Getty Images

Oilers’ Hitchcock left dumbfounded after latest loss

6 Comments

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.

The only reason the Oilers can even sniff the playoffs this year is Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a log jam of teams who appear to unwilling to want to separate themselves from each other.

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.

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Hitchcock not happy with ‘tug of war’ hockey being played vs. McDavid

13 Comments

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.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

 

The Buzzer: Is it too early to give Pettersson the Calder?

Getty
1 Comment

Three Stars

1. Elias Pettersson

What’s easier: giving Pettersson the top star of Sunday, or just cutting through the red tape and handing him the Calder right now?

OK, the NHL can’t do that. After all, someone might close the 11-point gap between Pettersson (30 points) and every other rookie (Colin White‘s in second with 19), especially if the league is robbed of the glory of more Pettersson in the event of an injury.

His special Sunday really highlighted the gap between the Canucks wunderkind and everyone else. Pettersson scored the game-winning goal to go with four assists for a five-point performance. The kid is special, and you really don’t need the “for a rookie” caveat.

2. Brock Boeser

Normally, it might be best to lean away from placing two teammates in the top three, but sometimes you just have to acknowledge the truth. These two forwards are a blast to watch. The Boeser + Pettersson combo doesn’t merely make the Canucks palatable. If you’re not ready to go, they can absolutely dominate, stealing games for Vancouver in the process.

Boeser collected a hat trick as the Canucks bombarded the Blues by a 6-1 score:

3. Josh Morrissey

This is a tough call, as Morrissey’s teammate Mark Scheifele and Ducks forward Ondrej Kase also deserve serious consideration with their own three-point Sundays.

Morrissey gets the nod because his goal was a game-winner (Scheifele had three assists, while Kase’s goal and two assists lacked the GWG). Granted, it was the GWG in a lopsided game but … hey, we’re splitting hairs, here.

There were some nice goalie performances, yet with Mikko Koskinen being the only guy getting a shutout – and a light one, needings 24 saves – let’s hand the bronze to a skater.

Morrissey celebrated his first game in a week by collecting those three points as the Jets routed the Flyers. Along with the goal and two assists, Morrissey managed a +2 rating, three SOG, and one blocked shot.

Highlights

Admittedly, it’s strange to use the word “harmonious” to describe a hockey play, especially when Brad Marchand is involved. Such a description comes to mind here, though, as Marchand, David Krejci, and Torey Krug combine for an absolutely beautiful overtime game-winner:

While it doesn’t match the sheer beauty of that Krug tally, Connor McDavid scored the only goal of Edmonton’s 1-0 win against Calgary on another nice bit of puck movement:

Sunday featured at least a couple throwback “pad-stacking” saves, including this one by John Gibson:

Not hockey, but if you have even a passing interest in the NFL, this Miami Dolphins play is just bodacious. Honestly, “Miami Miracle” doesn’t even feel too over-the-top.

Lowlight

Here’s not how to help Cory Schneider, a goalie who’s been struggling for quite some time: the Devils were guilty of three own-goals on Sunday, with this one possibly being the most egregious:

Factoids

Montreal’s tight win against Chicago is more impressive when you realize the procession of penalties they faced, particularly during a high-stick-happy third period:

Could Mikko Koskinen be the latest goalie to flourish under Ken Hitchcock? He already started off pretty well for Edmonton, but the “low-event” Oilers have really helped him heat up:

More impressive: Marc-Andre Fleury‘s wins total(s), or his sweet, sweet pads?

Scores

VAN 6 – STL 1
WPG 7 – PHI 1
BOS 2 – OTT 1 (OT)
MTL 3 – CHI 2
ANA 6 – NJD 5 (SO)
VGK 4 – DAL 2
EDM 1 – CGY 0

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.

The Buzzer: Hats off to Ehlers; King of the Hill

via Winnipeg Jets Twitter
2 Comments

Three Stars

1. Nikolaj Ehlers

Patrik Laine hit a milestone on Thursday, collecting his 100th career goal. Laine added another later on, pushing his league-leading total to 21 for the season, yet he wouldn’t even be in the Jets’ top three against Chicago.

Then again, that thought explains why Winnipeg is so scary: this team is about a lot more than Laine.

Ehlers, for example, stole Laine’s gimmick for a night by collecting a hat trick. Coming off of two straight 60+ point seasons, NHL opponents should tremble at the thought that the 22-year-old might just be coming into his own, from refining his game to becoming more confident.

This top star nod comes with some bonus fun. The coolest part: Ehlers collected a hat trick soon after shaving a design into the side of his head for Hockey Fights Cancer.

The other awesome part: his face after generating that hat trick.

2. Mark Scheifele/Blake Wheeler

Only three players collected three points on Thursday: Ehlers, Scheifele, and Wheeler. In the cases of Ehlers’ linemates, each got their points via three assists.

That trio sent a lot of pucks on net, even when they weren’t beating Corey Crawford. Scheifele fired six shots on goal, Ehlers had five, and Wheeler provided three.

