It was only one game, but there were some noticeable differences in how Ken Hitchcock deployed his players.
Let’s look at what he did, and if you think he’ll continue.
First off, I was a bit surprised how many people wondered if Hitchcock’s style would stifle Connor McDavid’s offence. Trust me, it won’t.
A quick look at history says the exact opposite in fact. Go back to his time with the Dallas Stars. He arrived midway through the 1995/1996 season. His impact wasn’t immediate, as the Stars went 15-23-5 after starting the season 11-19-9. They finished fourth worst in the NHL, but then over the next five seasons they produced 104,109, 114, 102 and 106 points. He was then fired 50 games into his seventh season with the Stars.
Mike Modano was Dallas’ best player during Hitchcock’s run. In 1994, Modano had a career high 50 goals and 93 points. The 50 goals was an outlier, as he never scored more than 38 in any of his other 20 seasons. Under Hitchcock, Modano produced 83, 81, 81, 84 and 59 points (in 52 games). His numbers did not drop. In fact he produced the same, but gave up less. I know, plus/minus doesn’t show everything but in the five full seasons with Hitchcock, Modano was +43, +29, +26 +25 and 0. In the seven seasons prior to Hitchcock’s arrival, Modano had been a minus player five times, and his best season was +8.
When he was in Columbus he coached Rick Nash. The three seasons he was there, Nash produced 69, 79 and 67 points. He had a career high 40 goals. Nash did produce 69 points with the Rangers five years later, but three of his best four years were under Hitchcock.
In St.Louis, Vladimir Tarasenko had 73, 74 and 75 points seasons, producing 37, 39 and 40 goals. The last year without Hitchcock, he dropped to 33 goals and 66 points.
Last season in Dallas Tyler Seguin had a career high 40 goals. Jamie Benn had 79 points, but was a career best +24 at 5×5 (61.8GF%).
Hitchcock doesn’t stifle offence, but he will challenge his best players.
I believe the biggest benefactor under Hitchcock will be Leon Draisaitl. I’m a big fan of Draisaitl’s skill. I chuckle at the suggestions he is overpaid. He was already an elite scorer prior to Hitchcock’s arrival, but Hitchcock will challenge him to round out his game. Draisaitl is very hard on himself, and I believe he will thrive under a demanding coach. He has thick skin. Hitchcock will improve his defensive play, and McDavid’s, and they will become even more dangerous offensively. I think Draisaitl’s subtle grumpiness will match well with Hitchcock’s demanding style.
“Your best players have to believe in your message,” Hitchcock told me during any interview three years ago. “If I can get them to understand what I want, get them to believe in it, then the rest of the team will follow. A coach is only as good as his best players, and I’ve always felt if I can get them to play the right way, everyone else will. I will never discourage offence, in fact I encourage them to be creative, but they have to know when to try the dangerous play and when to make the safe one.”
Hitchcock likes to have a reliable line. He created a new line of Milan Lucic, Kyle Brodziak and Zack Kassian last night. A big, strong, veteran trio. Brodziak played a season-high 14:04.
The second and third lines played about the same 5×5 minutes and against similar competition.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (15:38), Alex Chiasson (11:48) and Ryan Spooner (11:33) faced the Pavelski-Kane line the most, while Kassian (12:19), Brodziak (11:46) and Lucic (10:50) also faced that line the most, but about 45 seconds less. RNH played four minutes more than his linemates and that came split across the other three lines. Timing of line changes contributes to some of that, but he also was out at the end of the first period for a shift with McDavid and Draisaitl. Hitchcock will use his best players the most.
Jujhar Khaira only played 9:09, but I thought he was effective. I won’t be surprised to see him move to centre on the fourth line eventually, and we’ll see Cooper Marody back in the AHL where he can play more and work on his foot speed. Patrick Russell could draw in on the fourth line, as Hitchcock likes size and speed in his bottom six.
Hitchcock is going to challenge the Brodziak line to play some tough minutes, and if he gets quality minutes, despite not a lot of production, from Lucic, that is the best the Oilers can hope for right now. Lucic’s effort hasn’t been an issue all season, and he historically is a solid defensive player, but right now expecting offence from him will lead to disappointment. We all know the contract doesn’t match the production, but if he can play impactful minutes that is a win for Hitchcock at this time. The contract is Peter Chiarelli’s issue more than the Hitchcock’s.
