Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Details

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?

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Nov 27, 2018; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock watches a game against the Dallas Stars from the bench at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

“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.

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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.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Bills Bills

    Hitch or no Hitch, they are more dedicated to playing as a five man unit in their own zone. Wingers are coming back along the boards to help the D out. They seem to be playing more zone than man coverage but that could just be them not putting themselves out of position.

    I said it before and I will say it again. If you have a team commitment to defence, you don’t need the best defenders. That’s why I wanted Hitch or a version of him here. I will watch the Oilers win 1 goal games all season and not once will I complain that they are boring to watch.

  • Butters

    I questioned(complained about) the Koskinen signing, I questioned(complained about) bringing Hitchcock in. So far I am wrong on both. I was also against the Strome for Spooner trade. Here’s hoping I am wrong 3/3.

    • Arfguy

      I wasn’t all that torn up over the Koskinen signing, but I was definitely against bringing Hitchcock into the fold. If I am being honest, the jury is still out for me about Hitchcock. I refuse to embrace him fully until the end of the season, as I feel the new coach will usually get short-term results before things go back to level of normalcy where the true roster shows up. As far as Strome for Spooner? I don’t care if Strome scores 20 goals. I no longer want his slow skating on this team. I was one of the few that was happy that Eberle was traded and Strome was brought in for a second chance. Strome did very little to show he belonged. There were a few players that looked like they were working hard. Hell, even Milan Lucic is looking like he is trying regardless of output. I wanted the same level of effort from Strome, who was not doing it. Spooner, regardless of what he’s brought to the table offensively, is at least skating well and looks like he is trying. I am fine with the Strome-for-Spooner trade so far.

  • BringitbacklikeSlats

    Hard to believe that in today’s NHL there could be a team lacking accountability. But it seems that there is more of it suddenly… perhaps there was some truth to the idea TMac had lost the room.
    I feel like there’s going to be some revelation “like” experiences both good and bad to come this year for a lot of players on that team. In the end they’ll be better for it but it’s not going to be fun for them. Certain so called “top pairing” defenders we have for example, are going to learn the hard way that under Hitchcock hockey, simply covering your man carrying the puck and keeping him to the outside is only half the job. Finishing a player physically whenever possible with a bodycheck is the way NHL hockey needs to be played if you want to win consistently. This is something that metrics don’t quantify so will be dismissed by many people including writers on here (Robin Withstanding).

    But watch and listen to what Hitch will be talking about when the guys go on a losing skid… and they will. The boys better start getting comfortable that the coach isn’t going to be mincing words when mistakes mount

    • Rock11

      was with you until the nonsensical swipe at “metrics”. Of course metrics measure it. If they don’t then nothing happened. Your point seems to be that being more physical results in fewer goals against. If that is true then one “metric” would be the $^%*$&^$ scoreboard. Never understand the lengths people go to take swipes at counting things that happen and trying to lower the bad things that happen and increase the good things that happen which is all that “metrics” are doing.

      • BringitbacklikeSlats

        Sort of. There’s very little analytics evidence that suggests physicality leads to fewer goals against and conversely wins on the scoreboard, as you obtusely point out.
        If you can cite a specific metric there than please feel free to share.
        My point is that the physical play need to be there unquestionably. But there are exact points and plays in every game where it is crucial to do so… and those “defensive” plays don’t tend to get compiled into anything resembling a case.

    • Big Nuggets

      I think it will be easier for the defense because the forwards should be more helpful. And if Todd indeed was a bad communicator like the rumour, then all the better for them to get some clear messaging from Hitch.

  • toprightcorner

    I like the fact that the focus right now is on defense. Learning to play and win 1 goal games is fantastic early in the season because when the playoff push comes and when they are in the playoffs, those are the types of games they will play and have to win. Oilers have been terrible for the past 10 years when tied or with a 1 goal lead in pressure situations.

    The Oilers have a lot more offense to give, but I don’t care if they don’t focus on that right now. This is not Lemaire hockey, it isn’t hockey of the Wild or Devils. Those teams didn’t have any offensive players, they had to play that way becasue they couldn’t score. The Oilers have the ability to score, but if they learn how to lock down tight games, not run around like a chicken with their head cut off protecting a lead against 6 attackers, they will be far better in the long run.

    After a few practices and another 5-8 games, the defensive play will be a habit, then Hitch can implement more offense. He wants his players to be creative with the puck so when that happens, they will start winning games 4-2 and 5-3.

