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.

 

Can Lundqvist bounce back? (Plus other Rangers questions)

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

Let’s tackle three questions for the Rangers in 2019-20 …

1. How will the new guys fit in (and how many new guys will fit in)?

Don’t blame head coach David Quinn if he uses phrases like “learning process” a lot next season, as there are a ton of new faces in New York, including players who figure to be top scorers and minute-eaters.

It’s not just about getting the most from Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba. Really, it’s not even about integrating likely rookie impact-makers like Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox.

The Rangers must also decide if prospects like Vitali Kravtsov will make the team out of training camp, and if they’ll stay long enough to eat up a year of their rookie contracts. Quinn must decide if players like Lias Andersson are ready to take another step forward.

From a forwards and defense level, this is a very different-looking team, something that was cemented by the Kevin Shattenkirk buyout. As far as chemistry experiments go, the Rangers are basically mad science.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | X-factor]

2. Is Henrik Lundqvist washed up?

If you had to choose one Ranger to forget all about last season, it would be Lundqvist.

The Rangers’ defense was abysmal in 2018-19, and Lundqvist buckled under the pressure of trying to carry that sorry bunch, suffering through a season where he had a very un-Hank-like .907 save percentage.

When you look a little deeper at the numbers, you’ll see that his 2018-19 season wasn’t that far from normal, or maybe a “new normal.” Via Hockey Reference, you can see that his even-strength save percentage has been nearly identical for the last three seasons, as it was .919 in both 2018-19 and 2017-18 and .918 in 2016-17.

Before that, prime Lundqvist was regularly beyond .930 at even-strength, and so frequently above .920 overall that you almost set your watch to his elite play.

Considering that he’s 37, maybe the window for his elite play has finally closed, but maybe Lundqvist can squeeze out one or two more great years? Let’s not forget that Lundqvist wasn’t exactly protected in Alain Vigneault’s latter years with the Rangers, as those teams were often horrendous from a possession standpoint.

If Quinn can create more of cocoon for Lundqvist (and Alexandar Georgiev), might the Rangers improve at keeping pucks out of their own net? Even with Panarin leading a big boost in offensive punch, you’d think they’d need a lot more than they got from their goalies last season, Swiss cheese defense and all.

3. Will the playoff picture be an open road or treacherous path?

The Rangers aren’t the only team in their division that should be tough to gauge once prediction time rolls around, making it difficult to tell if the Metro will compare to what was a mighty Atlantic Division last season.

The Devils are just about as wildly different as the Rangers, and the Flyers made bold moves in their own right.

It’s easiest to imagine the Rangers falling in the wild-card range, so a lot may hinge on how other teams perform, both in the Metro and Atlantic Divisions. If the Panthers and Sabres take big strides — as they’re paying to do — then the Atlantic teams could gobble up as many as five playoff spots, forcing the Rangers to break into the top three of the Metro. That might be asking too much, so the Rangers have to hope for a little bit of a buffer when it comes to the playoff bubble.

(You know, unless they end up being far better or far worse than expected.)

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Rangers put Quinn under pressure to show spending was worth it

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The Rangers are Broadway’s NHL team, so consider the 2018-19 season a “dress rehearsal” for head coach David Quinn.

Expectations were low for a team that telegraphed a rebuild to the point of sending out a press release, but you can take the training wheels off after the Rangers invested huge money and resources into the likes of Artemi Panarin, Jacob Trouba, Kaapo Kakko, and Adam Fox.

If this was a video game or fantasy hockey, you’d seamlessly improve with seemingly more skilled players without much fuss. Actually making it all work in reality isn’t always so simple, though, putting Quinn under pressure to make it all come together in 2019-20.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | X-factor]

Let’s consider some of the challenges ahead.

Manufacturing a Bread Line, and managing young guns

The first question falls under “good problems to have,” as Quinn should ponder how to get the most out of Panarin.

As PHT’s Scott Billeck discussed here, one likely combination would involve Panarin lining up with top center Mika Zibanejad, and rookie Kakko. There are plenty of other ways to experiment with Panarin, though, and a lot of those possibilities hinge on which younger forwards can earn significant reps, or even spots on the roster at all.

One could imagine Panarin setting the table for someone like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, or Vitali Kravtsov, much like Panarin undoubtedly helped Pierre Luc-Dubois become a quick study in the NHL during Panarin’s days with the Blue Jackets. It could end up working out best if Panarin and Zibanejad power one line apiece, or it may be better to concentrate that high-end, more experienced NHL scoring talent on a first line.

