firing

Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

7 Comments

Continuing a staggering run of coaching changes around the NHL this month, the Edmonton Oilers put Todd McLellan out of his misery on Tuesday, replacing him with … Ken Hitchcock?

No, it’s not surprising to see McLellan out of a job; yes, it’s a little bewildering to see Hitchcock come out of “retirement” to get this shot with the Oilers. Will the gamble pay off, though?

Band-Aid solution?

At the moment, it seems like a short-term fix, which makes sense since Hitchcock is 66 years old.

Actually, it’s amusing to see several of the positive spins revolve around “hey, the Oilers put themselves in a great position to maneuver in the likely event that GM Peter Chiarelli gets fired.” It’s yet another painful reminder of how low the expectations have sunk for a team that employs hockey superhuman Connor McDavid.

In trotting out a longer argument for why Hitchcock was a smart hire, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector hit on a lot of the notes you’d expect, such as experience, which makes sense since Hitchcock is third all-time in coaching wins.

Of course, Hitchcock’s willingness to ruffle feathers is maybe the standout quality of this decision:

Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make.

Then again, one person’s “experience” is another person’s clue that someone might be behind the times. Being a “strict disciplinarian” can also mean that you’re making players miserable, and failing to connect.

Those who respond with something along the lines of “tough luck” or “rub some dirt on it” should consider that Hitchcock crashed and burned with the Dallas Stars, and saw his Blues teams mostly disappoint in the postseason. His lone Stanley Cup win came in 1998-99. McDavid was born in 1997. It’s tough to imagine many key Oilers being in awe of Hitchcock’s accomplishments if he’s barking at them over and over again.

Inconsistency mixed with incompetence

Let’s not forget, either, that many of these Oilers have been given a long span of instructions over the years.

To recap this run of ineptitude and misery, ponder this list of Oilers head coaches since 2009-10:

  • Pat Quinn (2009-10)
  • Tom Renney (2010-11 to 2011-12)
  • Ralph Krueger (2012-13)
  • Dallas Eakins (2013-14 to 2014-15)
  • Todd Nelson (remainder of 2014-15)
  • Todd McLellan (2015-16 until Tuesday)
  • Ken Hitchcock

That list is almost as embarrassing as Peter Chiarelli’s record of trading, or the Oilers’ run of biffing just about any prospect who isn’t a no-brainer. (That trembling you felt to the point of almost hearing was Jesse Puljujarvi‘s anxiousness regarding inevitable trips to Hitchcock’s doghouse.)

Diminishing returns?

The thing is, the disciplinarian angle might be where all the gains are made, because it’s really difficult to imagine that Hitchcock can get much more out of this team from a schematic standpoint.

The Oilers haven’t been an outright-terrible team from various puck possession standpoints, as you can see from sites like Natural Stat Trick. For the most part, Edmonton’s slightly positive in areas like shots for versus against, Corsi For %, and have generated a bit more high-danger chances for than against.

Could Hitchcock goose those numbers up a bit? Sure, but it’s difficult to imagine Edmonton making a quantum leap.

In other words, this isn’t exactly like the Penguins going from a stuck-in-quicksand nightmare of a bland team under Mike Johnston to an attacking team that accentuated its strengths (and survived its weaknesses) during Mike Sullivan’s best moments.

Instead, this feels like the Oilers are replacing a quiet, defensive-minded, somewhat old-school guy in Todd McLellan to … a defensive-minded, old-school guy who has a reputation for yelling a lot in Hitchcock. How much of a difference will that really make, aside from allowing people to soundtrack sad Connor McDavid moments with Simon & Garfunkel?

Bright coach, but more of the same?

Look, Hitchcock is a bright hockey mind. He really deserves credit for adapting to the game as much as anyone could reasonably expected, as he did particularly well when he experienced a lull between his time with the Blue Jackets and taking over the Blues.

Hitchcock had some fascinating things to say about the game back in 2012, as you can see from this piece in The Globe & Mail.

“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day,” Hitchcock said. “Not the game day, the next day.”

Again, it’s possible that Hitchcock could be a nice tactical upgrade over McLellan, for all we know.

Sometimes you’ll also see teams get a quick burst from making a coaching change, something that might be easier to see in a younger, seemingly less-optimized team such as the Oilers than an older team that might just be out of gas, like the Kings.

A bump for goalies?

One thing that could be intriguing: maybe Hitchcock could get Jake Allen on the right track?

Say what you will about the old coach, but several goalies have enjoyed their best years under his watch. Steve Mason was a sensation. Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts during one season.

(No, you didn’t just dream that back in 2008-09.)

Could this be a boon for Cam Talbot and/or Mikko Koskinen? Stranger things have happened, and if nothing else, Edmonton’s goalies should be motivated.

Chia’s growing mistakes

While it’s plausible that Hitchcock might find solutions where McLellan could not, this also feels like an organization stuck in its ways. Saying all the right things really rings hollow when Kevin Lowe is still receiving a high-level paycheck, and Chiarelli’s actions aren’t those of someone who’s learned from mistakes.

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said, via TSN’s Frank Servalli. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Chiarelli is allowed to keep swinging despite strikeout after strikeout. That defense that can’t pass well? He signed them, let Jeff Petry go, and believed guys like Kris Russell were the solution. Chiarelli hired McLellan. He thought Milan Lucic was worth adding, even if it meant trading away Taylor Hall. And on and on.

