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.

The Buzzer: Garland, Raanta help Coyotes roll; Capitals stay hot

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Three Stars

1. Antti Raanta, Coyotes

The Arizona goaltender earned his first shutout of the season and 12th of his career with a 31-save performance during a 3-0 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Power play goals from Derek Stepan and Jakob Chychrun helped power the Coyotes to their fourth win in five games. The win puts them now one point behind the Oilers for the Pacific Division lead.

2. Braden Holtby, Capitals

The Capitals netminder was kept busy during a 5-2 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. Holtby made 32 saves, which included 25 stops in the final 40 minutes. Washington has now won their last seven games that Holtby has started and 10 of their last 11 with him in net. He also passed the 25,000 career minute mark to join Olaf Kolzig as the only goalies in franchise history to hit that number. John Carlson picked up two assists and now has 11 multi-point games this season.

3. Conor Garland, Coyotes

Garland was one of three Coyotes with multi-point nights (Christian Dvorak and Nick Schmaltz the others) as he netted a goal and an assist in the victory. He now has three goals in his last four games is up to 10 goals and 14 points through 22 games this season. In 47 games a year ago, Garland recorded 13 goals and 18 points.

Hathaway ejected for spitting

A late second period melee sparked by a Brendan Leipsic hit on Derek Grant saw several fights break out as Chandler Stephenson scored. Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway ended up tangled with Erik Gudbranson and was given a five-minute match penalty for spitting at the Ducks’ defenseman. Hathaway could face further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension.

Hockey Hall of Fame class of 2019 inducted

Guy Carbonneau, Vaclav Nedomansky, Hayley Wickenheiser, Sergei Zubov, Jerry York, and Jim Rutherford were inducted Monday night in Toronto.

Highlights of the Night

Alex Ovechkin was left open in his favorite spot on a power play. Guess what happened next?

• Sweet spinning pass from Dvorak to set up Garland’s goal:

• With the game in Arizona, the Coyotes decided to troll the Kings by unveiling a Taylor Swift banner (backstory here). How did that go over with LA? Well…

Factoid of the Night

Scores
Capitals 5, Ducks 2
Coyotes 3, Kings 0

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Capitals’ Hathaway ejected for spitting on Ducks’ Gudbranson

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Just as combatants were being separated in the aftermath of a heated brawl, Erik Gudbranson gave Garnet Hathaway another punch and received something he didn’t expect in return.

Hathaway spit on him and was thrown out of a feisty matchup Monday night he and the Washington Capitals won 5-2 against Gudbranson and the Anaheim Ducks. Hathaway said he regretted the loogie that could spark further punishment from the NHL in the form of a fine or suspension, and the Ducks were spitting mad about the entire incident.

“That’s about as low as you dig a pit, really,” Gudbranson said. “It’s a bad thing to do. It’s something you just don’t do in a game, and he did it.”

Hathaway was given a match penalty for spitting in the latter stages of the fracas late in the second period. Gudbranson got a 10-minute misconduct, Anaheim’s Nick Ritchie was also ejected for being the third man into a fight and a total of 50 penalty minutes were doled out.

“These games can get physical and they can get nasty,” Ducks coach Dallas Eakins said. “These guys’ll throw down, drop their gloves, that stuff goes on in the game, but what I saw there I haven’t seen – I think I’ve been in pro hockey 30 years maybe – and I’ve never seen that before. It’s just something you don’t see in the game.”

After some off-and-on hostilities in the first 39 minutes, Washington’s Brendan Leipsic incited the brawl by bulldozing Anaheim’s Derek Grant just before Chandler Stephenson scored to make it 3-0 Capitals with 33.4 seconds remaining in the second. Almost all 10 skaters on the ice got involved, and Hathaway fought Gudbranson, Grant and Ritchie in a matter of minutes.

Officials were attempting to separate players when Gudbranson rabbit-punched Hathaway, who then spit in his face with referee Peter MacDougall a few feet away. Officials checked the video before confirming a five-minute match penalty and game misconduct on Hathaway for spitting, which carries an automatic ejection.

“Unfortunately, spit came out of my mouth after I got sucker punched and it went onto him,” Hathaway said. “It has no place. It was an emotional play by me. You don’t plan any of that stuff in your head, and it was a quick reaction and unfortunately the wrong one for me to a sucker punch.”

