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Photo Credit: Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

Hitchcock: It is About Wins Now Not Developing

Ken Hitchcock held court today at the Community rink as the Oilers prepare for rare back-to-back home games Saturday against Calgary and Sunday v. Carolina. Consecutive wins would have the Oilers right in the playoff mix, tied for the final wildcard spot with Minnesota and one back of Colorado for the first wildcard. A good weekend would have them in a playoff spot on Monday morning, possibly with the sixth best record in the west. A bad weekend and they could find themselves as low as 12th.

It is that tight in the West and now, according to Hitchcock, is not the time for developing young players.

I asked Hitchcock a few questions about icing two 20-year-old wingers.

Gregor: How do you balance trying to develop your two 20-year-old forwards and win at the same time?

Hitchcock: You don’t. You don’t try to develop them. You run them until they run out of gas and when they run out of gas you back them off and work with them again.

When we play them in the lineup we don’t treat them like 20-year-olds; they are players. The next day, like today, we talk to our young guys and ask them how they are doing and how we can help them. But when they put the sweater on, Jason, they better play. That is their job, that is what they have to do and they know that.

Individually and collectively they are finding it very hard. I wouldn’t say this is a surprise to them, but it is a bit overwhelming at times. They have found another gear in the league since Christmas time that they didn’t anticipate.

We spoke to Jesse about it today and he can’t believe the difference in the temperature of the games now. It will take some getting used to, but like I said to him, you are expected to play and expected to play well when you put the sweater on.

Gregor: You’ve seen Puljujarvi for a few months, but only had two games with Yamamoto. What differences do you see in their game and what do you like about Yamamoto’s game?

Hitchcock: He gets the lines on the ice. There are three major lines on the ice, obviously, and he knows how to play on all three. That is something that was taught to him well before we got him, but he understands the lines of the ice and what to do with the puck and how to play on those lines, so there is a trust factor (from Hitchcock) that goes on.

Jesse is just learning about those lines. Jesse still has a lot of big ice in his game. He is learning how to play on the small ice, whereas Yamo grew up on the small ice game and he knows how to play those lines. They are close to the same age, but one has more experience on the small ice game.

Yamo hasn’t had the wear and tear of the season that Jesse has. This is a hard go for a 20-year-old, especially when you are playing them every night. We know that Yamo will hit the wall in a month or so, and that is just the way it is when you decide to play these younger guys and you know their top end, and their top-end is good, you just have to go through the peaks and valleys and be there for them. You also have to know when to scale them back. It will be there for Yamo, just like it was with Jesse. This was a hard week because Jesse found a new level of hockey that gets played at this time of year and I think Yamo is going to find the same thing.

I suspect when the Oilers return from their bye week on February 2nd, neither of the kids will be in the top six. I think you will see Jujhar Khaira given an opportunity on Connor McDavid’s left wing.

I asked Hitchcock about Khaira.

“Right now he is a really good third line left winger,” said Hitchcock. “Can he get to a two? I don’t know, we’ll see. His best game is breaking ahead of the play, and when he gets ahead of the play and gets on the hunt that is when he is best. You can’t do that as a centre, because you are always coming from underneath.

“When he is able to get ahead of the play and put pressure on people he is dynamic. That is what we see. We are going to give him as much powerplay time (second unit) as we can afford here and see how he can does. If he can start to score in the games like he does in practice and shows the offensive flair in practice in games then we are going to get a top-six forward, which is great,” said Hitchcock.

I believe you will see Khaira on McDavid’s left wing in the near future. Leon Draisaitl is better as a right winger, and if Khaira can transfer his practice offensive instincts and finish into games, he could be a nice complementary winger on McDavid’s left side. Then Chiasson can slide down and play with RNH and give the Oilers two offensive lines.

The other challenge for Khaira will being able to handle the pace required to play with McDavid and Draisaitl. Alex Chiasson talked about how difficult it is when he first went up there. “They can blow gas for 50 seconds — I can’t,” he said.

McDavid and Draisaitl not only are great players, but both are in unreal shape, and playing with McDavid for big minutes is as difficult physically as much as it is about reading the play. It isn’t that Khaira isn’t in good shape, but he never trained to play like that. Hitchcock will progress him up the lineup and play him more minutes incrementally and I could see him being on McDavid’s wing a few times in the next three games, possibly starting the Oilers’ bye week.

