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.

What is Kovalchuk’s future with Kings?

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When Ilya Kovalchuk returned to the NHL this season both he and the Los Angeles Kings were probably expecting better results than this.

The Kings, after making the playoffs a year ago, have been one of the worst teams in the NHL and look like a franchise that is in dire of need of a rebuild. They changed coaches early in the season, made a handful of trades, and have a ton more work to do this summer to hit the reset button on a franchise that has become completely stale.

Kovalchuk, meanwhile, has managed just 14 goals and 31 total points in his 60 games and has found himself as a healthy scratch on more than one occasion, and especially recently as the team tries to look toward the future in what has become a lost season.

That coaching change earlier in the season, which saw Willie Desjardins take over behind the bench for John Stevens, seems to have been a turning point in Kovalchuk’s season, at least based on what he said on Friday when talking about his latest healthy scratch.

From the Los Angeles Times:

“After Willie came here, I don’t have a chance,” Kovalchuk said. “I play five, six minutes a game. A few games I play with Kopi. We did well. We score all five games, but then he decided to change and I never play again much. That’s the way he sees the situation. He’s the head coach and he’s responsible for results.”

There is some evidence to back up that claim as it relates to his playing time.

In the first month of the season Kovalchuk was playing close to 20 minutes per game and had eight points in his first 11 games under Stevens. In the five months that have followed under Desjardins his average ice-time by month has been 15:09, 14:17, 17:25, 16:13, and most recently 14:46 in March. There was an injury mixed in there that robbed of him some games, but he has also found himself as a healthy scratch as the team dresses seven defenders and only 11 forwards, and has also had four games this season (all under Desjardins) where he has played under 12 minutes, including three under 10 minutes.

Given his age, reduced role, and obviously declining production, as well as the fact the Kings are clearly looking to rebuild it should certainly bring his future with the team into some sort of question.

He still has two more years at more than $6.25 million per season remaining on his contract. He also has a no-movement clause and a limited no-trade clause in the final year, according to CapFriendly.

So he would hold a lot of cards in where he might end up playing if it is not Los Angeles.

Still, he told the media on Friday that he is not looking to move on and that his family has settled into the Los Angeles area.

Again, via the Los Angeles Times:

“It’s another challenge for me,” Kovalchuk said. “I’m even more motivated now because [this has happened] … like, it’s not fair to me but I’m not going to cry in the pillow. The sun’s up and the kids are in school and they’re happy and that’s most important thing. I will find a way to go through this, for sure.”

All of it together creates an interesting situation for everyone involved. If the Kings really do go through with a full-on rebuild it is hard to see how Kovalchuk would fit in those long-term plans, especially if the current coach isn’t willing to play him and he isn’t happy with that role.

While he may not be the 45-50 goal scorer that he was during the first part of his career in the NHL, we also don’t really know what he is still capable of at this level because he might have in the worst possible situation for offense this season. Not only because of the way he has been used, but because the Kings are once again one of the league’s worst offensive hockey teams. He may not be actively searching for a fresh start on another team, but it may be the best thing for everybody involved.

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.

Blue Jackets’ Bobrovsky has been dealing with upper-body injury

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When Sergei Bobrovsky did not play in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night, coach John Tortorella said it was because his goalie was “nicked” and gave no further explanation.

Given that it was the third time the Blue Jackets had not dressed their starter for a key game down the stretch as they try to make the playoffs, it was enough to speculate that perhaps he has been injured for some time now. Especially after the team added Keith Kinkaid at the trade deadline from the New Jersey Devils.

On Saturday, we got a little bit of clarification on what exactly Bobrovsky has been dealing with.

The Blue Jackets’ goalie told the Columbus media that he has been dealing with an upper-body injury that has been bothering him for a while, and that he did not feel he was healthy enough to help the team on Thursday in Edmonton (it likely wouldn’t have mattered as the Blue Jackets only managed a single goal in a 4-1 loss).