Ducks defenseman Brendan Guhle had been agitating much of the night, almost dropping the gloves with Tom Wilson and tripping up Leipsic in various incidents. It all paved the way for the brawl.

“It just escalated,” Guhle said. “It for sure was in the works. There were scrums all night. Guys were going after each other. That’s how it goes sometimes.”

The fighting and Hathaway spitting overshadowed the NHL-leading Capitals winning their second in a row and picking up at least one point for the 14th time in 15 games. Alex Ovechkin scored his 254th career power-play goal, Richard Panik, Stephenson and Jakub Vrana also scored, Wilson sealed it with an empty netter and Braden Holtby made 32 saves for Washington.

“He’s tremendous,” Ovechkin said of Holtby. “He’s working hard. Of course, everybody has ups and down, but his game right now is definitely up.”

Ducks goaltender John Gibson made several spectacular saves to keep his team in the game. Gibson stopped 26 of the 30 shots he faced, losing for the 10th time in 17 starts despite third-period goals from Sam Steel and Nicolas Deslauriers.

“We need him,” Eakins said. “We’re a team in transition.”

Anaheim is also an angry team after seeing Hathaway spit on Gudbranson.

“At the end of the day, it’s probably the least respectful thing you can ever do to somebody,” Grant said. “We’re all competing out there and sometimes the game gets that way. As a group, I thought we did a good job sticking up for each other. That’s a tough one to swallow.”

Unexpected hat trick gives Ducks’ Grant rare opportunity

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If you weren’t expecting Anaheim Ducks forward Derek Grant to record a hat trick this season — as he did in the Ducks’ 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues on Saturday night — you weren’t alone in that thought.

That thought also extended to his closest friends and resulted in a friendly wager over the summer that now gives the Ducks’ forward an opportunity to name a childhood friend’s first-born child.

Grant first mentioned it during a between periods interview on Saturday, and expanded on it on Monday.

From the Ducks’ Adam Brady:

Another buddy had suggested that if he made a hole-in-one the next day on the links he should be allowed to name the baby.

“My one friend said he should get to name it if he gets a hole-in-one that day golfing,” Grant recalled with a chuckle. “I’m not quite as good a golfer, so he made it real for me if I get a hat trick this year, I’d get to name his first child.”

Grant added that even though his friend’s fiancee was a little skeptical of the idea at first, the couple is fully on board with him naming their child.

This probably seemed like a safe bet for his friend to make because before Saturday Grant had scored just 18 goals in 228 career games and had only scored two goals in a game once. He played 92 NHL games before scoring his first career goal during the 2017-18 season.

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.

 

Hurricanes’ Haula out with more knee issues

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A couple of years ago the expansion draft process gave Erik Haula an opportunity to get an increased role with the Vegas Golden Knights.

He took advantage of that opportunity with a breakout season that saw him score 29 goals and become a key part of one of the most improbable Stanley Cup Final teams ever.

It has been a tough road for Haula in the two seasons since due to injuries, and now his first year with the Carolina Hurricanes is being sidetracked by more knee issues.

Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour announced on Monday that Haula is “going to be out for a while” and that he does not think the forward will be playing anytime soon due to continued issues with his knee. Haula had recently missed four games this season due to soreness in his surgically repaired knee before returning to the lineup on Thursday against the Buffalo Sabres. He played in each of the Hurricanes’ past two games, logging 27 minutes of total ice time in a more limited role.

Haula was originally injured a little more than a year ago when an awkward fall during a game in Toronto resulted in him being stretchered off the ice. He did not play another game for the Golden Knights and was traded over the summer in salary cap-clearing deal.

He was off to a great start this year with eight goals in his first 16 games with the Hurricanes. That total has him just one goal off the team lead where he trails Andrei Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Dougie Hamilton (all three have nine goals, while all three have played in all 20 games so far).

This is a tough injury for both the Hurricanes as a team and for Haula on a personal level.

First, the Hurricanes are losing one of their most productive forwards and a player that had already seemed to be a perfect fit in their lineup. His addition was a huge boost to their forward depth and so far everything had been working exactly as planned for a team that has its sights set on becoming a championship contender.

As for Haula himself, he is currently in the final year of his contract and given the way he has produced the past three years when healthy he was playing his way toward what could be a fairly significant raise this summer, whether it was with Carolina or another team. There is obviously still a chance he can return at some point this season and pick up where he left off, but the short-term outlook is definitely concerning.

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.