Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Next Guy

“If we expect to win hockey games, we’re not going to do it on talent, we’re going to have to develop an atmosphere where we’re 100 per cent locked in playing for each other and not with each other. And there’s a big difference in those two words. We’ve got to get to that atmosphere as quickly as we can.” – Ken Hitchcock, Nov. 20.

Having laid out the foundation of what he believes it would take for the Edmonton Oilers to turn things around when he took over the bench from Todd McLellan, it’s little wonder Hitchcock was so exasperated after watching his team do the exact opposite and no-show from top to bottom in Saturday’s 4-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Hitchcock was mad as hell. Fans were mad as hell.

Less than 24 hours later, in what was a put-up-or-shut-up game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Oilers swung 180 degrees and put forth exactly the kind of effort the old coach has always used as his blueprint in a 4-0 win. It was far from a perfect game as the Ducks got far too many cracks at Cam Talbot, who held them in early, but the Oilers scrapped and battled, they stood up for each other when things got greasy. They hung together.

That, in itself, isn’t going to win games every night, but as hokey as it sometimes sounds, that all-for-one-and-one-for-all mentality can mitigate a whole host of issues – lack of depth, not enough scoring, the inevitable rough patches teams experience during the course of an 82-game season and so on. It’s not all you need to win, but trying to win without it is a big ask. A day after having none of it, the Oilers played guilty and bought in.

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Nov 23, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) and left wing Milan Lucic (27) celebrate the goal of center Leon Draisaitl (29) in the third period against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center. The Oilers won 6-3. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The win over the Ducks was no masterpiece, but after a collective shoulder shrug against the Kings, there wasn’t any question the Oilers were in it together down the road in Anaheim. There was Joe Gambardella, of all people, going after Hampus Lindholm after a dangerous crosscheck that sent Connor McDavid head-first into the boards went uncalled. Darnell Nurse, Milan Lucic and Zack Kassian were throwing people around.

Nobody punched out Ryan Kesler, but you can’t have everything. Nobody turned away from a hit. Nobody, except for the referees, stood around with their thumbs up their backsides and did nothing when McDavid got hacked and abused – if there’s not discipline from NHL Player Safety on Lindholm’s hit, penalty or not, something’s very wrong. We saw none of that in L.A.

“It was huge. That was a great response,” said rookie blueliner Caleb Jones, who has two assists. “Maybe not the prettiest of wins, you know we still have stuff we can obviously improve on, but at the end of the day, if you get the two points you’re pretty happy. We all put a really good effort in tonight and we should feel good about it.” The entire interview is here.

“This kind of performance was a long time coming for us,” said Talbot, who faced 39 shots to get the shutout and was outstanding in the first five minutes as the Ducks poured it on. “We haven’t played our best hockey as of late, so hopefully this is something we can build off moving forward and put ourselves right back in the thick of things.” The entire interview is here.

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Having lost seven of their previous eight games, including a six-game losing streak before a win over Arizona and the hummer against the Kings, one game, no matter how spirited the effort, does not a turnaround make. But the Oilers got Kris Russell back last night, Jones continues to impress in his first NHL stint and Jesse Puljujarvi and Kyle Brodziak scored goals to back up goals by McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. On top of that, the win puts the Oilers within two points of the floundering Ducks, who equalled a franchise record with their eighth straight loss (0-6-2).

The Oilers still need to tighten up in front of Talbot and Mikko Koskinen. They need more of what we saw from Puljujarvi and Brodziak. They need more of the snarl we saw from Lucic, who did nothing against the Kings but started a scoring sequence with a hellacious hit on the forecheck. They need Oscar Klefbom back and they likely need some help from GM Peter Chiarelli, but they don’t control that.

What they do control is a commitment to play the way Hitchcock spelled out before his very first day behind the bench, the blueprint that’s played a big part in making him third in NHL career coaching wins. The Oilers will come up short on the power play or penalty kill some nights. They’ll play like they’re all thumbs on others. At times, they’ll be overmatched when it comes to talent or experience. That’s hockey.

But they can always play for the next guy. That’s a commitment and a matter of character and will they do control. The best teams lean on that, they insist that it be the foundation that everything else is built on – win or lose. That’s not too much for Hitchcock, or fans for that matter, to ask. Listen to the coach, men.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • The future never comes

    This team was obviously built to play physical and mean, so that’s the way they have to play. They were not built to play skilled and fast.

