Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Not so old

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.

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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.

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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

“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.

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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.


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.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • YFC Prez

    Hitchcock is nothing like I expected. No coaching change the oilers have had dating back a couple decades has had this kind of effect.

    I’m completely gob smacked. No way my hand is coming up.

  • Rama Lama

    I must say listening to this coach explain things, has made me a big fan! He is very thoughtful and can explain things like no one else before him.

    The players seem to be all ears and it show in their post game comments. Not to dump on TM, but there is a world of difference between the two, and if communication is critical to making changes, we picked the right guy. I suspect Peter Chiarelli is sleeping good these days…….he finally deserves a little credit.

  • chezzychez

    In 9 games, the team looks tighter around the puck. It feels a bit like magic…
    Hitch’s way of explaining exactly what he’s trying to do with the players and then getting to watch exactly that during the games feels special. He has the team totally on board at this point.

  • Butters

    I like the fact that he seem to match lines and not always go “Power on Power”
    This allows McDavid to get out against the lesser competition, and sneak him out for another shift when he has a chance. Easier when you are at home, and I think there home record is starting to reflect that.

    • Leichs

      Credit the other two lines for being able to take on the opposing top lines and not give up too much as well. Hitchcock said in his interview that the JJ/Nuge/Pulu line has generated the most turnovers on the forecheck. Doesn’t surprise me because Nuge has been a puck retreiving monster since he was moved to his own line and Jesse and JJ are using their speed and size beautifully to get in there and cause some havoc. Jujars assist last night was a prime example. Hard forecheck turns the puck over twice and a few seconds later its an Oiler goal. I hope the boys can keep it rolling.

  • Ratt McNuge

    He’s doing an amazing job, and it’s only been 9 games. The Oilers have to play a good team game to make up for the lack of depth and firepower. Credit to the players for buying in. A few hiccups here and there, but this team has shown that they can win games if they all pitch in.

  • Big Jacks Meat

    I would seriously let Hitch coach this team until he decides he doesn’t want to any longer. There are not many better than him. He just gets it. I will take wins all day long , don’t care what they look like. Winning is what every single player on that team wants. And all us fans.

  • camdog

    Klefbom and Larsson points at 5 by 5 is lowest on team by d-pair. Nurse and Russell get way more points 5 by 5, been like that for 2 years now. Corsica has the numbers. Hopefully Klefbom gets his even strength production up but right now it’s in Lucic territory.

    • BringitbacklikeSlats

      So not only can he not score 5×5, but he’s led the team in major mistakes in the Dzone leading to goals against.

      All that and he plays with less physicality than 3/4 of the women in last years Olympic Finals.

      And he’s our so called “#1 Dman” ?

        • BringitbacklikeSlats

          Yet everyone’s dismissing his development and lauding Klefbom based on three goals. His scoring % on shots taken must be in negative territory it’s so bad. I hope they’re showcasing him for trade because I can’t stand watching him. Constantly throws grenade passes under little pressure to teammates then forced to take a big hit.

  • slats-west

    I too Robin are turning into a huge Hitch fan. Because it’s not only his “message” (when you have the puck you can do what you want ….when you don’t you do what I want”) it’s how he says it with such positive output. This guy can communicate hockey knowledge in very simple terms. It’s a beautiful thing and to watch these players respond better. Let’s have some more please. Let’s get more of these younger players with Condors hearing it too. Yammo, Marody, etc. It’s all good from Fans perspective!

  • Harry2

    Hello Robin. Just wondering what your thoughts are on whether Hitch is here next season or not.

    If the Oilers have a successful regular season and make the playoffs do you think he’ll be back?

      • BringitbacklikeSlats

        I guess the bigger question is does Chiarelli even get the chance to keep him?
        Pains me as a fan to admit that With the Central Divisions strength and likelihood of taking up both wild cards, chances of Oilers making it are slim. Never mind that they don’t have the Defencenan nor depth up front to compete in playoff hockey.
        I hope I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

      • Oilswellthatendswell

        Even if we make the playoffs there is no way Chia should be G.M. in the off season. Hire a new G.M. and see if he can talk Hitch into staying. That is if Hitch would even accept the offer. Remember, he’d be 68 at the start of next season and Chia was able to pull him out of retirement already for this season.