DEFENCE…

Jim Matheson asked Hitchcock about his third pair and when Alex Petrovic will draw in.

“When Matt (Benning) came back from his grandfather’s funeral his game went up another level. It is hard to take a guy out who is playing that well. It is a little bit on me because I don’t like taking guys out who get hurt, but Matt was out for obvious reasons, then came back and has elevated his game. I don’t think we want to dismiss that.

Right now Petro (Petrovic) will have to wait his turn and when it is his turn he is going to have to go. We are not unhappy with him at all. Quite frankly Manning and Benning have become a good pair for us, a dependable pair, so we will probably stick with that tomorrow,” said Hitchcock.

WRAP UP…

I’m curious to see how Hitchcock deploys Yamamoto and Puljujarvi after the bye week. They could send Yamamoto down after the Detroit game on Tuesday and have him play next weekend in the AHL. I’d do the same for Puljujarvi. Often teams don’t do that to a player who has been on the NHL roster all year, but I’d get him playing big minutes for a few games.

Also, when Oscar Klefbom returns, I expect Caleb Jones to slide down to the third pair. Hitchcock really likes him, and his ability to skate and move the puck would make the third pair even better.

Andrej Sekera had another cardio test yesterday. They test his recovery time. If he can maintain similar time and power in subsequent intervals then it means his cardio is good enough for games. Until he passes the test he won’t be cleared to play in the AHL.

Once he is cleared the Oilers will have to shed over $2 million in cap space to get him on the roster. Once he and Klefbom are healthy they will have ten D-men. So at least two will be sent down, but I don’t expect Jones to be one. His $720,000 cap hit doesn’t save them much, plus he is playing well.

The Oilers would open up $2 million if they sent Brandon Manning and Ryan Spooner to the minors. If either was claimed, which I doubt, then they’d open up more. So sending those two down could fix the cap issue, but will the GM be willing to do that considering both were recently acquired? It will be interesting to see who is on the roster when the Oilers return from the bye week.

Recently by Jason Gregor:

  • OriginalPouzar

    I think the headline is a little misleading given the following quote from Hitch:

    “When we play them in the lineup we don’t treat them like 20-year-olds; they are players. The next day, like today, we talk to our young guys and ask them how they are doing and how we can help them. But when they put the sweater on, Jason, they better play. That is their job, that is what they have to do and they know that.”

    He is clearly working with Jesse and he said as such in the presser.

    • Kr55

      He seems to just be saying the NHL is not the place to be experimenting at game time. Too much on the line to just try stuff out with young players and not worry about results. Too much on the line.

      Good to hear there is a consistent feedback loop with young guys, that’s all you can hope for, and that the feedback is constrictive and supportive. Many have left the oilers the last few years saying the feedback was dismissive or even non-existent.

    • Jason Gregor

      His first words… “You don’t. You don’t try to develop them.” I’d say that is pretty direct and not misleading. No one said you don’t work with players, but playing them six minutes shows winning is more important than developing. Which is how it should be in the NHL. Players develop in junior and AHL and when in the NHL they either contribute or they don’t play much. Harsh, but it’s what happens. And the point of a headline is to grab attention. It is a few short words. It doesn’t speak for the entire article.

      • Gravis82

        I still read the headline and then read the article and felt it was a bit dramatic.

        I’m sure you can tell me 53 reasons why it’s not, but that’s my impression. I am only saying this because you are apparently telling another commenter that their impression of your article is wrong. It’s not something that can be wrong. It just is.

        I liked this article because finally we have a coach taking sense

  • When Klefbom and Sekera return, what happens to Gravel? My guess is Jones is sent down because he doesn’t have to clear waivers. But then as you said, you have to clear more cap space for Sekera if you put Manning ($2.25m) and Spooner ($3.1m) on waivers. That means Puljujarvi or Yamamoto get sent down. But then you’re short a 13th forward so you’d have to call up a cheaper option like Gambardella again. Weird.

    Klefbom – Larsson
    Nurse – Russell
    Sekera – Benning
    Gravel – Petrovic

  • Kr55

    Pretty clear at this point that this kid should have been in the AHL for 2 years, and this should have been his first season in the NHL. The language barrier, all the habits he had that worked on big ice (skating big circles, freely stick-handling pucks far out in front of himself, etc…) needed to be forced out of him with 17+ mins of ice time per game to test against real competition. Kid went 2 years barely playing any real hockey in this org, and has made very little progress evolving his game for north america.