    • It’s not so much about physicality as it is about mentality. Skill wins games and as long as the Oilers have McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins they have something to build on. They can play fast, although they don’t do it often enough. The base Hitchcock expects is the next-guy mentality. Don’t be pushed around. Don’t sag when things go bad, push harder and don’t quit. It’s a blend.

      • The future never comes

        But what Chia built was a team to run people into the boards with their size and wear the opposition down physically. I agree Hitch is about not wilting and having your teammates back. I would argue that ethos should go without saying for every sports team in the world. Going to battle with your team is what makes the team. This should not have to be taught at the NHL level.

      • Gravis82

        But they are still a bad team. Good players will play like that consistently, bad players will play good sometimes. Unfortunately we have been preoccupied with type of player who has the characteristics to play the game we want rather than finding players to actually play the game well. You don’t always find the Kassian type who is Kassian against the ducks 82games a year. Would be great, but doesn’t happen. Instead you get gifted players throughout the drafting process that are good and consistent hockey players . They are not always aligned with what you think you need, but over 82 games would be better than the player you think you want. This is Chiarelli. Comes in, thinks is amazing, goes to find players he wants. Wrong. You just accept the players you have and draft, draft more, see what develops. With a bit of luck you win a cup. That luck part was already done, Mcdavid. We can still be respectable, but will never be a powerhouse. It’s a shame, but meh. I don’t watch games anymore since the hall debacle. Still comment here, but I have better things to do that to give my time 3 nights a week to watch incompetence waste the best years of McDavid a career.

    • hockeyartist

      Yes, the Oilers only have three guys that can put up points so the rest have to play a heavy snarly game to take the other teams focus off of those three and buy them a little room.

  • OilersBro

    We need to play unskilled, grind it out hockey, until our blueline is healthy. If we can be in a playoff spot when Klefbom and Sekera are back, we’re gonna be hitting the post season in stride

    • Serious Gord

      That is a losing strategy in this era. Chia attempted to create a big, physical, truculent team just as that kind of play was being outlawed. Now the only time that works is against teams built the same way – Anaheim, for example.

      If the team backs into the playoffs – the west has by far the majority of crappy teams – the last wildcard spot currently is trending at 88 points – the only spot the oil has a chance of getting – then they will be quick work for the top point getter in the west (winnipeg?).

  • Datsyukian

    I still feel very uneasy about the next few games. Despite the 4-0 win, I think too many commentators exaggerate the team’s effort and commitment in that game. Yes, it was a decent effort, but to me the win looked more like a combination of Talbot standing on his head in the 1st, Gibson’s lousy play, and some luck. How many times out of 10 would Puljujarvi score on that kind of a backhand? How many times would you have a deflection off a skate that put the puck on Draisaitl’s stick for basically an empty-netter? Trash me, but I see a loss coming in SJ, and the team out of playoff contention in a couple of weeks.

    • camdog

      Ryan Smyth would score 20 of those type of goals per year on his own. He worked hard to get to the hard areas of the ice and would bounce the puck into the net. It wouldn’t hurt Jesse to review some old Ryan Smyth tape. He’s got the frame and stick, he should be able to succeed if he simplifies his game.

      • ed from edmonton

        I think what you are saying is the Jp has to figure out what he is. Its pretty obvious he isn’t going to be the third amigo in the Mathews-Laine-JP group that was touted prior to the draft. He just isn’t in that league. So is he a big winger that can score 15-20 goals a year by hacking in rebounds?

      • Datsyukian

        That would be nice for sure. What I was saying is that given Jesse’s current level of production and skillset, that backhand going in was more of an exception. For Ryan Smyth, for sure, that would be almost a routine goal.

        • Serious Gord

          Not sure it’s mandatory over the next ten games. But just 500 puts even more pressure on the remaining 30 odd games. And if one of the rivals gets it figured out (Minnesota?) the bar could be pushed up to the low 90s.

          No question they are running out of runway.

