What will Ken Hitchcock mean for Connor McDavid?

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One of the more intriguing subplots to the Edmonton Oilers’ hiring of Ken Hitchcock is what it will mean for superstar center Connor McDavid, and how the NHL’s most notoriously defensive-minded coach will handle the game’s single most dominant offensive force.

By this point Hitchcock’s reputation as a coach is well known: Defense. Defense. Then just when you think there is enough defense, throw in more defense. This is, after all, the same coach that once told Brett Hull, one of the all-time greatest goal-scorers to ever play in the league, that “goals don’t matter.”

(Seriously, read about it here, and the response from Hull was incredible.)

Despite that mindset, Hitchcock has still coached quite a few teams over the years that finished fairly high on the NHL’s goal-scoring leaderboards, including a couple of top-five offensive teams in Dallas and St. Louis. One thing he has never really had, however, is truly dominant offensive performance from a single player. In all of the years Hitchcock has been a head coach in the NHL, he has never had a player top the 85-point mark in a single season. Mike Modano’s 84 points in 2000-01 with the Dallas Stars were the most. Vladimir Tarasenko, during the 2014-15 season in St. Louis, is the only player Hitchcock has coached to finish in the top-10 in scoring in a given season.

Considering that he is now in charge of McDavid, a player that has exceeded the 100-point mark in each of the past two seasons (during an era where the 100-point scorer nearly became extinct) and won the scoring title each year, some (right here!) might have had some concerns about how he might try to handle him or what might become of his production and offensive impact.

Especially as the Oilers attempt to overcome another slow start and avoid wasting more prime years of a generational talent.

One of the concerns could have been that Hitchcock might try to transform McDavid into something he is not, or try to get him to focus more on defense instead of doing what he does best: create offense. Those types of attempts — which always seem to happen around players like McDavid and bad teams like the Oilers — never seem to work, and usually end up doing more harm than good for a team.

[Related: Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?]

On Wednesday, one day after the Oilers won Hitchcock’s coaching debut in San Jose — thanks in large part to another herculean effort from McDavid to carry the team’s offense all by himself — he was asked about his plans for McDavid.

Basically, he wants him on the ice and with the puck on his stick as often as possible.

“His recovery rate, cardio wise, is astounding,” said Hitchcock, via the Oilers’ website. “He is able to get back up to speed quickly on the bench so that is something we have to take advantage of. More than anything he could come out every second shift if it stays 5-on-5 the way it did the last game.”

From there, he talked about actually getting him the puck when he is on the ice. The first thing he said, without any additional context, might have ignited the fears mentioned above. But overall, it seems to be a pretty sound approach.

“My focus is building his game from our end out,” Hitchcock said. “He needs to have the puck more, as do all of our centers because that is one of the strengths of our team, we have to find ways to get them the puck more deeper in our zone. That is going to be the focus starting tomorrow in practice. I think understanding the value of playing inside the dots, and being in support position where you’re closer to the puck everywhere, you’re closer to the puck when the D has it, you’re closer to the puck when the wingers have it, so it ends up on your stick, your touches are usually double. That is what we want to do, is get way more touches for the whole center ice position.”

There are two things that are interesting here.

First, it comes just a few days after general manager Peter Chiarelli admitted that none of his team’s defenders are exceptional passers. So it makes a ton of sense to try and get McDavid the puck quicker in the zone and allow him to build up speed with it because once he gets going there is nobody in the league that can match up with him. If the defenders can not get the puck out of the zone, let the best player in the world do it.

Second, it seems to suggest the Oilers were not trying to get McDavid the puck earlier under the previous head coach. That just leads to the question of … why not? Might be part of the reason we are having this discussion about new coaches.

Hitchcock was also asked about offensive players like McDavid and Draisaitl having the freedom to “cheat” a little when it comes to trying to create offense.

“No. My view is when you have the puck that is for you, when you don’t have the puck that is for us,” said Hitchcock. “I’m really flexible with the puck. I use concepts and ideas more than X’s and O’s. But there is no negotiation when the other team has the puck. There is no negotiation at all. I expect everybody over the next couple of weeks to start looking the same when the opposition has the puck. That is the area in my domain, that is the stuff a coach controls. There is just no negotiation for me.”

[Related: The NHL’s coaching recycling bin is alive and well]

Overall I still have my doubts about how much of a difference this coaching change will make for the Oilers from a big picture outlook. Every coach before him in Edmonton over the past decade has experienced the same results.

The team beyond McDavid, Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is still badly flawed.

They have no top-six wingers to speak of anywhere on the roster. The defense, by the admission of the guy that assembled it, does not move the puck well. Their goalies are, to put it kindly, a giant question mark. That is a lot of problems that will be hard to overcome through systems, positioning, and coaching.

There is also this little fact that seems to keep getting overlooked: For as much success as Hitchcock has had in the NHL throughout his career, his style of play has not produced much in the way of results over the past decade. It worked wonderfully in the clutch-and-grab era of the league when he had Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov on his blue line, but has gotten him to the second-round of the playoffs just twice in the past 12 years (though, just getting to the playoffs and losing in the first-round would be a substantial improvement for the Oilers). He also been replaced three different times (Philadelphia, Columbus, and St. Louis) during that stretch.

The plus side here is that Hitchcock seems to realize where the strength of his team is and he doesn’t seem like he is going to try and overthink things when it comes to McDavid. He will not only let him be what he is, he seems to want to try and utilize him even more than the Oilers already were this season. Given the way the team plays when he is on the ice versus when he is not on the ice, that certainly can not hurt. It is also probably the only chance he will have to win.

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.

 

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

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.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

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.