Oilers face much bigger questions than what to do with Hitchcock

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When the Edmonton Oilers hired Ken Hitchcock, they were essentially hoping he could be the firefighter who could save the day as the franchise was surrounded by flames like a meme dog with a cute hat and a cup of coffee.

Now that it’s clear that the Oilers’ 2018-19 season is very-much-not-fine, it’s now time to ask a question that seemed almost beside the point at the moment of Hitch’s hiring: should Edmonton bring him back? Sportsnet’s Mark Spector posits such a point in a Tuesday article about Hitch’s “old-school style being just what the young Oilers need.”

For his part, Hitchcock wants to be back. As the Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones reports, Hitchcock described coaching the Oilers as “the best experience of my life” and added the great line that “the way I feel, I can coach until I’m 99.”

But should the Oilers bring him back? And, really, how much does it matter compared to the real front office choice that will truly shape the future of this franchise? Let’s dive in.

Minimal impact

The Spector piece revolves around Hitchcock getting in the “face” of players, relying on emotion rather than “Xs and Os.”

And, no doubt, Hitch has a reputation for barking at players. One can debate all day about whether that approach is effective, and if it’s appropriate for the Oilers.

But what about his actual work behind the bench? When the Oilers fired Todd McLellan, they were a mediocre 9-10-1. With Hitchcock … they’ve been a mediocre 24-24-7.

Their underlying stats are actually worse, too. Through 20 games, Edmonton was basically middle-of-the-pack at even-strength under McLellan. They actually slipped even further under Hitchcock by Natural Stat Trick’s metrics.

Much of the same?

In a lot of ways, it shouldn’t be that surprising that there wasn’t a night-and-day difference. Back in October, I pointed to the Oilers’ system relying far too heavily on defensemen shooting pucks —  defensemen who, really, weren’t even the type of blueliners who seem to be especially adept at that practice.

Once you get by the usual suspects in the top three of shots on goal (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins), there are a lot of pucks being fired by blueliners overall in 2018-19. Edmonton has eight players with 100+ SOG, and of that group, three are defensemen. Four of the top nine are blueliners, too. You might explain that away as Edmonton simply being top-heavy, yet look at another top-heavy offense – like, say, the Avalanche – and you’ll see the top shooters far more populated by forwards.

None of this is to say that Hitchcock is totally out of touch. As this great bit from The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis discusses (sub.  required), Hitchcock has a firm grasp on why successful teams are able to transition the puck in ways that are more successful than the Oilers.

Hitchcock hasn’t been able to transfer “using the middle of the ice” onto the current makeup of the Oilers, but maybe – just maybe – he’d be able to cook better meals with better ingredients. The true key, then, is for the Oilers to find a better grocery shopper.

The GM question matters far more than to keep or replace Hitch

Ultimately, hiring the right GM is enormously important. It’s key for any team, but especially for an aimless franchise like the Oilers, whose executive have made blunder after blunder.

Peter Chiarelli isn’t the only person to blunder far too often in Edmonton, yet looking at the salary structure at Cap Friendly, it’s clear that he’s “accomplished” the unlikely feats of leaving the Oilers with limited skill around their star players and limited cap space to fill in the gaps.

The Oilers slogan might as well be low skill, high bills.

Allan “Lowetide” Mitchell (also of The Athletic) went deep on the Oilers’ future in a multitude of ways lately, coming to two conclusions I share: 1) the Oilers need to emphasize speed and skill in future acquisitions and 2) fixing their problems might be more than a “one summer” job.

It won’t always be easy, and it probably won’t be a seamless transition, but the Oilers need more of the types of players who could move the puck the way Hitchcock described here:

“If you look at any teams that are quick transition, they find the middle of the ice and they’re not afraid to,” Hitchcock said, via Willis. “There’s a risk and a dynamic to play that way, but any of the successful teams use the middle of the ice way more than they use the boards. You can’t be a good transition team if you just keep putting it on the boards. You end up chipping it out and chasing it, you don’t end up with possession metrics at all. You can’t be afraid to use the middle of the ice on your exits.”

The Oilers have been “chipping it out and chasing it” for far too long, valuing brawn and over-emphasizing buzzwords about “character” instead of searching for the sort of swift, slick players who would supplement superhuman speed genius Connor McDavid.

Would Hitchcock truly optimize a roster that had more skill and speed? It’s not clear one way or another, but what is clear is that the current plan isn’t working.

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.