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.

The Buzzer: Stamkos, Giroux post four-point nights; Holtby blanks Blue Jackets

Associated Press
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Three stars

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

Two goals and two assists for Stamkos, who helped the Lightning crush the Colorado Avalanche 7-1 and win their sixth straight game.

Stamkos scored the first two goals of the game 10:10 apart in the first period and they proved to be all the Lightning needed in the win.

Stamkos has been his steady self all season and has 12 goals and 30 points in 31 games now.

2. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

The Flyers needed a win. They had just two wins in their previous nine games coming into Saturday.

With Sean Couturier out of the lineup due to injury, ‘G’ made the move back to center and thrived, scoring and adding three helpers as the Flyers picked on the Buffalo Sabres in a 6-2 win. The Flyers scored all six of their goals after the Sabres took a 2-0 lead. Giroux scored the winner in the third.

Giroux now has three goals and four assists in a three-game point streak.

3. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

Holtby needed that one after giving up 10 goals over his previous two starts — both losses.

On Saturday, there were no goals given up in a 28-save shutout against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets must be sick of seeing Holtby this year. In the spring, Holtby owned Columbus and he did so again on Saturday.

Holtby has two shutouts on the season now.

Other notable performances:

  • Alex Ovechkin had a goal and an assist to push his point streak to 11 games.
  • Jonathan Huberdeau had a goal and two assists in a 5-4 shootout loss to the New York Rangers.
  • The Kings, as a whole, deserve mention. Drew Doughty‘s ‘pathetic’ comment seemed to spark his team. Jonathan Quick made 29 saves in a 5-1 win against the surging Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Craig Anderson stopped 35-of-36 in a 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • Louie Domingue had another solid outing, stopping 29 shots against the Avalanche.

Highlights of the night

Bob was pulled on the night, but not before making this ridiculous save:

Yikes:

Making dreams come true:

Patience is a virtue:

Factoids

Scores

Flyers 6, Sabres 2

Kings 5, Golden Knights 1

Bruins 6, Maple Leafs 3

Senators 2, Penguins 1 (OT)

Islanders 3, Red Wings 2

Lightning 7, Avalanche 1

Rangers 5, Panthers 4 (SO)

Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 0

Sharks 5, Coyotes 3

Flames 5, Predators 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Maple Leafs’ Hyman ejected after late hit on Bruins’ McAvoy

NESN
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We’ve already had one questionable hit on Saturday, and now we have a second.

This one comes at the mid-way point of the third period in the game between the Boston Bruins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

With the Bruins leading 6-2, Charlie McAvoy gets the puck from Jaroslav Halak behind his own net and makes the pass to his defense partner. Hyman comes in at an angle where McAvoy can’t see him and drills him with a blindside hit well after the puck had made its way to the other side of the ice.

It appears that McAvoy hits his head on the boards the way down.

You can see the hit here:

The hit is made all the worse given that McAvoy just returned to the lineup on Thursday after missing 20 games with a concussion.

Hyman got a five-minute major for interference on the McAvoy hit, five minutes for fighting Bruins’ Matt Grzelcyk and a game misconduct. Grzelcyk was tossed, too.

The fisticuffs didn’t end there. A minute later, Chris Wagner got a penalty for charging Morgan Rielly which prompted Ron Hainsey to step in and fight Wagner.

McAvoy returned to the bench just prior to the game ending but did not take another shift.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Red Wings’ Kronwall delivers devastating, questionable hit on Islanders’ Lee

Sportsnet
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No one walks the clean hit/dirty hit tightrope like Niklas Kronwall.

There are several montages on YouTube of Kronwall Kronwalling opponents. Some of them are hard but clean hits. Others are, well, questionable at best and there’s another one to add to that column from Saturday night.

With the Detroit Red Wings up 2-0 in the first period, Kronwall lined up Anders Lee of the New York Islanders, who was picking up a loose puck on along the boards in the neutral zone. Like many of Kronwall’s hits, it was a devastating thump.

Here’s the hit:

Lee’s head appears to be the principal point of contact and he was forced to leave the game.

UPDATE: Lee did not come out to start the second period but returned later in the frame

The comments section is going to be full of, ‘Lee needs to keep his head up.’

That is true. The player has a responsibility to protect himself.

But what is also true is this: Just because a guy’s head is down doesn’t mean there’s free rein to pulverize his brain.

Kronwall had some time to change how he was going to hit Lee, either the angle or the magnitude of the force of it.

Josh Bailey went for retribution later in the period, first getting a slew foot in on Kronwall and then fighting Dylan Larkin.

Lee leads the Islanders with 11 goals and is tied with Josh Bailey for the most points with 22.

Time will tell, but you have to imagine that George Parros and the Department of Player Safety will give this one a long look.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Sabres fall apart against Flyers as losing streak reaches five

AP
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Life comes at you fast in professional sports. It was not even two weeks ago that the Buffalo Sabres were the talk of the NHL, the hottest team in the league, and riding a 10-game winning streak that was giving their fans reason to believe in them again.

While there are still plenty of reasons for their fans to believe, things have taken a near-180 turn for the Sabres in the games since and they now find themselves on a five-game losing streak thanks to Saturday’s 6-2 home loss to a Philadelphia Flyers team that was playing without one of its best players (center Sean Couturier).

This one was by far the worst of the current streak as the Sabres allowed six consecutive goals, including four in the third period, after jumping out to an early two-goal lead thanks to a pair of goals from captain Jack Eichel. That two-goal lead was the highpoint of the day for the Sabres as everything completely fell apart after that.

Claude Giroux helped lead the comeback for the Flyers with four points, including the game-winning goal just 2:49 into the third period when he scored shorthanded to give them their first lead of the day.

By the end of the third period the Flyers were just dunking all over the Sabres with passing plays like this…

That goal made it 6-2 midway through the third period.

It is just the Flyers’ third win in their past 10 games.

But what about the Sabres? Which team is the REAL 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres? The one that won 10 games in a row a couple of weeks ago, or this one that has lost five in a row?

The answer, of course, is neither. They are neither of those teams.

They were never as good as they looked during that winning streak because they were getting every possible break to go their way, winning nine of them by a single goal, including seven in overtime or a shootout. Whenever a team wins that many close games in a row everyone associated with them always wants to chalk it up to being a tough, hard-nosed team that just simply finds a way to win. The reality is they are probably getting some good breaks here and there that are contributing to an extended winning streak, and eventually those breaks are going to start working against them. It always happens.

They are also not as bad as this current losing streak because of, quite literally, everything just mentioned.

All of those one-goal and overtime games are suddenly starting to go against them with the first four losses on this streak all coming by just a single goal, including two in overtime. The Sabres didn’t suddenly forget how to win the close games they were piling up a couple of weeks ago. They are just not getting the same types of breaks or bounces they did on the winning streak. Saturday was just a clunker. It happens over the course of an 82-game season.

So what are the real 2018-19 Buffalo Sabres? They are a team that has still taken a pretty significant step from where they were a year ago when they finished as the worst team in the NHL for the third time in five years. They have a bonafide star, Eichel, that now has a legitimate top-line winger in Jeff Skinner to ride sidecar next to him on the first line. They have a young stud defenseman in Rasmus Dahlin that looks like he could be the impact player they have needed on the blue line throughout this entire rebuild. Along with all of that they also have some young, exciting pieces (Casey Mittelstadt, Tage Thompson) that could be worth building around. They are a young, improving team that has put themselves in a pretty good position to end what has been a seven-year playoff drought. They are a team that will play a lot of close games that will sometimes go in their favor, and sometimes not. Right now, those close games are not going in their favor.

 MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.