Bobrovsky was back at practice on Saturday but said, via Jackets insider Jeff Svoboda, that he will have to see how he feels on Sunday before his status for their game in Vancouver is determined.

As of Saturday the Blue Jackets are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and one point out of a playoff spot.

Depending on what happens with the Montreal Canadiens’ game on Saturday night when they play the Buffalo Sabres, the Blue Jackets could find themselves as many as three points out when they take the ice the on Sunday in Vancouver.

In 55 games this season Bobrovsky has a .909 save percentage for the Blue Jackets.

Like many other key players on the roster, including trade deadline acquisitions Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, he is eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.

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.

Lightning dominance by the numbers

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have not only been the NHL’s most dominant team during the 2018-19 season, but they have a shot to be remembered as one of the all-time greatest single season teams the league has ever seen.

The enter Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues with 58 wins on the season, needing only four wins to match the record that was set by the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings.

They are 12 points back of the 132 mark that was set by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens (in what was at the time an 80-game season).

Topping the point record would take at least a 6-0-1 record in their remaining seven games on top of what is currently a seven-game winning streak, so that would be asking quite a bit, especially given how difficult their remaining schedule is. But the wins mark is certainly well within their reach. Even if they do not get to either mark, there is no denying this has been one of the best regular season performances by any team in the history of the league.

With that in mind, here are some incredible numbers highlighting their dominance this season.

There is no one close to them in the standings

The Lightning have been so much better than every other team in the NHL this season that they wrapped up the Presidents’ Trophy with the league’s best record on March 18, when they still had nine games remaining on their schedule.

Entering play on Saturday they already have 120 points in the standings with still seven games to play.

For context on that, consider the following…

  • Since the league introduced the three-point game at the start of the 2005-06 season, only two teams have ever had more than 120 points in a full season — the 2005-06 Detroit Red Wings, who finished with 124, and the 2009-10 Washington Capitals, who finished with 121. With a win on Saturday the Lightning would jump ahead of that Capitals team and close to within two points of the Red Wings. Keep in mind, again, that the Lightning still have seven games to play this season.
  • As it relates to the 2018-19 season, the Lightning are 21 points ahead of the next closest team in the league (a tie between the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins). The 21-point gap between them and the second best team is the same as the gap between the second best team and the 18th best team in the league.
  • The obvious asterisk that you would put next to this team is that they play in the shootout era and have a chance to add up wins and points that teams prior to 2005-06 did not have the opportunity to register. It is a fair point, especially when we are comparing teams across different eras and the Lightning have won six games in shootouts this season. But even if you remove those six wins and six additional points, the Lightning would still be one of only 43 teams to have won at least 52 games in a season. Again, they still have seven games to play. Even if they only win three of them and *only* get to the 55-win mark, there were only eight teams prior to the shootout era that won that many games in a season.

They do not just win, they win big

Along with what is, by far, the best record in the NHL, the Lightning also have what is the league’s best goal-differential having already outscored their opponents by exactly 100 goals for the season.

Only one other team has a goal-differential better than plus-43 (the Calgary Flames at plus-56), and only three others (Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, and Winnipeg Jets) enter Saturday as better than plus-30.

In the history of the league only 31 teams have had a goal-differential of plus-100 or better through their first 75 games of the season, and only two teams (the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings and 2005-06 Ottawa Senators) have done it since 1989.

They have an offense from a different era

Their ability to score is like something out of the 1980s on both an individual and team level.

Let’s start with the latter, and take a look at their 3.89 goals per game average. That is 0.31 goals per game better than the next highest scoring team in the NHL.

That 3.89 per game average is the highest mark since the start of the 2005-06 season, and makes them only the third team during this era (the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators and 2009-10 Washington Capitals being the other two) that have averaged more than 3.80 goals per game.

Going as far back as 1990, only 19 teams have averaged more goals per game in a single season. Of the 18 teams ahead of them, 17 of them played between 1990 and 1994, and none of them played after 1996. They are one of only four teams in the top-40 in goals per game since then that played after 1994.

