Thursday NHL schedule:

Game 3: Canucks vs. Wild, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Round-robin: Capitals vs. Flyers, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Round-robin: Golden Knights vs. Blues, 6:45 p.m. ET, NBCSN

Game 3: Maple Leafs vs. Blue Jackets, 8 p.m. ET, NBCSN (Series tied 1-1)

Game 4: Flames vs. Jets, 10:30 p.m. ET, CNBC (CGY leads 2-1)

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.

Blackhawks take 2-1 series lead by stunning Oilers late in Game 3

Leave a comment

For much of Blackhawks – Oilers Game 3, it seemed like the story would be Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl using their star power to overcome Edmonton’s sloppiness, and Chicago’s veteran savvy. Instead, the old dog still has tricks, and Chicago’s magic stunned Edmonton. The Blackhawks shocked the Oilers with a late surge to win Game 3 by a score of 4-3, and push Edmonton to the brink of elimination via Chicago’s 2-1 series lead.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

McDavid and Draisaitl not enough for Oilers vs. Blackhawks in Game 3

Yes, you could throw the word “sloppy” around for every game in this Blackhawks – Oilers series so far, but Edmonton teetered on the edge of self-destruction early in Game 3. Then, after seemingly righting the ship, the Oilers instead saw it sink in a shocking stretch.

From late in the first period to early in the second, the Oilers kept going to the penalty box. Edmonton took four straight penalties, and five of six, during a span that could have derailed them. In particular, Kailer Yamamoto made some potentially lethal unforced errors.

But Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were there to bail their teammates out.

Draisaitl scored Edmonton’s first two goals, helping the Oilers stay in the portions of Game 3 where the Blackhawks seemed primed to pull away.

Then, after Alex DeBrincat bafflingly received an additional penalty after a scrum with Matt Benning, McDavid scored a huge 3-2 in the dying seconds of the second period.

For a significant stretch in the ensuing third period, it seemed like the Oilers might actually protect a lead. There was the impression that, for once, this series wouldn’t be about merely “outscoring your problems.”

Oops.

Toews, Blackhawks win Game 3 with late goals

To start the last collapse, the Blackhawks made it 3-3 with less than six minutes remaining in the third period when Matthew Highmore tipped a hard Slater Koekkoek shot. Then, with 1:16 left, Jonathan Toews was credited with a shocking 4-3 goal when a puck deflected off of the stick of Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear and past goalie Mikko Koskinen.

(Even if Toews might have been lucky to get credit for the game-winner, the Blackhawks captain was a beast in Game 3. He finished with two goals, and Toews came close to scoring on other opportunities. In other words, the star power isn’t just on Edmonton’s side.)

It was stunning enough for the Oilers to see the Blackhawks potentially push Game 3 into overtime. Obviously, they didn’t even it make it that far. Just like that, the Oilers’ season is on the line.

So much for the Penguins dealing with the most stunning Game 3 loss from Wednesday, eh?

Scary injury for Ennis?

After two games full of wild scoring, Game 3 of Blackhawks – Oilers was close enough that tensions were able to climb.

There was some of that playoff nastiness, for sure. That nastiness may climb after Tyler Ennis appeared to suffer a rough-looking leg injury awkwardly bracing for a hard Kirby Dach hit.

Later on, Dach was shaken up by a Josh Archibald hit, but was able to return to Game 3.

If Ennis is out, consider that a tough injury loss stacked upon the Oilers’ gut-punch Game 3 defeat. In Game 4 on Friday, the Blackhawks get a chance to deal the final blow to a season that at times seemed special for the Oilers.

If patterns hold, the Oilers will once again call upon McDavid and Draisaitl — while Toews and the Blackhawks are sure to make things interesting.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (CHI leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers (if necessary), TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Canadiens push Penguins to brink of elimination after Game 3 stunner

Leave a comment

The Canadiens keep giving the Penguins all they can handle, and in Game 3, Pittsburgh couldn’t merely shake their heads and shrug their shoulders at a dominant Carey Price. Instead, after squandering a 3-1 lead, the Penguins must look inward, and get things together quickly, as the Canadiens lead the series 2-1 following a 4-3 win in Game 3.

[NBC 2020 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Canadiens take 2-1 series lead against Penguins after a Game 3 of twists and turns

If you enjoy twists and turns — and maybe chaos? — then Penguins – Canadiens Game 3 was your tonic.

To start things, Shea Weber showed some aggression to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead. Special teams worked out well for the Penguins early, as Pittsburgh not only killed a delay of game penalty from challenging that Weber goal, but also caught the Habs flat-footed.

