If we’re talking about National Hockey League coaches that have seen it all, Ken Hitchcock is in that upper echelon.
He’s orchestrated five different teams in his 22 years as a bench boss — some 1,571 regular-season games. And in those 1,571 games, he’s won 53 percent of them — 838 wins under his belt, third-most all-time.
He’s fifth in total games coached (third among active coaches) and has a Stanley Cup ring to back up those credentials.
And yet when it comes to the Edmonton Oilers, the man who could pen a coaching encyclopedia has been reduced to dumbfoundedness in Northern Alberta.
“At this time of year the coaches can’t want it more than the players,” Hitchcock said after another lackluster performance in a 5-2 loss against the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be decided whether we want to play the right way because it’s successful or whether we just want to do our thing. To me, today was a day we just wanted to do our thing and we paid dearly for it.
But even a guy like Draisaitl seemed uninterested on Saturday.
In Hitchcock’s post-game presser, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector asked Hitch about the play, when Evander Kane, who eventually scored the 2-0, skated past Draisaitl, who was basically standing still.
“That’s a good question,” Hitchcock responded. “I think it’s a symptom of something much bigger. It’s priorities and what’s important. It just can’t be acceptable.”
The goal in question is here:
The Oilers sit four points back of the St. Louis Blues for the second and final wild card in the Western Conference. They’ve benefitted from the turtle derby (great phrase) around them, so even though they’ve only won three of their past 10, they’re still somehow relevant.
Of course, that won’t be the case for much longer. With 27 games to go, a couple teams around them are starting to figure it out. The Blues, for instance, have won five in a row. The Chicago Blackhawks have strung together six victories on the trot. And with efforts like Saturday’s — the status quo, it seems — their chances, despite their close proximity to a postseason spot, appear to be fading quickly.
“We can’t do the things we are doing and expect to be a playoff team,” Hitchcock said. “When you put skill ahead of work, you get burnt. And there’s too much of it going on.”
Hitchcock’s job is akin to Mission Impossible. But there’s no movie script here or no inevitable save-the-day-moment. There’s no Tom Cruise, either. It’s just a man who figured he might be able to make a difference on a doomed team but has begun to realize he most likely can’t.
And it’s no fault of his own.
He inherited a tire fire with seemingly unlimited rubber to burn. He took charge of a team that has been crippled by bad trades and handcuffed by horrible contracts. Reinforcements aren’t coming.
The table of contents in Hitchcock’s nearly 1,600-game coaching career doesn’t list a section for this.
There’s no manual. No Coaching the Edmonton Oilers for Dummies.
The problems run much deeper and God only knows when they’ll be solved.