Things have been going great for the Edmonton Oilers ever since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench, with their 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night being just their fifth loss, and only the third in regulation, in 14 games under their new coach. That run has propelled them back into a playoff position in the Western Conference for the time being and is at least giving fans some hope another year of Connor McDavid‘s prime will not be wasted.
Still, Sunday’s loss was one that did not seem to sit well with the Oilers’ coach because of the way McDavid was defended by the Canucks. Specifically, he did not like the “tug of war” brand of hockey the Canucks were using on the league’s most dominant offensive player behind the play without any calls going in their favor.
For the game, the Oilers were shorthanded five times to just one power play (though, in fairness, two of the Oilers’ penalties were delay of game penalties while a third was a too many men on the ice call).
After the game Hitchcock was asked about the penalty differential.
“I’m not going to comment on the penalties,” said Hitchcock. “The stuff that really bothers is what’s happening to Connor. That really bothers me. Because we’re a league that’s supposed to showcase our top players. You don’t want to give them all the freedom, but the tug-of-war on him was absolutely ridiculous today. That’s a little a bit discouraging to be honest with you. I can see the whacking and hacking when he has the puck, it’s all the stuff behind that doesn’t allow him to showcase his speed and if that’s what we want, then that’s fine. I think it’s a real disservice to a player like him.”
In response to a follow-up question he said McDavid is “not allowed to play give and go … it’s give and hold.”
Let’s start with the fact that Hitchcock is one million percent right about everything he said there. It is a disservice to players like Connor McDavid to have to fight through that, and it is a disservice to the game and the league, and it should not be what anyone wants to see.
Every other league looks for ways to make it so its star players can shine and show off their skill, while the NHL seems to be just fine with its superstars having to fight through chaos that should, according to the letter of the law, be penalties.
Wayne Gretzky had to deal with it. Mario Lemieux had to deal with it. Sidney Crosby had (and still has to) deal with it. McDavid has to deal with it. It stinks.
What is amazing about all of this coming from, of all people, Ken Hitchcock, is that he saw most of his greatest successes as an NHL head coach come during an era when that brand of tug-of-war hockey was a mainstay across the league, with his teams (specifically the ones in Dallas) being one of the leading culprits in defending other team’s star players in such a way.
The dead puck era, the clutch and grab era, whatever name you want to call it, Hitchcock benefitted the most from it and he made no apologies for it, and quite honestly, he shouldn’t have. If that is the way the league was going to call it, more power to him for taking advantage of it.
Maybe his strategy has changed over the years (though, he has talked in the past about wanting to create more flow in the game).
Or maybe finally having a generational talent on his team and seeing first hand what they have to fight through has opened his eyes to how frustrating that style of hockey is, especially when the league is more than happy to let it go.
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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.