With the Edmonton Oilers rolling along at a tidy 4-1-1 clip since Ken Hitchcock took over from Todd McLellan as head coach back on Nov. 20, the big man raised a few eyebrows during his post-game availability after a 2-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights at Rogers Place Saturday.
The mood around the team is a far cry from what it was back on Nov. 18, when the Oilers lost 6-3 to the Golden Knights, a defeat that marked McLellan’s final game behind the bench before the 66-year-old Hitchcock stepped in. Saturday, fans left the rink happy. The team looks more capable and confident as it heads out for a quick two-game road trip to Dallas and St. Louis.
The Oilers are playing Hitch Hockey and it is working like a charm so far, right? Hitchcock was asked about that. “You mentioned you wanted eight or nine days for this team to implement the changes. You threw something out like that. How are they taking to the changes you want to incorporate? Are you starting to see them play the way you want them to?”
With those four wins in six games and the team having shown a knack for winning the kind of tight, one-goal games they used to lose – three of the four wins have been one-goal nail-biters – it’s kind of Captain Obvious that the answer on all fronts has to be a great big “yes,” isn’t it? Well, actually, no. I say, pardon?
MORE TO DO
“Uh, no,” Hitchcock said. “And it’s not their fault. We’ve had no practices. Everything we need to do to get better, we have to practice. We’re trying to do it on video. We’re trying to talk through it during games. We’re trying to talk through it on the off-days, but we haven’t been able to practice.
“It’s like every game there’s a list of things that I want to work on. We just don’t have time. We get our next team practice in St. Louis. When we practice, we get better quickly and that’s what we’ve got to do is find ways to practice because the stuff we need to work on, you’ve to repeat, repeat all the time. We haven’t had a chance to do it, so I really admire what the players are doing right now. They’ve done a heckuva job – we’ve had two full hockey practices. That’s all.
“That’s not near enough if you want to be a really good team, but our players have really adapted. I really think they deserve a lot of credit for playing as well as they’ve played, but there’s so many little detail things offensively that we haven’t been able to implement that we need to put into our game if we expect to be good.” The full post-game session is here.
Those who know Hitchcock and have watched his teams know what an absolute stickler for details he is – any player who has ever toiled for him will confirm that. Through six games, the bump we’ve seen in results has come without Hitchcock and assistants Glen Gulutzan, Trent Yawney and Manny Viveiros having had the time to incorporate all those details — systems and approaches that we’ll see over the longer term.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What we’ve seen so far is sort of a Coles Notes version of Hitch Hockey. That, and some really solid performances by goaltender Mikko Koskinen, who has run his record since taking the net from Cam Talbot to 8-2-1. Koskinen sits with a .928 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.16. That’ll help a team along the learning curve Hitchcock has in mind like nothing else.
We know already it makes no sense to get carried away by what we’ve seen under Hitchcock so far. The Oilers put together a very impressive string under McLellan after a 0-2 start, so it goes without saying we need a longer look under Hitchcock and that there is still a lot of work to do. Tightening up defensively, using more zone coverage than a man-on-man approach as one example, is something we’ll see down the road. Right now, everything is a concept without the repetition that makes things second nature. On top of that, Hitchcock is still figuring out who fits where.
With today a travel day to Dallas, Hitchcock will have to wait a while longer to get to the details of what he expects, the way he wants things done. While the mood around the team is distinctly different from when he arrived with those four wins in the bag, rest assured, he’ll get to it. On that, you can bet the house.