  • camdog

    You don’t need a complete team to make the playoffs in the West this season. Dallas and Anaheim occupy the Wild Card spots right now. With Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver in the hunt. Whichever team competes the hardest/has best goaltending likely makes playoffs of the Group.

    Oilers have gone through 2 rough patches this season. In both circumstances the GM has panicked and made moves that have hurt the team both in the present and for the future. There will be another rough patch, hopefully PC doesn’t make the next move that seals the team’s fate.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    While it was nice to see the Oilers win, one thing I mentioned yesterday is that they are too easy to play against because they dont hit enough and they dont push back enough, and I think their opponents know that and try and use as an advantage.

    The Oilers still need to work on things in their own end, that has been their problem all season is that they seem to be unable to defend in their own end it turns into a tire fire. Talbot while he hasnt been great, I thought was really good last night and the score could have been a lot different if he had some of the good chances the Ducks had on him go in the net.

    Koskinenin a slump but while he has wiffed on a few much like Talbot the guys really havent had a lot of help from their teammates in their end and it shows in how many games they have lost with games where there are 4 goals and up and they are seeing a lot of rubber.

    I still say it is time for Dustin Schwartz to go, yes he had a fine career in Junior and at the U of A but he needs to stick working with the Oil Kings. being handed the job after they fired Chabot and the Oilers not even looking for a goalie coach was a huge mistake IMHO. Talbot goes down way to early and stays down to long and Talbot seems to make himself smaller in his crouch position and I see Koskinen doing that too( even though his crouch he is still big due to his size, but I think both Talbot and Koskinen need a proven NHL goalie coach to help the issues with their game and Schwartz isnt it.

    The biggest concern I have with the Oil is that if it wasn’t Hitch, the Media and the fans calling them out about the L.A. game I dont know if we would have seen that effort and the other thing is the bad habits seem to creep back in again and again where they dont play 60 minutes of hockey and the effort isnt there because how many times have we seen that under TM and Hitch. It will be interesting to see how they play the next game because they have a lot of games in the next while and how about Jones, man the kid is impressive, much like Bouchard is calm under pressure and he isnt afraid to get in there and pump a few puck from the point and Gravel I didnt think much of at the beginning of the season but as time has gone on he seem to be getting better and better, not flashy but steady

    • camdog

      Oilers are 4th in hits. Push back gets penalized, they need to develop the mindset where they attack the other teams good players first. They could use another veteran winger or 2 that knows how to play the game.

  • ed from edmonton

    A lot of good feelin after a 4-0 win against a team that has bullied them for the last 10+ years. The Oil were the more physically and emotionally aggressive team. Eg Lucic telling Montour about it after he rag dolled Monatour into the boards leading to the 4th goal. Nurse knocking Henrique on his butt when Henrique was sparring with Drai. If you are going to be the bully you have to be a*****oles. The game really turned on Talbot being the much better goalie, not that the Oil utplayed the Ducks. But it was nice to be the bully for a night.

  • All four goals were scored in front of the net. With this lineup, that’s how it’s going to have to be. Khaira planted himself in front of net 5v5 causing havoc while Kassian was tricky behind the net and both made room for McDavid to dangle and look for an opening. It wasn’t about McDavid’s foot speed advantage here but his superior puckhandling in a phonebooth. It was fun to watch although not everything went in–there were a lot of high danger chances.

  • rnj

    I think with Klefbom and Sekera back we’ll be ok. When this team isn’t gutted be injuries they aren’t great but they aren’t bad either.

    Klefbom Larsson
    Sekera Russel
    Nurse Jones

    That’s a decent group. Add Bear and Bouchard in a couple years and we’re golden

    • El Cid

      Sekera is not comming back and you are missing two key players Chia aquired in trades to Bolster the defence in Manning and Petrovic, don’t you follow the Oil?

      • DraiCup

        No proffesional athlete is the same after a torn ACL. I expect Sekera to return but as a bottom pairing guy at best with one of our young defenseman. Eihter way he is on the books for two more years as your highest paid D-man. Just tough luck on all accounts.

        • Bluetomorrow

          Sekera’s ACL tear was last years injury so he has plenty of time to recover from that its an Achilles injury currently. ACL tear impacted his skating when he returned last year but he was looking better at Worlds, Let’s hope they give him proper recovery time including AHL conditioning stint then 3rd pair sheltered minutes. Also, Ghostisbehere tore his ACL and can still play pretty well

          • Serious Gord

            So third pairing. At best. Maybe this year.

