By just about any measure, the Ken Hitchcock era has been a slam-dunk success for the Edmonton Oilers so far.
Through 11 games, the Oilers are 8-2-1 under Hitchcock. Edmonton’s now on a four-game winning streak after beating the Avalanche 6-4 on Tuesday, while they’ve also won seven of eight games.
They’ve narrowly outshot their opponents 337-329 since Hitchcock took over on Nov. 20, and their possession stats have been respectable-enough during that span. With the way things are going, Mikko Koskinen could be the latest in a line of goalies who’ve enjoyed glorious times under Hitchcock, and he might actually have some staying power compared to, say, Pascal Leclaire and his nine shutouts with Columbus back in 2007-08.
People can fuss over how much this surge has to do with Hitchcock’s acumen (or the competence Hitch can wring out of fear), but the Oilers will gladly take this boost.
That said, there are reasons to have mixed feelings about the Hitchcock era and its potential impacts, whether you’re Connor McDavid, an Oilers fan, or a fan of hockey as a sport. How about we work through some of those conflicting thoughts and feelings?
The world is a saner, better place with McDavid in the playoffs
Look, life is short. Injuries can happen, whether they present speed bumps to a career or derail them entirely. Just look at the struggles Sidney Crosby eventually worked through (mostly?), not to mention how rapidly Marc Savard’s promising career fell apart. If Hitchcock’s tweaks can get McDavid to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, more fans will be exposed to the sheer, 120-mph genius that is number 97.
It’s been argued that the Oilers verge on being the best team in the NHL when McDavid is on the ice, and something quite far from that when he’s not. There are worse viewing experiences than turning your attention from another screen back to an Oilers game in time for all of McDavid’s shifts.
All things considered, Hitchcock’s probably close to optimizing this rendition of the Oilers.
While Hitchcock seems interested enough in the “little things” to get better results out of various players, it still feels like the plan boils down to “grind everything down to a halt and hope Connor (and to a lesser extent, Leon Draisaitl) will carry you to wins.
That might seem like an insult, until you realize that it’s the best course considering what Hitchcock’s working with. After all, a little less than a month ago, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli railed against the defense he built, admitting that none of them are “exceptional passers.” With that in mind, it would be foolish to try to emulate, say, the Mike Sullivan Penguins by hoping to play a space-age, innovative, breakout-heavy game. Slowing the game down makes plenty of sense in context, and Hitchcock remains almost freakishly effective at giving his teams short-term boosts:
So, the good news is that Hitchcock is a shrewd hockey mind who can eke out better results from this limited group.
The less-sunny-side is that there are bright, shining, neon lights pointing to this not working. It was honestly surprising that Chiarelli remained as GM after last season, considering he’s the architect of a roster that generally asks McDavid to be Superman every night.
Hitchcock’s success conjures some worst-case scenarios, then. What if he’s clever enough to get them to the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, possibly winning a round or two? Such success could lull Oilers management into a false sense of security, keeping them from making the progress that might open the door for McDavid to actually, you know, have some help around him.
In that way, Hitchcock could be the best possible paint on a hole in the wall/Band-Aid on a bullet wound. Considering that Hitch is already 66, it’s likely that he’s a short-term fix. He’s a great one in that, but still.
[More McDavid, Draisaitl under Hitchcock.]
Harming a revolution?
Much of the focus has been on the Oilers, aside from notes about how all of our lives will be brightened by more Connor McDavid, particularly Playoff Mode Connor McDavid.
But the NHL is a copycat league, and there’s the more existential fear that other NHL teams will see an Oilers team that might ride low-scoring, low-event games and think, “Hey, we should play boring hockey again, that clearly works.”
This would be unfortunate, as the league’s currently continuing its upward trend of scoring, which saw a noteworthy bump starting in 2017-18. So far, teams are allowing 2.89 GAA per game, up from last year’s 2.78. Some of that disparity can be chalked up to curiously shaky goaltending, but it’s important to note that the pace of games has improved, with a modest bump in shots each night. If you were to randomly turn on an NHL game in 2018, you’d likely face higher odds of being entertained than, say, in 2015. Sometimes the bump in entertainment value is pronounced; in other ways, the differences can be subtle. Nonetheless, we’re generally seeing more skill on the ice, less dump-and-chase drudgery, and more entertaining hockey.
The worry, then, is that coaches will see situations like Hitchcock succeeding with the Oilers and return to their worst, fun-killing instincts.
Hopefully these concerns aren’t justified, but those thoughts surface. After all, Hitchcock’s history points to the Oilers’ blueprint for winning being closer to “McDavid scores the only goal” (1-0 win against Calgary on Sunday) than 10-goal games (beating the Avs 6-4 on Tuesday).
Ultimately, these “state of the games” aren’t Hitchcock’s concern, and the Oilers seemed to make a wise decision by hiring him. The sky won’t fall if this only portends greater success in, say, June.
Nonetheless, there’s the dream of the Platonic ideal of the McDavid Oilers: a team that embraces their speedy, near-superhuman superstar, playing fast and skillful hockey. The fear is that, if things break the wrong way, the Oilers will end up looking more like a nightmare: a bland team that mires the best player in the world in mediocrity.
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James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.