Jets coach Paul Maurice enjoys plenty of decent options as far as the top line goes, including loading up with Laine alongside Wheeler and Scheifele (or Ehlers). Nights like these make you wonder if they should just stick with Ehlers – Scheifele – Wheelers long-term, though.

3. Adin Hill

Craig Anderson collected the other shutout of the night, stopping 27 shots. Hill finished with a 29-save shutout, and did it against a pretty tough (if banged-up) opponent in the Nashville Predators.

Hill suited up for just his fifth NHL start and seventh appearance overall. Interestingly, he’s been quite effective while being used very sparingly in 2018-19. He’s stopped all 35 shots he’s faced with the Arizona Coyotes in 2018-19, seeing a 20-minute appearance and a 15:57 showing in his other two games this season.

Looking at Hill’s stats at lower levels and during his other, rare NHL looks, it’s tough to imagine him keeping this up. Maybe that’s the true tiebreaker against Anderson, then: Hill might not be here again.

(Stranger things have happened, though. Right, Andrew Hammond?)

Highlights of the Night

In most cases, if a highlight gets its own post or is featured in a post, it may merely get linked. (For example: Nikita Kucherov‘s nice goal lives here.) Elias Pettersson‘s great effort and no-look pass is so good, though, that it’s foolish to risk you missing it. So here it is, again:

Matt Duchene is red-hot, and so is this puck movement:

Factoids

This post details that Patrik Laine became the fourth-youngest player in NHL history to reach 100 goals. He’s been especially fantastic during the month of November, too, as this nugget shows:

Matt Duchene’s month might be even better, somehow.

Ken Hitchcock coming up with the revolutionary strategy of “playing Connor McDavid more” helps the Oilers’ cause, but Mikko Koskinen delivering strong goaltending might be Edmonton’s most important development since all of those times they struck draft lottery gold.

Scores

BOS 2 – NYI 1 (SO)
CBJ 4 – MIN 2
OTT 3 – NYR 0
TBL 5 – BUF 4
ARI 3 – NSH 0
WPG 6 – CHI 5
EDM 3 – LAK 2
VGK 4 – VAN 3

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.

Hitchcock’s first big change for Oilers: More McDavid, Draisaitl

Getty
4 Comments

When Ken Hithcock was first hired to take over the sinking ship that was the Edmonton Oilers’ 2018-19 season he said a couple of things about Connor McDavid that were fairly intriguing.

First, he wanted to make sure McDavid was getting the puck on his stick sooner in the defensive zone. Common sense to want the game’s most dominant offensive force to get the puck as often as possible (and as soon as possible), especially on a team that is lacking in defenders that can efficiently move the puck out of their own zone? Sure it is. But the fact it was something they needed to address is a pretty good sign it wasn’t already happening before.

He also said this:

“His recovery rate, cardio wise, is astounding. He is able to get back up to speed quickly on the bench so that is something we have to take advantage of. More than anything he could come out every second shift if it stays 5-on-5 the way it did the last game.”

In other words, get him the puck more and get him on the ice more.

[Related: What will Ken Hitchcock mean for Connor McDavid

McDavid and the Oilers have still only played four games under Hitchcock, but the early results show he is getting on the ice far more often than he was under Todd McLellan earlier this season.

Four of McDavid’s top-10 games this season in terms of ice-time have been the four games he has played for Hitchcock.

It is also fair to point out that three of those games have gone to overtime so there are obviously more minutes to be had with the, but when you take a look at what percentage of the Oilers’ ice-time he is getting it paints a pretty clear picture — Hitch is using his best player as much as he can.

At least so far.

That is a pretty big increase, especially as it relates to the 5-on-5 play where McDavid went from playing 34 percent of the minutes under McLellan, to more than 41 percent over the past four games. Overall, he has played nearly 20 additional minutes at 5-on-5 in Hitchcock’s first four games than he did in McLellan’s final four games.

Leon Draisaitl, the Oilers’ other star forward, has also seen a jump in his ice-time with three of his top-six ice-time games for the season coming under Hitchcock.

Here are his total ice-time numbers.

Is this something that will continue the rest of the season? Is it even possible for them to keep playing that many minutes? Or is this just a small blip on the radar for a new coach trying to turn around a desperate team? We will obviously just have to see how that all plays out. For the time being, though, Hitchcock has clearly decided to lean on his two best players as much as he possibly can early on in his tenure behind the bench.

It is also probably his only chance to win right now given the state of the roster which is still mostly “McDavid, Draisaitl, and then pray somebody else does something.”

So far this season McDavid has already had a hand in 50 percent of the team’s goals, which is somehow an even bigger number than he accounted for a year ago when he “only” had a hand in 46 percent of the team’s goals.

There is also a massive change in the team’s performance. With McDavid on the ice at 5-on-5 play they outscore teams by a 19-14 margin. They get outscored 29-18 without him on the ice.

Playing your best player more isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel or revolutionizing the game here, but it at least shows the Oilers probably were not maximizing what McDavid (and Draisaitl) could do for them in the first part of the season.

The Oilers are 2-1-1 so far under Hitchcock and are back in action on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Kings.

McDavid and Draisaitl have combined for nine points in those first four games.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.