            So not much. Not this year. Likely not in years to come. So there is a big gaping hole in the top two pairings.

          • DraiCup

            I rather hope that Jones and Bouchard develop properly.
            Larsson, Klefbom, Russell, Nurse, Jones, Bouchard that’s the D-core for the foreseeable future. Except for Russell all still young players. If Sekera can fit in somewhere all the better.

  • CaptainCanada94

    The Roller Coaster of being an Oilers fan is usually down in the dumps… Realistically speaking at the start of the year, fans knew this team was a fringe playoff team. Therefore based on us being two points out of a playoff spot is essentially par for the course…The problem is that Par is not remotely good when you were gifted McDavid, and that is 100% on the management of this team.

    • Prairiechicken

      Totally agree. Also problematic is that it is easy to argue that the team is worse now than at the beginning of the year (because of the Manning and Spooner trades), and incidentally worse off from a cap perspective. Only Pete can find a way to pay more and get less …

  • TKB2677

    The comments Hitch made about needing the team to play together and play for each other has been a problem with this team well before Chia came here. I would say that it’s been a problem with the Oilers for the last 10 years. People can complain about the Hall and Eberle trade which were bad but when those guys were the Oilers main guys, that team didn’t play for each other so they didn’t win. I think they did play for each other in the 2016 season and they made the playoffs. Now injuries didn’t help, Talbot sucking didn’t help and Chia has made the roster not as good but so far in on a lot of nights the last 2 seasons, this team doesn’t play for one another as a team. It’s individual. This season we have seen glimpses and when they do play as a team, even with a not so great roster they CAN win and beat almost anyone. As soon as they get away from playing together, they get beat. I hope Hitch can figure out how to get these guys all pulling on the rope at the same time together.

    • ed from edmonton

      Did you notice that after McD was cross checked into the boards Gambardella of all people came in to spare with the Sucks player. Sharp contrast to the previous game. Also in contrast to the Ebs/Hall era. I recalll a night when a rookie Drie was drilled between the number head 1st into the boards. His line mates, Ebs and Hall, both thought their skate laces might be loose and needed checking at that moment.

      • Frank Rizza

        I remember at least half a decade where Hall and Eberle and everyone else they had in the top 9 would always be checking their laces… I would’ve fired the equipment guys for that.

  • smiliegirl15

    That’s how they played the season before last, when they made it into the playoffs. We saw guys stand up for each other, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in years. Last season was a lot of playing with, or rather skating with. Playing might have been a stretch to describe last season.
    Chiarelli’s biggest help to this team would be his firing, the sooner the better.

  • Ratt McNuge

    It’s so true and that is what is so frustrating about this team is the lack of effort they display when they lose to bottom feeders like the Kings. Yes, this team has poor depth, but they have the best player in the game, and they need to rally around him and put a consistent effort in. There are teams that have done way more with less just because every man on the team puts forth a solid effort every night.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    What I want to know is why they got away from their identity in 16-17? Forget the playoffs, forget the “career years”, I’m talking about the “don’t mess with us” mentality. NOBODY could push us around without consequence. Why’d we move away from that? Last night felt like a 16-17 game (coinciding with a similar win against the Ducks).

  • The Swarm

    My observation is that teams these days attack in waves with all players involved. The Oilers attack with their forwards only. Their defense are rarely engaged other than trying to keep the play alive at the blue line. They seriously need to let Nurse and Larrson jump into the rush on a consistent basis and trade whatever is required in order to get a Zybov type d-men (since they can not wait for Bouchard). It will completely change the complexion of the team.

  • Arfguy

    This team is way too inconsistent to take seriously. The team also reeks of being world class losers, because you have about 4 or 5 guys that actually show up to play each night. I think we mostly know the 3 that actually do all the time, but the rest changes waaaaayyyy too much.

    • camdog

      Fortunately teams 6-11 are in the same category in the Western Conference. Dallas is in a playoff spot and their top 2 got called out. Pistol Pete might be saved this year as St.Louis, Chicago and L.A. got old, leaving 2 spots open for mediocrity for the Wild Card spots.