    Should just keep drafting north american kids high in the draft if this is how we want to develop our players.

  • DEMERIO

    Wow I find myself fairly disappointed to read Hitch’s words on the development of our most important forward prospects today. This organization is a mess and we’ve suspected it for a while but in this season they’ve completely exposed themselves. Depressing.

    • Oilers_1978

      Not his fault..you can’t push for playoffs and develop a young player at tge the same time..

      When an organization wants a 17 years old to player to learn bew language culture, new playing structure on the go ..there is something very wrong with that organization..

  • jesse says yep

    @Gregor
    Can you explain the cap situation? I thought that whatever portion of Sekera’s salary stashed under the LTIR was saved and the cap hit is only for the portion of games he is going to play. The rest is free money is it not?

    • Jason Gregor

      The Oilers weren’t using it at first, but as they added new players they have dipped into it. They don’t need to clear $3m, as I first wrote, it is in fact closer to $2.1m, which means they could just send Spooner and Manning down. And they would be okay. They have used up $2.1m of the 5.5 LTIR cap space of Sekera. Will the GM and team be able to send those two down and not worry about optics? We will find out once Sekera passes his cardio test.

      • Towers-of-dub

        Chiarelli’s job right now isn’t to save face on his bad trades. His job is to be a professional GM, understand the weak links on his team, and waive them or send them to the AHL, so he can put NHL caliber players on his roster. His job right now is to admit that he got it wrong with Manning and Spooner.

  • Viperx

    I like Hitchcock, play to win, there big boys, if using the young guys limited and at certain times of the game helps the team win, I’m all for it. Even if it hinders the players overal development.

    • ifiwasgm

      The Oilers can’t afford to not develop players. Because the GM keeps bleeding talent and if you can’t replace it with drafted players then you are screwed.

      • Towers-of-dub

        He doesn’t have another Hall or Eberle to trade. He doesn’t keep bleeding talent anyway. He kept mcdavid, draisaitl, Nuge, Klefbom, and nurse. He got rid of 2 players who weren’t committed. Look where NJ is today. Taylor Hall leafing them to the Stanley Cup?

  • GK1980

    “The Oilers would open up $2 million if they sent Brandon Manning and Ryan Spooner to the minors. If either was claimed, which I doubt”

    This made me laugh. Manning probably wont get claimed yet they traded a legit NHL player for him? Oilers GM is a hot mess.

    • Beer_League_Ringer

      At times… Almost all the time. There must be more to the story than Oilers management fumbling the ball on Jesse’s development. Three years and the kid can’t get it figured out, like even a little? I know confidence is important, but so are brains, work ethic, determination. I simply don’t get the impression the kid is 100% engaged, or leaving it all on the ice every shift. Is it really all out of his control? If you are on the 4th line, be the best 4th liner you can be. You will earn more ice. Play like your life depends on it. When you get a shot up higher in the lineup (which he has on occasion), forecheck your arse off, maybe throw a body check once in a while, jar a puck loose… Something. Jebus, Jesse should just watch Chaisson play…

  • The Whispererer

    Jason:
    Is the mandatory bye week effectively a “rest period” ?
    If so, are there no restrictions on teams demoting players to the AHL and having them play games during that time ?

    • Jason Gregor

      If the Oilers sent anyone down it would next week and before the All Star game. It wouldn’t make sense to do it Monday, Jan 28th since Bako doesn’t play until Friday Feb 1st. But they do play on Friday Jan 25th and Saturday the 26th. And I’m pretty sure you can’t send a player down during the bye week, it would have to be before the AS break.

  • Serious Gord

    What is the goal?

    Is it to squeak into the playoffs this season – get a couple of home gates and keep the season ticket holders engaged – development of younger players be damned?

    Or is it to win a cup sometime in the next six years?

        • jesse says yep

          Playoff experience is an intricate part of building a stanley cup winner. Every year they put off making the playoffs a priority you are looking at another year of Connor, Drai, Nuge, Darnell…….. don’t get a chnace to size up their game to higher level of play in the playoffs.
          The problem I have with many Oiler fans is that it has to be one or the other where as if you watch successful teams they are a mixture.