In less than a minute, Patric Hornqvist fired home a 1-1 power-play goal thanks to a beautiful pass by Evgeni Malkin. Jason Zucker then connected on another power-play goal 59 seconds later:

Once Teddy Blueger made it 3-1 early in the second period, the Penguins looked like they might be headed toward a big, authoritative win.

Maybe it would have stayed that way in a less dramatic contest, but not Game 3 of Penguins – Canadiens. Maybe a hard, un-penalized hit by Brandon Tanev on Jack Evans gave the Habs the righteous anger to rally:

Or maybe the Canadiens merely took advantage of some sloppiness from the Penguins, from Matt Murray to Jack Johnson. Either way, the Canadiens stunned the Penguins with two quick second-period goals to enter the intermission 3-3, and then Jeff Petry scored yet another huge goal in this best-of-five series.

Even with a late power-play opportunity, the Penguins couldn’t get much going once they fell behind 4-3.

Tough Game 3 for Penguins defense; Murray struggles vs. Canadiens

So, again, the main story doesn’t boil down to the Penguins vs. Carey Price, but that doesn’t mean goalies weren’t a talking point in Game 3. To be more exact, the Penguins might need to wonder a bit about Matt Murray.

Earlier in the Penguins – Canadiens series, it seemed like Matt Murray shook off some of his profound struggles from 2019-20. Mike Sullivan or others have more reason to worry about Murray after Game 3, though. Goals like another big Jeff Petry tally will leave people wondering if the Penguins might be wise to turn to Tristan Jarry now that they’re on the brink of elimination.

It wasn’t all on Murray, mind you. Other Penguins struggled, including polarizing defenseman Jack Johnson.

While Weber got caught on that Malkin-to-Hornqvist goal, he enjoyed one of the best performances of any Canadiens player, collecting a goal and two assists. But Game 3 was very much a team effort, and team win, for the Canadiens against the Penguins.

The Canadiens generally acquitted themselves very well against the Penguins at even-strength. Two of the Penguins’ three goals came on the power play, while the Canadiens scored all four of their Game 3 goals at even-strength. Plenty of storylines will revolve around the 12th-seed Canadiens being underdogs pushing the Penguins, and understandably so. But the Habs haven’t always played like traditional underdogs. At times during Game 3, they absolutely outplayed the Penguins.

For better or worse, this isn’t one of the recent back-to-back game situations, so the Penguins get until Friday to shake off the shock of this Game 3 loss to the Canadiens. They might need that time to find some answers against the Habs, too.

(5) Pittsburgh Penguins vs. (12) Montreal Canadiens (MTL leads series 2-1)

Friday, Aug. 7: Penguins vs. Canadiens, 4 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Canadiens vs. Penguins*

* – If necessary

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers 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.

Blackhawks-Oilers stream: 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers

Blackhawks-Oilers stream
Getty Images
Leave a comment

NBC’s coverage of the NHL’s Return to Play continues with Wednesday’s Stanley Cup Qualifier matchup between the Blackhawks and Oilers. Coverage begins at 10:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Watch the Blackhawks-Oilers Game 3 stream at 10:30 p.m. ET on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Connor McDavid scored his first career playoff hat trick, including two goals in the game’s opening five minutes, to lead the Oilers to a 6-3 win over Chicago in Game 2. McDavid scored with all three of his shots on goal. Edmonton scored twice in each period and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had three assists to even up the series.

After finishing the regular season with the league’s best power play (29.5%), the Oilers have continued to impress on the man advantage. Connor McDavid scored on the power play in Game 2 to take their PP up to 44.4% in this series (4/9).

Even without fans, the Oilers continued to sell raffle tickets for their 50/50 draw. In Game 2, the total pot grew to more than $3.2 million, reportedly a new world record for a raffle. One lucky fan took home the jackpot of $1,629,722.50.

WHAT: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
WHERE: Rogers Place – Edmonton
WHEN: Wednesday, August 5, 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
ON THE CALL: Brendan Burke, AJ Mleczko, Pierre McGuire
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Blackhawks-Oilers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

(5) Edmonton Oilers vs. (12) Chicago Blackhawks (Series tied 1-1)

Saturday, Aug. 1: Blackhawks 6, Oilers 4 (recap)
Monday, Aug. 3: Oilers 6, Blackhawks 3 (recap)
Wednesday, Aug. 5: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 10:30 p.m. ET – NBCSN (Livestream)
Friday, Aug. 7: Oilers vs. Blackhawks, 6:45 p.m. ET – NBCSN
Saturday, Aug. 8: Blackhawks vs. Oilers*, TBD

MORE:
2020 NHL Stanley Cup Qualifiers schedule