    Hitch has already been setting up the Oilers for long-term success.

    • lee

      Not sure Hitch can implement scoring, he took a high flying Dallas team, made them focus on Defense. They let less goals in and scored way less goals as well. Their team was picked to do big things, in the end they fizzles out.
      Right now the Oiler’s are winning all the 2-1 games. History tells you, you cant make the playoffs scoring 2 or less goals every game. Sure you won’t finish last You will have enough points to finish 6-10 points or so out of the playoffs while getting an average draft pick.
      Teams like the Phili have been doing this for years until they realized either win big or lose big. Right now the Oiler’s are a middling team, anyone who thinks differently are fooling them selves.
      The goalie has a .940 save % in the last few games, is that sustainable for the next 50 games?

      • Not sure which Dallas team you’re talking about. In Hitchcock’s five full seasons with Dallas during his first tenure, 1996-97 to 2000-01, the Stars finished 7th, 3rd, 8th, 21st and 10th in NHL scoring, or in the top-third in four of five years.

        In his second stint with Dallas, 2017-18, the Stars finished 18th in scoring with 235 goals after finishing 17th in scoring with 223 goals under Lindy Ruff in 2016-17. I’m not sure I’d consider scoring 12 more goals but dropping one spot putting the clamps on a high-scoring team. So, which team are you talking about?

        Hitchcock’s philosophy is that playing sound defensively doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice offensive production.

    • Freddie the fog

      It’s interesting because other than breakouts and PP their isn’t really a whole lot of offence to ” coach” ….I mean ya your forechecking scheme in the O zone , but again that’s really defence. There isn’t much for set plays on offence , the game is too chaotic for that…moves too fast. Offence is really all about creativity and chemistry. I suppose Hitch will work on how he wants his players positioned when they gain possession otherwise …the bulk of what Hitch will implement when the club gets the practice time will b defence oriented. Back pressure, gap recognition, and likely a hybrid of man to man and Zone coverage when they are in their own end. I like what I’m seeing so far. I’m good with 2-1, 3-2 wins. Last night’s game was quite entertaining. Hitch’s system will be great for this group as long as he gets very good goaltending. This is gonna be a fun.

  • toprightcorner

    Hitch is doing it right and he has big balls for doing it that way. Any other coach, as MacLellan did, would look at McDavid and Draisaitl and say they have to coach with a focus on offense and defense, Hitch says, screw that, I want everyone to know how to keep the puck out of our own net and when you can do that, then we will focus on scoring goals. Thats how you build a team for longterm success, that doesn’t have long losing streaks and can win close games with lots of pressure, just like playoff games.

  • Ted

    Is Draisaitl like Talbot and burnt out … Or just out of shape. Gives the puck away too often and doesn’t play hard enough on the puck. Needs to get a bit of a mean streak or something. I like that he was actually hitting guys a few games back. (=

  • ScottV

    With Hitch hockey, I think its much more than a commitment to defence.

    It’s more game management, risk vs return, playing the odds, playing certain ways at certain times, managing energy expenditures, knowing when we wouldn’t mind scoring vs when we have to score vs when we really don’t even need to bother trying to score.

    Its the only thing that matters is getting 2 points. Forget about things like scoring races, I have to get a point to keep my streak alive, or – I haven’t scored in a month. Or – we have to give the crowd some free flow – back and forth entertainment value or the winning isn’t honorable. Hitch knows that if you don’t put a crimp on an over desire to score goals, you’re more likely to give up counter attack ga opportunities. Why? because a forward line and in particular a young forward line – tends to over bite on offensive opportunity. They can’t help themselves. They go all in to score instead of for example 2/3rds in to score, with 1/3 maintaining depth on attack in case something goes wrong.

    and much more, hence – yeah, its understandable that Hitch has only been able to scratch the surface thus far.

    This is what we needed right after the Eakins debacle. Two years of Hitch hockey to form a solid base to operate from. Instead we get – really what was a waste with McL and his lets shoot as soon as we can upon entry hockey, that was really just veiled one and done rushing. Back and forth – and its in the wrong net hockey – among other [email protected] things.

  • Heschultzhescores

    I like this team defense idea with the best Offensive player in the game. Teams of the past played this way successfully, but it was always because they didn’t have a McD ir Drai. This is Hitch Hockey on steroids! The other was TMac hockey on Hemmorhoids.