Hitchcock said this about Lucic after the game.
“To me he spent way too much time talking about not scoring goals. That’s not going to help. He needs to do what he did today. He knocked two guys out of the box. He was physical on the puck. He protected the puck. He was great down low. A very effective player.
“He’ll score goals and chip in, but needs to be a really solid third line player who can play on the powerplay for us to be effective. He needs to get back to what he was as a junior player, nevermind what he’s doing now,” said Hitchcock.
The error on this play Hitchcock will focus on isn’t Adam Larsson getting beat by Couture, but rather how Oscar Klefbom didn’t get the puck deep on his dump in. Not making the little plays is what HItchcock focuses on. He will grind on players for those types of plays. Yes, Larsson got beat, it will happen against skilled players, and as Hitchcock has told me many times, “you can’t control the opposition.” Klefbom had the puck under control. Not making that play is solely on him, unlike the Larsson play, where, yes he took a bad angle, but Couture made a great move. Klefbom can control the dump in. Larsson can be better positionally, but Couture might still have made a great play.
Hitchcock can grind on you. Brenden Morrow shared a story about Hitchcock in an article published at the Players Tribune. You can read the article here. It is great. Here is a snippet on Hitchcock.
So Ken Hitchcock has this loud, sort of whiny voice. Kind of reminds me of when Charlie Brown’s teacher is talking.
And during games he’s just going nonstop.
So we’re playing in Phoenix one night back when the Coyotes played at their old arena. Now at that place, they had the bench split up, so there was a spot where two people could sit, and then behind that was the long bench where the rest of the team sat. Why was it this way? No idea. It’s just how it was.
I was playing on a line with Modano and Hull in this particular game. We all know there’s no way our head coach Ken Hitchcock is going to be yelling at those two, so I was clearly going take the brunt of his punishment if things weren’t working out. Those are the breaks when you’re on the ice with two all-timers.
So we get out there for our first shift, and one of us turns the puck over. We get back to the bench, and Hitch just starts laying into me, using every word in the book. I’m just like, “Holy shit, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”
So we go out for another shift, screw something else up, and Hitch is searching for me. He finds me, and then starts chewing me out again. Then we go out for a third shift, and it’s another dud. But this time as we’re skating back to the bench, Hully turns to me and goes, “Hey, you come sit over here with me.” And I join him in the little two-person, love-seat area.
Meanwhile you can see — and you can hear — Hitch waddling around on the other side of the bench.
“Where’s Brenden? Where the hell’s Brenden?”
He finds me and he’s just all red. And I’m trying to be respectful, so I lean backwards to look him in the eye while he tells me how bad I am. But as I lean back, Hully leans back as well and blocks my view.
So I lean forward to try to see past him, and Hully moves forward and blocks me again.
I move back, Hully matches me. This keeps going. I can’t shake him.
And the entire time, Hitch is just getting more and more pissed. But I can’t make eye contact because Brett’s huge melon is in the way.
And Brett turns to me and says, “You tell that motherfucker to fuck off!”
Oh man, what a teammate.
Hitchcock admittedly has mellowed, but there will be days where he rips into a player. As Morrow said, you need to be able to take it.
Why would the Edmonton Oilers recall Jesse Puljujarvi after this weekend? Alex Chiasson has eight goals and nine points in 15 games and is more responsible on the ice. You aren’t taking Leon Draisaitl off the top line RW, so where does Puljujarvi play? I wouldn’t play him on a grinding, defensive line with Brodziak and Lucic, so that leaves him playing with Khaira, which would be fine, except he’d only play ten minutes a game.
Leave him in Bakersfield and let him keep producing points and gaining confidence. The Oilers need to win games and taking Chiasson off the second line for Puljujarvi, who has two goals and three points in his last 27 NHL games, wouldn’t help them win. They could move Ryan Spooner of the line and slide Chiasson to his off-wing, but is it really necessary?
I do not understand those pushing for Puljujarvi to return. Why even think about it? Is he ready to help your team win games? Is he better than Alex Chiasson right now? I don’t think he is. He will be in the future, or at least he should be if they’d just let him develop and gain confidence in the AHL. He doesn’t need to be in the NHL right now. He is 20 years young. The Oilers need him next season, or maybe even in February, but by next week I don’t see how he is suddenly a much more impactful player because he got to play five AHL games in nine days.
For the love of hockey, let him develop in the AHL.