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.

 

Ovechkin to play role of NHL ambassador in China

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Alex Ovechkin will be taking a week away from his summer break to play a different kind of role in the NHL next month.

Ovi is heading to China as the NHL’s international ambassador on the week of Aug. 4. He will travel to Bejing, China’s capital, a trip that will include the Russian superstar holding youth hockey clinics, a media tour and business development meetings.

“It is a huge honor for me to be an ambassador for the entire Washington Capitals organization and the National Hockey League for this special trip to China,” Ovechkin said in a release from the Caps. “I think it is very important to spend time to help make people all over the world see how great a game hockey is. I can’t wait to spend time with all the hockey fans there and I hope to meet young kids who will be future NHL players. I can’t wait for this trip!”

The NHL continues to try and grow the game at the international level in places traditionally not hotbeds for hockey.

China has been seeing a lot of the NHL over the past three seasons. Although no preseason games are scheduled for the 2019-20 season, the NHL has played a total of four since 2017, with the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks contesting two games in 2017-18 and the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames playing the other two prior to last season.

The Stanley Cup found its way to the country for the first time last September, as well.

“We are very excited that Alex Ovechkin will be joining us in China this summer,” said David Proper, NHL Executive Vice President of Media and International Strategy. “Alex represents the best in sports, as he epitomizes that combination of great talent, great personality and great sportsmanship. He is the perfect person to represent the NHL’s efforts to grow hockey in China.”

China, with a population of over 1.3 billion, expects to expand its participation in winter sports, including hockey, to 300 million people by 2022.


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

Report: Police say Greg Johnson’s death an apparent suicide

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DETROIT (AP) — A police report says the death of former Nashville Predators captain Greg Johnson was an apparent suicide, according to the Detroit News.

The paper said Wednesday it had obtained a Rochester Police report, and that Johnson was found by his wife shortly before 10 a.m. on July 7. A gun and a single bullet were found near him. No suicide note was left.

The Oakland County Medical Examiner declined to discuss findings from an autopsy, according to the paper.

Johnson was with Nashville for the franchise’s first season in the league. He spent the last seven years of his career with the Predators. He also played for Detroit, Pittsburgh and Chicago during his 12 years in the NHL.

The Detroit News said Johnson’s agent, Tom Laidlaw, declined to discuss the specifics surrounding the former player’s death. Johnson was 48.

PHT Morning Skate: Penguins need summer miracle again; Devils begin new chapter

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Pens need to make another mid-summer magical change. (Pensburgh)

• Maple Leafs almost certain to lose any trade involving Mitch Marner. (Editor In Leaf)

Zack Kassian to get his chance to play alongside Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl. (The Hockey Writers)

Ryan Spooner heading to Switzerland next season. (Sportsnet)

• The RFA waiting game for big-name players is the norm now, in Winnipeg and the rest of the NHL. (Winnipeg Sun)

• Each team’s worst contract heading into the 2019-20 season. (Puck Prose)

• Biggest fantasy winners thus far in the offseason. (Yahoo Sports)

• Devils begin a new chapter with additions of Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban. (NHL.com)

• Oft-Overlooked Hurricanes On the Rise. (Featurd)

• The oddsmakers are taking the Colorado Avalanche seriously, and so should you. (The Hockey News)

• NHL Network analyst believes Andre Burakovsky will score ‘a minimum’ of 20 goals next season. (Russian Machine Never Breaks)

• The Nashville Predators should go all-in and trade for William Nylander. (Pred Lines)


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

Analyzing the Avalanche after Colorado re-signs J.T. Compher

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The Colorado Avalanche’s offseason continues to come into focus, even as we’re in more of a housekeeping mode, rather than a more exciting time of dramatic renovations.

Earlier, the Avalanche signed intriguing new addition Andre Burakovsky at a bargain $3.25 million rate. While I would’ve been even more excited if the Avalanche would have bought more term, it’s still a nice move, and Burakovsky’s still slated to be an RFA after this one-year re-up expires.

The medium-sized moves continued on Wednesday, with Colorado handing forward J.T. Compher an interesting four-year deal reportedly worth $3.5M per season.

Overall, it’s fairly easy to understand. Compher scored both 16 goals and assists on his way to 32 points last season, despite being limited to 66 games. He quietly logged a lot of minutes (17:29 TOI per game), and had some utility, although the Avalanche might be wise to ease some of his PK duties going forward.

You can dig deeper into certain numbers, or make some tough comparisons, and start to feel not-quite-as-good about Compher’s new contract.

After all, Compher possesses the same contract as now-former teammate Alex Kerfoot, who will carry $3.5M for four seasons with Toronto. On one hand, it’s not as though Colorado necessarily chose to keep Compher over Kerfoot; it’s very plausible that the analytics-savvy Maple Leafs wanted Kerfoot to make that Nazem KadriTyson Barrie deal work, in the first place. On the other hand, the comparisons are natural when you consider their identical deals. Comparing the two using visualizations including Evolving Hockey’s Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) makes this contract look less appealing:

via Evolving Hockey

Compher doesn’t need to equal or exceed Kerfoot’s value to be worth $3.5M per year to the Avalanche, though, and there’s a solid chance that they’ll be fine with this contract.

It does open up an opportunity to ponder where Colorado is, though.

The Avalanche still have a big-ticket item to re-sign, as Mikko Rantanen is one of the many RFAs heading for a big raise alongside the likes of Mitch Marner and Brayden Point. If Colorado can convince Rantanen to sign somewhere in the team-friendly range that the Carolina Hurricanes enjoy with Sebastian Aho, or the borderline insane deal the San Jose Sharks landed with Timo Meier, then Colorado would continue to look like one of the smartest people in the room.

But how many steps have the Avs taken after upsetting the Flames in Round 1 and pushing the Sharks hard in Round 2 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs?

Tom Hunter of Mile High Hockey projected next season’s lineup, figuring that Compher will center a third line with two sneaky-good analytics wingers in Colin Wilson and Joonas Donskoi, while Kadri could center a second line with Tyson Jost and Andre Burakovsky around him.

Losing Kerfoot stings, but on paper, that does seem like a middle-six that could ease some of the burden for that all-world trio of Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. It’s also plausible that the Avs could try to move different pieces around to see if one of MacKinnon or Rantanen could carry their own line, thus diversifying the Avs’ attack.

Yet, with the Central Division continuing to look like a beastly group, it’s tough to say where Colorado fits. Is this team more wild-card material, or will a boosted supporting cast push them to a new level? There’s also the possibility that things don’t work out the same way as they did in 2018-19, from that MacKinnon line slowing to maybe the goaltending falling short.

Whatever value Compher ultimately brings, along with newcomers like Burakovsky, Kadri, and Donskoi, a mild itch for something bolder remains for some of us (I blame the NBA’s run where the West is revolutionized every week, seemingly). At least Avs fans can let their imaginations run wild, as there could be some space left over, even after Rantanen gets paid:

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.