Hitchcock’s first big change for Oilers: More McDavid, Draisaitl

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When Ken Hithcock was first hired to take over the sinking ship that was the Edmonton Oilers’ 2018-19 season he said a couple of things about Connor McDavid that were fairly intriguing.

First, he wanted to make sure McDavid was getting the puck on his stick sooner in the defensive zone. Common sense to want the game’s most dominant offensive force to get the puck as often as possible (and as soon as possible), especially on a team that is lacking in defenders that can efficiently move the puck out of their own zone? Sure it is. But the fact it was something they needed to address is a pretty good sign it wasn’t already happening before.

He also said this:

“His recovery rate, cardio wise, is astounding. 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.”

In other words, get him the puck more and get him on the ice more.

[Related: What will Ken Hitchcock mean for Connor McDavid

McDavid and the Oilers have still only played four games under Hitchcock, but the early results show he is getting on the ice far more often than he was under Todd McLellan earlier this season.

Four of McDavid’s top-10 games this season in terms of ice-time have been the four games he has played for Hitchcock.

It is also fair to point out that three of those games have gone to overtime so there are obviously more minutes to be had with the, but when you take a look at what percentage of the Oilers’ ice-time he is getting it paints a pretty clear picture — Hitch is using his best player as much as he can.

At least so far.

That is a pretty big increase, especially as it relates to the 5-on-5 play where McDavid went from playing 34 percent of the minutes under McLellan, to more than 41 percent over the past four games. Overall, he has played nearly 20 additional minutes at 5-on-5 in Hitchcock’s first four games than he did in McLellan’s final four games.

Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers’ other star forward, has also seen a jump in his ice-time with three of his top-six ice-time games for the season coming under Hitchcock.

Here are his total ice-time numbers.

Is this something that will continue the rest of the season? Is it even possible for them to keep playing that many minutes? Or is this just a small blip on the radar for a new coach trying to turn around a desperate team? We will obviously just have to see how that all plays out. For the time being, though, Hitchcock has clearly decided to lean on his two best players as much as he possibly can early on in his tenure behind the bench.

It is also probably his only chance to win right now given the state of the roster which is still mostly “McDavid, Draisaitl, and then pray somebody else does something.”

So far this season McDavid has already had a hand in 50 percent of the team’s goals, which is somehow an even bigger number than he accounted for a year ago when he “only” had a hand in 46 percent of the team’s goals.

There is also a massive change in the team’s performance. With McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5 play they outscore teams by a 19-14 margin. They get outscored 29-18 without him on the ice.

Playing your best player more isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel or revolutionizing the game here, but it at least shows the Oilers probably were not maximizing what McDavid (and Draisaitl) could do for them in the first part of the season.

The Oilers are 2-1-1 so far under Hitchcock and are back in action on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

McDavid and Draisaitl have combined for nine points in those first four games.

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.