Keep in mind how different that era of offense was from today.

Average total goals per game in the NHL between 1990 and 1994: 7.04

Average total goals per game in the NHL in 2018-19: 5.98

Then we have their leading scorer, Nikita Kucherov, who has just absolutely lapped the field this season in the points race.

He has already topped the 80-assist and 120-point mark this season, something that only 20 other players in NHL history have accomplished, and none since 2006-07. It is only the sixth time it has been done since 1994. He still has seven games remaining this season.

Assuming he maintains his current pace, he is on track for 91 assists and 131 points this season. No one has topped 90 assists and 130 points in a season since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96, and it has only been done by eight different players in NHL history (Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Pat Lafontaine, Peter Stastny, Bobby Orr, Adam Oates, and Steve Yzerman). It is truly a season for the ages and should make him a slam-dunk MVP winner this season.

They also have a chance to be the first team since the 1995-96 Pittsburgh Penguins (Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, and Petr Nedved) to finish a season with three different 40-goal scorers.

Given their current pace, here is where Brayden Point (39 goals in 73 games), Steven Stamkos (38 goals in 75 games), and Nikita Kucherov (37 goals in 75 games) project to finish this season:

Point: 42 goals
Stamkos: 41 goals
Kucherov: 40 goals

Success is not anything new to this Lightning team.

They have been one of the NHL’s best teams since the 2014-15 season, reaching the Eastern Conference Final three times in four years, and once reaching the Stanley Cup Final (the two years they lost in the Final, they lost in Game 7). The one thing they have not been able to do is finish, allowing a series lead to slip away in each of those postseasons runs. That, combined with their regular season dominance, is almost certainly going to put Stanley Cup expectations on this team when the playoffs begin. Whether or not they are able to finish the job this season remains to be seen, but they have certainly put themselves in a position to be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever if they can pull it off.

Related: Lightning clinch Presidents’ Trophy for first time in franchise history

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.

Push for the Playoffs: Predators, Jets play for first in Central

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Push for the Playoffs will run every morning through the end of the 2018-19 NHL season. We’ll highlight the current playoff picture in both conferences, take a look at what the first-round matchups might look like, see who’s leading the race for the best odds in the draft lottery and more.

The top spot in the NHL’s Central Division has been a back-and-forth race between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, and on Saturday evening the two teams will be meeting head-to-head for the final time this season in what could be a pivotal game in who ends up taking the top spot.

Winnipeg enters the day holding a two-point lead over the Predators in the standings, while also still owning a game in hand the rest of the way and the first tiebreaker (42 regulation wins for the Jets, to 38 for the Predators). All of that together makes this an absolutely massive game for both teams, but especially for the Predators if they have any hope of winning the division.

Failing to gain a point on Saturday would put them in a four-point hole, and because they don’t own the tiebreaker, would need to gain five points on the Jets to pass them over their remaining six games. That would not be an easy thing to do and would not only require a lot of help in the form of the Jets losing a handful of games down the stretch, but also leave Nashville without almost no margin for error in its remaining games.

So while it remains a huge game for both teams, it takes on even more importance for the Predators because of how much ground they would have to make up with a loss.

Even if the Predators win in regulation on Saturday, the Jets would still technically own the top spot in the Division by having played in one fewer game and also having more regulation and overtime wins.

The Jets have won two of the previous head-to-head games this season.

Elsewhere in the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames can take control of the Pacific Division with a win over the Vancouver Canucks.

Thanks to San Jose’s loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night, the Flames enter Saturday with a four-point lead in the Pacific Division race and can open that up to a six-point lead with a win.

That would not yet clinch the division, but it would be a massive cushion to have this late in the season.

The Flames have only won their division one time (the 2005-06 season) since 1994-95 and can take a big step toward claiming the Pacific on Saturday night.

