For a lot of fans who’ve been waiting to see Jesse Puljujarvi blossom with the Edmonton Oilers during a time frame that’s still in its infancy, Ken Hitchcock has been saying all the right things since taking over from Todd McLellan as coach and making no bones about the fact he’s squarely in the kid’s corner.
It’s Hitchcock, after all, who pushed GM Pete Chiarelli to have Puljujarvi recalled from Bakersfield of the AHL after just four games so he could be in the line-up tonight against the Los Angeles Kings to wrap up a three-game swing through California. I don’t recall a more public show of support for the big Finnish winger since he arrived as the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft than what we’ve seen from Hitchcock in the last 48 hours.
“I’ve had a lot of success, quite frankly, taking players like Jesse and having quick turns,” Hitchcock said. “And probably some days he’s going to get tired of my voice because it’s going to be during practice like it was today, and he caught himself, and away he goes. But when you see something that good and that much, as a coach you want to take responsibility for the growth of the player.”
“You don’t want to sit there and watch him play in the American Hockey League and think, ‘Ah, he’s going to score a few goals and that’s going to fix everything. Or he’s going to do this.’ There’s elements of his game, it doesn’t matter what league he’s playing in, have to get better and I want that responsibility because the top end is awful, awful high and I want to work with that.”
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
That’s music to the ears of Puljujarvi supporters, who have complained long and loud that their young man did not get the same kind of support from McLellan and his staff when he was first trying to break into the league. The assumption there being that McLellan somehow didn’t have the kid’s back, didn’t work hard enough or smart enough at putting him a position to make a go of things.
I buy bits and pieces of that line of thinking, but certainly not all of it. Was McLellan perfect in deploying Puljujarvi? No. What coach ever is? That said, it’s a quantum leap – one that some people have made in excusing instances when Puljujarvi hasn’t done enough to hold up his end of the bargain – to suggest McLellan didn’t like the kid, didn’t want to see him succeed. In what world does that make any sense for McLellan? What’s the end-game there?
What I saw, albeit from arm’s length, is a failure by McLellan and Puljujarvi to connect, to form a player-coach relationship and foundation based on trust. I wonder how many times they sat down together to simply talk, to get to know each other, to find out what makes each other tick. Results on the ice trump all, and I wonder if a lack of same had anything to do with lack of trust on both sides.
Now, along comes Hitchcock, reaching out, pushing to get Puljujarvi back into the NHL fray after that four-game cup of coffee in Bakersfield, saying he wants to take responsibility for helping him make the kind of impact fans around here have been waiting for. Who wouldn’t want to play for a coach who has your back like that?
THE BOTTOM LINE
Everything Hitchcock has said to this point is fine and good and, knowing Hitchcock as I do, he’d never say it if he didn’t mean it and wasn’t willing to act on the public support he’s been offering Puljujarvi. There’s a whole other side to the fresh set of eyes and support Hitchcock brings – Puljujarvi’s commitment to making the most of the chance the new coach offers.
Like the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to pizza, but you can’t make him eat,” or something like that. Hitchcock can offer Puljujarvi every opportunity to succeed, but if he doesn’t take it and run with it, doesn’t play the way the coach expects him to, can’t or won’t find a way to reciprocate the trust he’s shown and make something of it by providing results, this isn’t going to work.
McLellan didn’t want to see Puljujarvi fail. Hitchcock doesn’t want to see Puljujarvi fail. In the end, what any coach wants or doesn’t want, whether he’s firmly in your corner or not, doesn’t matter as much as the player’s determination to make the most of the opportunity he’s given – big or small. Yes, it certainly helps that Hitchcock is getting behind Puljujarvi, but what happens next and how this plays out is up to him. Over to you, kid.