Now, Chiarelli’s gambling that a sage-like (but also sage-aged) coach can swoop in and save Edmonton’s season. Oh yeah, it also feels like a pretty slap-dash solution:

[Can the Oilers keep going on like this?]

Hitchcock’s walked into rocky situations before, and in several instances, he left them better than when he came in.

The Blue Jackets were a mess, and Hitchcock brought them to their first-ever playoff berth. He seemed to provide a nice boost to the Blues, at least in a brief way. He’s forgotten more about hockey than we’ll likely ever know.

This Oilers gig seems like mercenary work, and might be the toughest bounty this old hand has ever experienced. Hitchcock is bright enough to possibly make it work, but it all still feels like a longshot.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Minnesota Wild coach Todd Richards shouldn’t take the blame for another disappointing season

2 Comments

It might seem a bit absurd to call a team that nearly hits the salary cap ceiling “scrappy,” but that could be the best way to describe the 2010-11 Minnesota Wild. The description may have been apt when they were fighting hard without heart-and-soul player Mikko Koivu, at least.

Yet whatever moral victories you would like to attach to the Wild, the bottom line is that they fell apart down the home stretch of the regular season. For that reason, many – including Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal – wonder if head coach Todd Richards will be the fall guy in Minnesota.

After all, there’s that cliche that you can’t fire a team, so you fire the coach, right?

Simply put, though, if the Wild want to look for a source of blame, they should set their gaze higher up the food chain. There are two ways to look at a roster whose output doesn’t match their cost: either the coach isn’t getting the most out of those players or the general manager did a shabby job putting a team together.

After looking at the Wild’s ugly, expensive roster, I doubt I’m the only one who would lean toward the second option. The biggest problem, though, is that GM Chuck Fletcher isn’t responsible for all the blunders; he gained the title on May 2009 after original GM Doug Risebrough saddled the team with pricey, low-value deals.

In many ways, the Wild are a slightly less dire and depressing version of the Florida Panthers. Both teams play a bland style of hockey and frequently find themselves in hockey purgatory, not being good enough to make an impact in the playoffs but also being just successful enough not to get a valuable high-end draft pick or two. In the long run, both teams find themselves without many blue chip prospects, so the future looks to be full of more shoulder shrugs.

Ultimately, the easiest way to throw some meat to the wolves (aka the many miffed Minnesota fans) would be to fire Richards. The team doesn’t have a ton of money for free agents this summer, especially with Koivu’s far more expensive contract extension kicking in. It’s too early to really blame Fletcher, too.

The problem is that Richards had this team fighting hard before they inevitably fell apart due to the fact that, frankly, they aren’t very good. I could see firing him if he played a dual role of coach and GM, but he isn’t the person ultimately responsible for assembling this tepid collection of half-talent.

Then again, perhaps the only hope the Wild have of persevering beyond their middling existence is to hire some “miracle worker” behind the bench. It might be their only course of action, even if it’s likely that such a move would be an example of change happening for the sake of change.

Poll results: PHT readers think that Brian Burke and Ron Wilson should be fired

2 Comments

Coming off the Toronto Maple Leafs’ embarrassing 5-0 loss to the Edmonton Oilers – and considering the widespread hand wringing that ensued – it seemed like a good time to ask if Brian Burke and/or Ron Wilson should get canned on Friday.

Similarly enough, tonight seems like a solid one to publish the results. After all, Burke and Wilson’s Leafs are currently playing the Boston Bruins (the game is tied 1-1 after the first period as of this writing), one of the teams associated with Burke’s biggest moves.

(In case you need a refresher, Burke gambled big on a trade with Boston for Phil Kessel in a deal that included highly valuable draft picks, most notably one that gave them the chance to select Tyler Seguin.)

Honestly, this seems like a situation in which a volatile, please-the-masses firing would do more harm than good. Aside from the expiring contract of fledgling backup J.S. Giguere, Burke locked the Leafs into Kessel and Dion Phaneuf being their big money guys. Cleaning house would be a difficult thing right now and would simply hit the “Reset” button on a rebuilding process that’s gone on since (at least) the lockout.

Now, don’t get me wrong; that’s not my way of saying that either Burke or Wilson is excelling at their jobs. It just seems like they Leafs would be better off sticking with an ugly marriage rather than dealing with a crippling divorce.

Enough of my thoughts, though, let’s take a look at who PHT readers would fire if they were in charge.

(click to enlarge)

As you can see from the poll, an overwhelming majority (46.2 percent or 73 of 158 votes) believe that both Burke and Wilson should be fired. The next largest group of readers wanted Wilson to go (42 votes or 26.58 percent) while almost as many readers voted for neither (36 votes or 22.78 percent). A remarkably scant amount of voters thought that Burke should be the only one to go (7 votes or 4.43 percent), although then again, it is difficult to imagine Burke going and Wilson staying.

Again, contextually, I think it’s a bad time for a house cleaning with the ownership situation in the air and very little flexibility to make big moves before next summer. If it were based on job performance alone, though, it would be pretty hard to argue that either Burke or Wilson deserve to keep their jobs.

(At least in a league in which firings are extremely commonplace outside of Buffalo and Nashville.)