  • Arfguy

    While I agree that the team is winning and it is good, these close games are sometimes tough to watch. I actually haven’t watched the last 3 games. I keep watching the score and thinking any minute that the team will give up the lead or lose the tie game.

    The offense really needs to step up in the upcoming few games. It is good that Koskinen is making key saves, but all players will have a bad day. Oilers have got to find ways to sink scoring chances.

  • Cheesenaka

    Please forgive my ignorance but why can’t the team practice more if they wanted to? As far as I recall, there is a mandatory rest day once a week courtesy of the CBA. But could they not also have a practice on a travel day (even a short practice)? Is it a scheduling issue? Rest day? I’m genuinely curious. Great article as always Robin.

    • BlueHairedApe

      I think it’s a combination of a hectic travel schedule and also the fact athletes need rest. From what I understand on the shorter road trips to places like Winnipeg or Calgary for instance they will often have time to practice but when they head south of the border they still have to go through customs and additional flight time which doesn’t leave a lot of time to practice. They won’t have another practice until after the first game against Dallas because they’re next game is closer. In the eastern conference the teams don’t have to travel nearly as far within their division so they get more practice time.

  • Rama Lama

    For me it’s more about what Hitchcock is not doing…….that being not giving young players the rope they require to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes.

    If TM was giving the young guys a chance to play, I could have found more enthusiasm for his coaching style. Good teams play their young players and let them develop some natural chemistry……..TM never allowed this to happen.

    I’m not giving Hitch too much credit yet……..but this looks like a very different team!

    • Hockeytalkguy

      @ Rama….yes I tend to agree. The blender that TMc pulled out just about every game drove me bananas. TMc never gave his players a chance to develop any chemistry. No matter what Hitch does, I believe they will get better just buy keeping the lines together for more than 1 game.

  • Prairiechicken

    Don’t get me wrong … I love what Hitch has appeared to do in an a short amount of time. But it’s guarded optimism. He’s what, 3-1-1 against teams on the cusp or out of playoffs?
    Todd has that run earlier. 5-1-1 if I remember, against the Nashville, jets, penguins, bruins, and capitals of the world.
    Good little stretch here, fingers crossed they can sustain it unlike earlier in the year when they deflated.

  • madjam

    Hitch or Koskinen most responsible for Oilers better fortunes ? I say Koskinen , until Hitch can put his system(s) into game . Only two practices , not nearly enough to evaluate the transition to Hitch . Long way to go yet . Credit Hitch for sticking to Koskinen .

    • Ohlyr

      Looking at the Numbers: GAA SV% Win%
      Our Starter #19 2.16 (4th in NHL) 0.928 (7th) 0.800 (3rd in NHL)
      Our Backup #33 3.29 (40th in NHL) 0.889 (46th) 0.357 (48th in NHL)

      Goaltending Matters!!

      • I understand that Talbot is a shadow of his 2016 form.This fan base is embarrassing when running players out of town. A lot of good things going on and still negative more than support. Players on winning team have more value than players on a losing team. Points are nice but teams are looking for winners.

  • GK1980

    “The Oilers are playing Hitch Hockey and it is working like a charm so far, right? ”

    I would say no. Games are too close. Team is walking a slippery slope right now. Games could have easily gone either way this past week. Need more offense.

  • HelpMeBabyJesus

    I am cautiously optimistic on the Hitch era of tight team defence. A tad boring….yes but it’s better than losing, that’s for sure. Klefbom has improved offensively but is still terrible in his own end. He gets beat a lot one-on-one down low but at least he now has someone else backing him up! I see Caggiula being a benefactor of Hitch’s because of his tenacity and forechecking. The game against Dallas should be a great one.

  • camdog

    Having a goalie shut the door in the first 10 minutes hasn’t happened in over a year. If the goalies can continue to play at a high level the Oilers will always be in the game. Getting away from the chase game Todd had implemented back to a conventional zone, should reduce the chaos in front of the net. Third pairing of Gravel/Benning looks to be more comfortable than they have all season. They still need more scoring, but there are players on this team that will eventually score some goals. They need a kid or waiver wire acquisition to score some goals. Zykov should have a spot on this roster.

    I’d still like to know who’s idea it was to keep Yamamoto on the roster over Aberg – coach or the GM. GM’s don’t generally waiver wire players they trade for that easily, unless the coach is done with said player.

    • camdog

      Wait a minute of course it was Todd that wanted Aberg gone. During preseason Aberg played with 4th liners, while Yamamoto got the push with the better players.