  • Abagofpucks

    I’m all in on what Hitch is selling, as far as the defence goes getting them to jump up into the play more will take a little more time. But the last few games it seem’s like their starting to get into the rhythm of doing just that and being effective. As far as our 1st d pair go, they play against the other team’s best and log big minutes. Klef is averaging over 25 minutes a game, it’s hard to do that and be phyisical. He does have 15 point’s so far, and yes half of those are in pp situation’s, but it look’s good right now Dont forget most of his game’s were played under the last coach who is no longer here, i expect thing’s to be a lot better going forward with Hitch.

  • Hockeytalkguy

    What a difference listening to Hitch compared to TMc in Pre or Post game interviews. As a fan you can actually understand what he is saying and what they are trying to accomplish. With TMc you had to listen closely and then try deceifer what the heck he was trying to say. IMO communication seems to be the biggest difference between Hitch & TMC. I don’t think their philosophies are that much different, it’s the presentation that seems to be the key.

    • I think those who’ve known Hitch awhile did, although the caveat is always that players have to buy-in to what the coach is saying. While he’s demanding, as many of his players will tell you, he’s a far better communicator than coaches of his generation generally are — he’s changed with the times. He doesn’t just tell his players what to do, he tells them why. He’s a student of the game, and despite being third in career wins, he’s never felt that he’s above being willing to keep learning. That’s pretty much a template for success no matter what line of work you’re in.

  • Hockeytalkguy

    One more thing….I love how Hitch doesn’t blend the crap out of the lines in game. I get it sometimes you need to but what TMc did was total insanity.

    • Leichs

      Agreed. Jesse and Nuge seem to be developing a nice chemistry with JJ in there as well. This would never have happened with Todd because he insisted on throwing Jesse down to the fourth if he didnt have a goal or two after the first period. Hitch see’s all of the players strengths and he is putting him in the best position to utilize those strengths. It seems no one is out of place in our lineup right now and everyone knows their roles. It took Todd two and a half years to see that Luc is a third line player, it took Hitch not even one game and now Luc is thriving in his role on that third line. Sure they arent putting up massive points but thats not their job. We have the top two lines for that.

    • The Plan

      I love how he has Connor, Nuge or Leon center the third and forth lines to double shift them. Way better option then the blender. I guess coaching makes a difference…who knew?

    • Ratt McNuge

      The blender might work for a different group of players, but not for this group. They all need clearly defined roles and need to not be afraid to make mistakes or else they’ll be demoted. That was TMac’s downfall. The team played scared.

    • OilerForLife

      I like the way Hitch handles his practices by having designate practices. He sits certain players who have it together like McDavid, Nuge, ect. With the grueling schedule of today’s NHL, players need rest also to perform at an optimum level. Practice is important but rest is equally as important, and hitch provide the correct balance.

  • The Plan

    I like how Hitch says the Oilers practice hard as hard as any team that he’s coached. Remember when the Oilers signed a FA (I can’t remember who) and he was amazed on how much standing around there was during a Dallas Akins practice?

  • Ratt McNuge

    I used to absolutely hate Hitch when he coached Dallas and they would beat us year after year in the playoffs. That team was cohesive, disciplined, and relentless on the puck. So happy he’s on our side. Finally.

  • All I hear is how depleted the Flames were tonight, Predators missing Forsberg, Arvidsson, Subban and Turris. Lucky goal was called back for Smith losing mask. They are skating well and should be a good tilt tomorrow. We have to be physical for the whole game . Smart and physical.

  • Bob Lawblaw

    I am so impressed with Hitchcock. I am seeing enthusiasm and effort from the players. The skill has always been there but now they are learning to play within a system and for each other under the tutelage of a proven coach.

    It’s like Hitch is the Wizard of ID. (Ice District)