IF THE PLAYOFFS STARTED TODAY

Lightning vs. Canadiens
Capitals vs. Hurricanes
Islanders vs. Penguins
Bruins vs. Maple Leafs

Flames vs. Wild
Jets vs. Stars
Sharks vs. Golden Knights
Predators vs. Blues

TODAY’S GAMES WITH PLAYOFF CONTENDERS

Coyotes vs. Devils (1 p.m. ET)
Islanders vs. Flyers (1 p.m. ET)
Blackhawks vs. Avalanche (3 p.m. ET)
Predators vs. Jets (7 p.m. ET)
Rangers vs. Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET)
Sabres vs. Canadiens (7 p.m. ET)
Bruins vs. Panthers (7 p.m. ET)
Wild vs. Hurricanes (7 p.m. ET)
Lightning vs. Blues (8 p.m. ET)
Penguins vs. Stars (8 p.m. ET)
Red Wings vs. Golden Knights (10 p.m. ET)
Flames vs. Canucks (10 p.m. ET)

TODAY’S CLINCHING SCENARIOS

The Bruins will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Panthers in any fashion…

OR

• If they get one point against Florida AND the Canadiens lose to the Sabres in any fashion or defeats Buffalo in a shootout

The Winnipeg Jets will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they get at least one point against Nashville OR if any of the following occurs:

• Avalanche lose in regulation to the Blackhawks AND either the Coyotes lose in any fashion to the Devils or the Wild lose in any fashion to the Hurricanes.
• The Coyotes lose in regulation AND the Wild lose in any fashion
• The Coyotes, Avalanche and Wild each lose in any fashion

The Nashville Predators will clinch a playoff berth…

• If they defeat the Jets in regulation or overtime AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in any fashion
• The Avalanche lose in any fashion
• The Wild lose in regulation

OR

If they defeat the Jets in a shootout AND all of the following occur:

• The Coyotes lose in regulation
• The Avalanche lose in regulation
• The Wild lose in regulation

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Lightning — Clinched
Bruins — 100 percent
Capitals — 100 percent
Maple Leafs — 99.9 percent
Penguins — 99.6 percent
Islanders — 99 percent
Hurricanes — 92.1 percent
Canadiens — 56.1 percent
Blue Jackets — 50.2 percent
Flyers — 3 percent
Panthers — 0.1 percent
Sabres — Out
Rangers — Out
Devils — Eliminated
Red Wings — Eliminated
Senators — Eliminated

WESTERN CONFERENCE

PLAYOFF PERCENTAGES (via Hockey Reference)

Flames — Clinched
Sharks — Clinched
Jets — 100 percent
Predators — 100 percent
Golden Knights — 100 percent
Blues — 100 percent
Stars — 91.2 percent
Avalanche — 40.1 percent
Coyotes — 35 percent
Wild — 25 percent
Blackhawks — 6.6 percent
Canucks — 1.1 percent
Oilers — 1 percent
Ducks — Out
Kings — Eliminated

JACK OR KAAPO? THE DRAFT LOTTERY PICTURE

Senators — 18.5 percent*
Kings — 13.5 percent
Red Wings — 11.5 percent
Devils — 9.5 percent
Rangers — 8.5 percent
Ducks — 7.5 percent
Sabres — 6.5 percent
Oilers — 6 percent
Canucks — 5 percent
Blackhawks — 3.5 percent
Panthers — 3 percent
Coyotes — 2.5 percent
Avalanche — 2 percent
Flyers — 1.5 percent
Blue Jackets — 1 percent**

(*COL owns OTT’s 2019 first-round pick)
(**OTT owns CBJ’s 2019 first-round pick)

ART ROSS RACE

Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay Lightning — 120 points
Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers — 107 points
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 101 points
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 94 points
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins — 93 points

ROCKET RICHARD RACE

Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals — 48 goals
Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers — 43 goals
John Tavares, Toronto Maple Leafs — 41 goals
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks — 41 goals
Brayden Point, Tampa Bay Lightning — 39 goals

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.