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.
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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.”
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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.
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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.