Along with Kravtsov and others fighting for roster spots, there are also players with something to prove, from Chris Kreider and Pavel Buchnevich to someone coming off of a rough stretch like Vladislav Namestnikov.

It’s up to Quinn to mold this intriguing, but somewhat unshapen group into something cohesive. Unlike last season, the raw materials are there for something, even if this group isn’t necessarily primed to be explosive out of the gate.

Getting some stops

The good and bad news is that the Rangers’ defense basically had nowhere to go but up. It won’t be easy to generate the sort of gains that can help the Rangers contend, though.

Jacob Trouba’s getting his wish: he’s the man on that New York defense, no question about it; we’ll see if this is a “careful what you wish for” situation, because if this unit’s going to be any good, it will probably come down to Trouba being the minutes-eating top guy.

Adam Fox has been drawing hype for a while, but what can he be right off the bat? Considering the Rangers’ personnel, they might not be able to ease the 21-year-old into the NHL fray as much as would normally be ideal.

Even with considerable gains, the Rangers will probably continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: ask a whole lot from Henrik Lundqvist.

The 37-year-old is coming off of the worst year of his NHL career, as he languished with a .907 save percentage behind that lousy defense. Lundqvist can’t be asked to patch up the same mistakes as he did during his prime, but if the Rangers are going to take a big step forward, they need King Henrik to return somewhere close to form.

If not, that presents another hurdle for Quinn. Can he manage Lundqvist’s ego — and placate those around him — while getting results in net, particularly if it becomes clear that Alexandar Georgiev would be the superior option most nights? That’s a potential instance where problems become as much political as tactical, and answers rarely come easily.

***

Change can come quickly in the NHL, yet even by those standards, the Rangers have undergone a dramatic makeover. Quinn is charged with making sure that things don’t end up looking ugly.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Grade the Hurricanes’ new road uniform

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On Tuesday morning Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new road uniform for the 2019-20 NHL season, ditching their primary storm logo on the front for some diagonal lettering that spells out “Canes.”

It is a rather simplistic design, but it is clean and pretty sharp.

Along with the wording across the front, they also brought back the warning flags along the waistline of the jersey.

Have a look.

Other features as part of the new uniform: The new secondary logo (the hockey stick with the warning flags attached to it) appears on both shoulders, while the helmet will feature a raised 3-D sticker of the primary logo which you can see here.

You can check out all of the features at the Hurricanes’ website.

What do you think, hockey fans?

Is it a good look? Does the diagonal lettering work for a team that is not the New York Rangers? What is your grade for the Hurricanes’ new road uniform?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 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.

Panarin changes everything for Rangers

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New York Rangers.

The last time a New York Rangers player cracked the 80-point mark in the NHL was a decade ago.

Then, Marian Gaborik was a much younger version of his self and putting up impressive seasons as a marquee player.

Since then, the Rangers haven’t really had that sort of offensive pizazz. That hasn’t always stopped them from having success, of course. But adding a guy who has the potential to hit the 100-point plateau at just 27 years of age could figure in moving that success to the next level.

[MORE: 2018-19 Review | Under Pressure | Three Questions]

Being the team playing in an attractive destination and with mountains of cash on July 1 presents a wealth of opportunities in the free-agent market and for the Rangers, it was their lucky year.

Signing Artemi Panarin long-term as he just enters the prime of his career, is the single biggest get of the summer. For any team.

Panarin brings elite scoring to a club that needs it amidst their (now accelerated) rebuild. But Panarin is so much more than just premium point producer.

His possession numbers are off-the-charts good. He’s a responsible player at both ends of the ice, creates more goals than allowed when he’s on in five-on-five situations and creates more high-danger chances than are seen against him. Furthermore, in terms of goals above replacement, Panarin was 10th in NHL this past season.

And this season, Panarin doesn’t bring a bad full of distraction with him.

Last year, questions swirled all year about his future. There will be none of those this time around.

Instead, he’s likely to be paired with Mika Zibanejad and perhaps even Kaapo Kakko in what could be something of a mega line in terms of scoring and shutting down the opposition.

Panarin is that x-factor. He brings so much to a team and he’s now in a position to lead a much younger Rangers team into what appears to be a bright future.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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