When Ken Hitchcock took over the Edmonton Oilers’ bench from Todd McLellan nine games ago, there was a misconception out there among some fans that the old coach’s attention to defensive detail might squeeze the life out of what little offensive depth the team had.
It’s not true of course, as a look at the teams he’s coached over his career clearly shows, but it was out there. That didn’t change much over Hitchcock’s first eight games behind the bench despite a 5-2-1 record because the Oilers were winning on the strength of defence and goaltending. In that stretch, they were Corsi kings with great possession numbers, but they managed just 16 goals.
Friday’s 7-2 waxing of the Minnesota Wild at Rogers Place won’t change that perception in one fell swoop because every team lights it up like that once in a while. It’ll take time. What stuck with me from Hitchcock’s post-game availability was getting yet another glimpse into his approach to the game, specifically as it pertains to his defensive corps.
Not about tightening up and buckling down or any other old-timey descriptors you’d care to use, but about the importance of having his defencemen get involved in the attack. About contributing in an offensive way to a forward group that’s pretty thin beyond Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. We haven’t seen nearly enough of that in recent years.
On a night when the Oilers’ blueline contributed nine shots and five points as the team improved to 6-2-1 under Hitchcock and 15-12-2 overall going into Sunday’s BOA against the Calgary Flames, he talked about the importance of getting more of the same. Hands up everybody who expected that. No fibbing.
“I’m not sure what was going on here before,” Hitchcock said. “I just felt that they were not near close enough to the play, they weren’t helping us on the rush enough. They weren’t active enough. I’m trying to explain to the players that once the puck crosses our blue line, there’s no positions – you’re a one to a four.
“I’m trying to get the players to understand that as much as possible. We’re just kind of starting that phase, but we need way more activation by our defencemen if we’re going to be a top team in the Western Conference. We need way more involvement. They need to be closer to the play.
“If you look at the way the NHL is right now, it’s the defencemen joining the rush that creates the odd-man rushes. It’s not three forwards. You never get out with three forwards, so we need to have more of that and we’ve been practicing it every day and our guys are starting to get it now.” The entire interview is here.
That’s not the kind of talk that shows up in many game stories, but it’s another look at Hitchcock’s approach to the game — this one is particularly important to a team that hasn’t generated very much in terms of offensive contribution from its blueline in recent seasons and has leaned too heavily on its forwards.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Darnell Nurse led the blueline with 1-1-2 and had four shots against the Wild. Kris Russell and Kevin Gravel each had an assist and had two shots on goal. Matt Benning had an assist. Oscar Klefbom and Adam Larsson were quiet, save for a lone shot by Klefbom. Outside of Klefbom and Nurse, there’s not a lot points-in-waiting with this bunch, but the message is clear.
Yes, you’ve got to take care of business in the defensive zone, but when the puck gets out, Hitchcock’s D-men have a green light to get involved in the rush. From where I sit, that’s going to suit Klefbom, who led the blueline in scoring two seasons ago, and Nurse, the leader with 26 points last season, just fine. Same for Andrej Sekera, if he ever gets healthy again. I imagine it’s going to suit Evan Bouchard as well, if Hitchcock is here that long.
If you drop the pre-conceived notions you might have had about Hitchcock coming in and listen, really listen, to how he wants the Oilers to play the game when it comes to possession, time spent in the offensive zone and attacking up-ice with more than just three forwards, he’s not the old-school taskmaster many people thought he was. That’ll become apparent as time goes on. It’s been nine games. He’s just getting started.