Ken Hitchcock and developing young players

One thing that caused a lot of frustration in Oil Country was how Todd McLellan handled young players. Specifically, McLellan caught the ire of Oilers fans for the lack of faith he showed in Jesse Puljujarvi, who has spent the first three years of his professional career kind of floating in purgatory.

McLellan, as we know, was fired on Tuesday morning. I don’t know if his handling of young players like Puljujarvi was one of the issues that ultimately led to his dismissal, but it’s fair to say that development wasn’t a strength. Even though he’s known as a tough, old school coach, the Oilers youth is in better hands with Ken Hitchcock at the helm.

A couple weeks ago, former Oiler Iiro Pakarinen spoke about his personal frustration with McLellan during his time with the organization. Pakarinen said that communication was poor and he never really knew where he stood with the coaches, if he was playing well, or what they wanted from him. Though he’s never come out and said it explicitly, there’s certainly reason to believe the young Finn Puljujarvi feels the same way.

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We talk a lot about how the game of hockey is evolving. We’re moving away from physicality, fighting, and grit and we’re moving towards speed, skill, and systems. With that, we talk about roster composition and how the front office needs to find players who fit the changing and evolving league. One thing we kind of gloss over, though, is that as the game itself is changing, so are the people who are playing it.

There’s a whole new generation of people coming up to play in the NHL. The league is now pretty much dominated by millennials who have a completely different learning style than the generation above them. And no, I’m not going to dive into whether or not players should be allowed to play Fortnite together, but the influx of this new generation creates a brand new challenge for coaches looking to develop and get the most out of their players.

The Call

Hitchcock spoke about working with millennials in an interesting article put out last winter at The Upset out of Dallas.

“I find when you talk after a game, to this younger generation, they can’t really remember what you said,” he said. “All they remember is whether you were happy or mad. So they’re missing the message, so to the message get delivered in teaching the moments the next day.

“I talked to [a player] about what I saw in his game and what needs to be improved and I told him why this has such a big impact on our team in a positive way. Well he left the meeting, which was a stern message, but he left the meeting positive. So he has a very clear picture of how he has to play tomorrow to help us win.”

Hitchcock has always been known as an extremely good motivator. Given that he’s from Sherwood Park, you probably don’t have to go very far to talk to somebody in this city that has a Hitchcock story.

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During his time in the league, Hitchcock has coached some damn good teams. His record speaks for itself. He’s third all-time in wins as a coach with 823m he won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars back in 1999, and he was a part of all of Team Canada’s Olympic gold medals in the past couple decades.

Throughout that time, he’s also developed some damn good players in the league. Looking back at those Stars teams, he inherited an underachieving team with a lot of young talent. Over three years, he helped a young Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen become some of the game’s best two-way players, Sergei Zubov becomes one of the NHL’s best defenders, and guys like Jamie Langenbrunner, Brendan Morrow, and Brad Lukowich became very solid NHLers. Next up, he went to Philadelphia. Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter, and Mike Richards were all players who came up under Hitchcock. Recently in St. Louis, we saw the development of Alex Pietrangelo, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, and Colton Parayko under Hitchcock’s watch.

David Pastrnak thinks Leon Draisaitl should win the Hart Trophy

Obviously, Hitchcock isn’t perfect. He is still an old school guy with a big emphasis on defensive play, which doesn’t necessarily bode perfectly for the league’s transition to high-flying speed and skill. But still, there’s certainly a track record of success in developing very good, multi-dimensional players. The Oilers are a really young team and there’s a lot for them to learn. Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, Oscar Klefbom, Jesse Puljujarvi, and Kailer Yamamoto — all big parts of the organization’s future — are aged 25 or younger. Having a coach oriented towards communication and thinking about the bigger picture will be a breath of fresh air for this group.

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    • Quoteright

      It’s the full 200 foot game. Back check like heck. Get the puck for offence. I like the idea that players can do whatever they want with the puck but without the puck they have to play Hitch’s way. Seems smart to me.

    • Real Oiler Fan since 83

      That is excactly right Spydr. That is why players like Hall and Eberle will never win anything beyond an individual award. The oilers can play a 200 ft game every night. Just takes some discipline. Let’s go boys!!!

    • PChan121

      Yup, just googled, Oilers lost every game that they allowed 4 or more goals this season except for the comeback against the Jets in OT. Championship is build from the goalie and up.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    Hitch is a vastly different coach than TM in that he will push players button to get their best out of them , you need to only ask Mike Modano how that worked out for them as well as serveral others.

    That is one of the differances in Tm and Hitch , Hitch will tell qa player where the shortcomings are in their game and make suggestions and work with a player to fix them, to make them better. Tm figures you will fiigure out what is wrong and fix it

  • Ty Guy

    So what do we do with Jay Woodcroft who is down teaching Todds game in Bakersfield? Guys get called up and have no clue on the system they are supposed to play at the NHL level now?

      • Ty Guy

        I would think for simplicity and understanding sake that a lot of farms do keep a same or similar game plan in place. The game I saw last night was a very different style form Todds. Pretty sure part of Woody going down to AHL was to help implement the same game plan they would see at the NHL level.

      • The future never comes

        I think to much is made of systems, people pretend it’s like these players need to solve the matrix. Hockey is simple ic you follow the cardinal rules, keep between the man and the net, get the puck in or out within five feet of both bluelines, head man the puck, crash the net for rebounds dont swoop on by after a shot was taken. Not hard, at this stage it’s more about getting the most out of your players through effort levels and commitment to doing the simple little things that adds up.

    • Glencontrolurstik

      We need only heed the last line in the article…
      “Having a coach oriented towards communication and thinking about the bigger picture will be a breath of fresh air for this group.”
      This alone, Oiler Fans should be excited.

  • percy

    Hope the next time Larsson makes a lazy ass attempt like the last goal, Hitch benches him. I think this time we have the right type of coach for this team. Someone who can beat the demons out of this bunch. Guess we will see.

    • TruthHurts98

      It was a bad goal by Koskinen on that play too. His right skate and pad was out of the net, he was way out of position. The goalie coach will probably be replaced and I’m sure Hitch will be working on a lot of bad habits and creating structure which this team lacks.

  • Hemmercules

    Defend well and the offence will come on its own. I wasn’t sure about the hire at first but I liked everything hitch had to say after the game last night. He’s confident and a little hard nosed but I think he might be able to get more out of this team. Good start beating a solid playoff team. A clean sweep of Cali would be pretty nice.

    • Spydyr

      You are right a team with McDavid on it would be wise to play tight defensively and jump on the other teams mistakes and turnovers. Defence first and the offense will come off of the good defence. It really is not that difficult. The problem is getting the players to buy into it. Hopefully Hitchcock will do what he says he wants to do and get the players to play for each other instead of with each other.

  • camdog

    Hitchcook’s emphasis on structured hockey is no different than the new coaches coming into the league. Strong positional play wins in the modern NHL. Players that were successful with their weak positional play when Hitch broken into the league play in the KHL today.

    • Dallas Eakins Hair

      The thing about TM in the press scrum is when he gets asked a question he never really directly answers it, he’s like a damn politician in that he two steps his way around it without ever really answering it… drives me nuts, like you’d think he was on trial or something

  • @S_2_H

    God I’m so tired of hearing about the Iiro interview. Who cares if a 4th line fringe nhl’er felt that the coach didn’t give him more face time. Every practice and every game the coaches tell the players what’s expected, so why did Iiro say he didn’t know what was expected of him? Why does he think he deserved a more personal touch? Disappointing comments from a very disappointing player.