The Hitchcock Honeymoon is over. I’ve noticed Hitchcock being more vocal with his players on the bench, and for a coach with a reputation of demanding a lot from players, often his best players, it will be interesting to see how things unfold over the next month with the Oilers.
Hitchcock was ultra positive for the first 15 games, and wanted to get to know the players and their personalities, and now that he has I think we will see him push guys he believes can handle it, and he will also challenge those who aren’t playing how he wants them to.
Today Hitchcock unveiled four new line combinations.
Spooner will be the 4th line centre for the next two games while Jujhar Khaira serves his two-game suspension, but when he returns Hitchcock will use Khaira down the middle. Khaira has been very good of late with eight points in ten games and the Oilers will miss his depth scoring. Only Connor McDavid (15), Leon Draisaitl (14) and Darnell Nurse (9) have more points than Khaira in December.
With so many Oilers struggling to score I don’t think these lines are set in stone by any means. If players play well, and produce, especially Puljujarvi and Rieder, in the top six they will stay there, but I expect Hitchcock will start to demand more from players and if they play well, he’ll keep playing them, but if not he won’t hesitate to move them around.
Tobias Rieder has no goals in 22 games and no points in his last ten. He has played four games after missing a month with a shoulder injury, so he likely needed a few games to get back up to speed, but no goals in 22 games is still no goals in 22 games. They need him to get going offensively.
Jesse Puljujarvi couldn’t ask for a better opportunity, but he will need to score some goals playing with McDavid. It is a lot to ask a young player, but to stick on a top line long-term you have to score some goals. It is that way for any player, not just a youngster, but the main reason Patrick Maroon stuck with McDavid for as long as he did was because he scored goals. No different than Ty Rattie at the end of last season when he tallied five times in 14 games.
Puljujarvi is in great shape. He’s always tested well, but as Alex Chiasson pointed out, minutes with McDavid are tougher because of how fast he plays. You have to keep your pace up for long periods and I’ll be curious to see how many minutes Hitchcock gives Puljujarvi right away. He isn’t conditioned to play 20 minutes yet. I’m sure he can do it for a few games, but to do it long-term will take some adjusting when he hasn’t played that much in two and a half years.
And if he doesn’t light it up with McDavid, no one should freak out. He is only 20 years young. If he stays there for a few games and his switched out, don’t be the one claiming “he’s a bust,” Hitchcock is using this as a teaching tool for Puljujarvi. Try to get him up to speed with the other top-six forwards — not in physical speed, but more so thinking — reacting and playing fast.
Milan Lucic has one goal and none in 34 games. He played a season-low 6:43 at 5×5 against the Blues on Tuesday. He is in a position now where he will need to earn more icetime. Veterans often get a longer rope to play out a slump, but Lucic’s slump has reached a level none of his would have expected. Two goals in 78 games in the 2018 calendar has earned him a spot on the fourth line. 2019 can’t come fast enough for him.
Hitchcock said Lucic wasn’t a demotion, but instead an opportunity to push Spooner and Rattie. Hitchcock always tries to focus on the positive.
The top unit remained the same with McDavid, Draisaitl, RNH, Chiasson and Nurse. They worked on quicker puck movement today and more overall movement on the PP. They have been standing still way too much lately.
The second unit consisted of Puljujarv, Lucic, Ryan Spooner, Ty Rattie and Caleb Jones. Spooner was running it off the right side, Lucic in front of the net, with Rattie and Puljujarvi on the left side and middle in positions for one-timers.
The first unit will ultimately be the group that gets the PP going, but if they don’t show more urgency and a willingness to not settle for outside passes, we could see the second unit get 45 seconds on each PP.
Adam Larsson didn’t skate, but is expected on the ice tomorrow. The D pairs remain the same. Chris Wideman and Andrej Sekera rotated in with Darnell Nurse in Larsson’s spot. Sekera was a part of every drill and is getting closer. Tomorrow he will see the doctor again and undergo some testing to see how strong his Achilles is. “The doctor said it will improve very fast now. It is pain free. It feels good, it is just a matter of gaining strength,” explained Sekera.
He reiterated how he’d really like to play some games in the AHL once he is cleared. Just to get a feel of the game again. I love this attitude. He is also very excited about how he feels overall. His knee is 100%. It is way more flexible than it was when he returned last year. Pivoting was a major problem, as the knee brace limited his range of motion. He doesn’t need a brace now and he said he feels so much better today coming back from the Achilles injury than he did returning from his knee injury last season.
He will know more tomorrow on when he could be back. He desperately wants to play and is hoping he can get in some AHL games in late January. When he is activated and presumably sent to the AHL on a conditioning stint he will not count on the 23-man roster because he is coming of LTIR. But he can only play three games or be there for six days. If he needs to play more then he would need to be placed on the active roster and then sent down on a conditioning stint.
Kris Russell wasn’t on the ice and won’t play this weekend, and it seems unlikely he will get into any of the remaining four games in 2018.
MONTH OF GIVING…
Thank you to Ken and Brent for their bids and the Brick and Leading Edge Physio for the great packages.
Day 15: Dinner with Strudwick, Chimera and Brown at Vivo Ristorante
- Dinner for six people at Vivo Ristorante(West end or Sherwood Park) in their private room. You will dine with Jason Strudwick, Jason Chimera, Rob Brown and I will fill the glasses.
- Includes five course meal, all beverages and wine of your choice
- Blue Sky Limos will pick you up and drop you off at the end of the evening.
You can bid by listening to TSN 1260 and calling 780.444.1260 or text 101260 between 2-5:55 p.m. today.