July 29 2013 11:55AM
Ken Hitchcock has been a head coach in the NHL for 15 seasons, and he's earned a reputation of being a very demanding coach. Last year, Hitchcock told me he's changed his coaching style a bit. He isn't as demanding on non-game days as he was when he coached the Stars and Flyers, but on game days players still need to play the way he wants or they likely won't play.
Hitchcock gave me some insight into David Perron, and he also shed some light on how he plans to alter Magnus Paajarvi's game.
Perron is, and will be, a better offensive player than Paajarvi, but what was it that Hitchcock and the Blues saw in Paajarvi that they liked?
I asked Hitchcock where Paajarvi would fit amongst the Blues' forwards.
We saw the chemistry he had with [Patrik] Berglund in the World Championships because I coached in those Championships. So we see him and Berglund as a pair and then whether we use [Vladimir] Tarasenko or [T.J.] Oshie, we’ll see. We feel he’s a third line player, a real defined third line player that is going to be able to kill off penalties and we’re banking on the chemistry that he and Bergman had in the World Championships continue. They’re good friends, they get along well together and we see that as a real positive for us. We don’t see him as a top-six for us right now, we see him as this defined third line guys that’s going to fit in well.
One of the things that the trade does is that it really does open up ice time for [Jaden] Schwartz and Tarasenko. Both of these guys played great last year, we need to create space and time for them.
We know that David is a good player; Perron is going to be a really good player for Edmonton. He’s more than a scorer too, he’s a really competitive guy, and we used him a lot to kill penalties. He can play in every situation and we know he’s going to be a really good player.
But with Magnus we feel that we got some definition on that third line which we didn’t have before and we think that he’s going to add a lot to our group. He’ll probably get 10 to 20 goals and as I said he and Bergie are going to be able to play against top players.
After watching Paajarvi for the past few seasons I felt he would be a solid third line player, rather than a top-six forward, so it makes sense listening to Hitchcock's evaluation of him. It is interesting to note that he plans on using him against top players, although playing with Berglund will help. Paajarvi has world class speed, and the Blues desperately needed more speed in their lineup.
The one criticism of Paajarvi has been his unwillingness to use his size to his advantage. He is still a young player, so he has time to work on that, and when Brownlee asked Hitchcock about Paajarvi's style of play, the Blues' coach very quickly outlined how he plans to enhance Paajarvi's game.
I know what you’re saying Robin and the question is are we going to get him to play through people, and the answer is yes. We’re going to get him to play through people. I know what you’re saying; there is a difference between playing to people and playing through people. In St. Louis we had the same challenge with three or four other forwards; Jayden Schwartz was the same was, he used to just play to people. T.J. Oshie was the same way, we were able to make those guys and get them to adjust, Valdimir Sobotka, the same thing, we were able to show them the difference, explain to them how to do it and then put mechanisms in place and sometimes the bear in the woods had to come out. But we got ‘er done and they learned how to do it properly and we feel very confident that Magnus will be able to do that for us in very short order.
Hitchcock has a plan for Paajarvi, and he isn't afraid to be hard on young players to get their attention. He won't shy away from bringing out his "bear in the woods" persona to get their attention.
Listening to Hitchcock talk about getting players to play through people and to people was awesome. I've said for years the Oilers have been too soft. Sadly, many felt that comment means they have to fight more, and that isn't the case at all.
I love a good tilt now and again, but they Oilers don't need a heavyweight, they need to be more competitive and play harder. Hitch's definition of playing through people rather than to them makes perfect sense, and I'll be curious to see if Dallas Eakins tries to employ a similar mindset in Edmonton.
Jonathan Toews is a great example of a skilled player who plays through people, not just to them. How often in the past five years have you seen the Oilers coast towards the opposition. They haven't been dogged on the forecheck, and they don't create enough turnovers.
It is clear Hitchcock is going to challenge Paajarvi to alter his game and play through people. I hope Eakins does the same with the Oilers.
When Craig MacTavish acquired Perron I thought it was a great trade for the Oilers, mainly because they got the better player. Some wondered why the Blues would part with a skilled, young player. Hitchcock explained why Perron was available.
I think that everybody knows it was obvious. We all know the financial situation in order to fit everybody under the cap and being in the position of having to sign Stewart, Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo we knew we were going to be in a squeeze. We’re going to be a cap team, like a lot of team, but we needed to make sure that we had everything in order.
The biggest thing for me with David is that when he puts the work in ahead of the skill, he’s an impact player. He’s a defined top six guy, he’s going to have a huge impact on the game, but he’s no different than anyone else. The Oilers have had guys to learn that over time.
When you put the skill in over the work, you know what happens, you end up maybe scoring goals, but you end up a minus player. David really improved last year in putting the work in ahead of the skill, and if he does that I think that everybody in Edmonton will be thrilled by him. But he’s like a lot of other young guys, it’s hard to do that every night. Sometimes he fell off a little bit and he’s having to learn that. He’d be the first guy to tell you that he’s starting to recognize when he does and doesn’t do it. If he can reach that stage where he does it every night, he’s going to be a hard guy to play against.
Again Hitchcock nailed it. You have to put the hard work ahead of the skill. Every hockey fan can see the Oilers have loads of skill in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, Justin Schultz and Perron. However, if the Oilers are going to succeed this season, Eakins needs to improve the overall effort of the team.
I've debated for years that the Oilers don't work hard enough on a nightly basis to win in the NHL. last year they showed they were good enough to compete, however, they didn't learn how to find that competitive level every night. It is the main reason why they could win 6-2 one night and then get dominated in the next few games.
The good teams not only have elite level skill, they have incredibly high work ethic. Having experience is a major plus as well, because some nights when they feel sluggish they can rely on experience and smarts to make the right plays.
I don't want the Oilers to play the same style as the Blues, and frankly I don't think they could, but it would be great to adopt or employ the two traits that Hitchcock outlined; play through people and put work ahead of skill consistently.
I'm not suggesting the Oilers abandon their skill, far from it, but you can't win in the NHL on skill alone. The Oilers aren't the only team with elite skill.
Do the Oilers have more proven skill in their top six than the Ducks, Kings, Canucks or Sharks? I didn't think so.
If Eakins can convince the Oilers to increase their competitive drive on a nightly basis, then they will be competitive. If not, they are destined to extend their playoff drought to eight seasons.