          • Serious Gord

            If they make the playoffs- great. But not at the expense of the future. That is what I think the majority of fans want and it is the wise course to take.

  • CMG30

    I don’t know why there is any development in the NHL. That’s what the AHL is for. The fact that this is some kind of accepted practice in Edmonton just speaks to how poorly managed this team has been.

    • ed from edmonton

      There has been more than 1 writer on this is site who also think the NHL is a development league. I recall one saying the Oil should play Yak for 20 games with McD, regardless of his level of play, to give hom a “fair shot”. Hasn’t Neilson been saying something similar about JP.

      • camdog

        I’m waiting for the day that the Oilers and their media friends state that their new second and third round draft picks are going to start the year on McDavid’s wing, because they don’t need time to develop.

      • Serious Gord

        I had a lengthy on air discussion with stauffer just before the season started on this very issue. The media largely (don’t know of any exceptions) were okay with having Bouchard play ten game in the nhl – arguing that it is good for his development. That’s like letting a 12 year old drive the car on the freeway for a few miles because it will make him a better driver when he turns 16.

        • ed from edmonton

          The fallacy of not rushing players.
          There is an axiom amongst many that teams should not “rush” players into the NHL. This is a particular sore point amongst Oiler followers as they seem to have a collective memory that “rushing” a particular player to the NHL has resulted in a potential NHL player never “making” it. I will challenge anyone to provide evidence of this.
          Perhaps the two poster boys for this group are Yak and Schultz. Schultz is currently playing well in Pitt as a second pair Dman and on the PP. The Oil were not in the position to play him in a spot where he could excel and he struggled. However once he was in a position where his assignment more closely aligned with his skills his talent has come through and he is a solid NHL dman. No ruining here.
          Yak was unfortunately for the Oil a complete swing and miss by the collective intelligence of the NHL world. Concencus No. 1 who would never be able to play in the NHL. The Oil, Blues nor Avs could not make an NHL out of a guy who was determined to play the game “his way”.
          Somehow the group gives no credit for the core of the team that have been developed, i.e. McD, RNH, Drai, Nurse, Ebs and Hall all of whom spent little or no time in the AHL. You could also throw Larssen into the mix as he played all of his D+1 season in New Jersey (although his D+2 was in the AHL). The only exception to rapid NHL assignment might be Klef who after two years in Sweden spent about a half a year in the AHL, a bit slower arrival than Nurse.
          Is this just an Oiler thing, i.e. getting skilled players to the NHL quickly? Let’s look at some facts. I took a look at the top 50 in NHL scoring and of the 50, 31 played zero games in the AHL, 9 played less than 40, 6 played between 40 and 80 and 4 played over 80. What does this tell us? If team has skilled players they are in the NHL quickly. Also it is rare for a scoring forward to spend much time in the AHL, the only exception are guys who flew under the radar for a while like Brad Marchand.
          I think Button’s concerns about Bouchard also suggest that high end talent has to be moved up quickly. Button suggestion that Bouchard’s game isn’t quick enough for the NHL today hasn’t developed because in Jr he can use his size and strength to make plays rather than being forced to move to make plays? Doesn’t this sound like the Griffin Reinhart disease? Bouchard is piling up the points again in the OHL and his confidence may be overflowing, but it may be harming his development. Playing at a level below your skill level leads to bad habits. If Button is right next year might be a hard learning year for Bouchard.
          What does this say about JP in light of Hitch’s comments that JP doesn’t always take the right “line”? Maybe JP’s speed and size overwhelms in the AHL and he doesn’t need to “take the right line” to excel. If so playing in the AHL may just ingrain bad habits.
          Is Yamo one of these skilled players that any team would have in the NHL now? Hard ro say as he hasn’t shown nay ability to score in the NHL. But he sure is quick enough and knows where to go on the ice. Maybe he will be a Todd Marchant/Andrew Cogliano type, which would be a good result for the 22nd pick.

          • Serious Gord

            Every one of those players were first rounders. In some cases – gagner – was rushed. In others – hall – they weren’t. And Shultz (and petry) were set up to fail and once put in the right spot on a line-up where they could succeed they did. IoW they were rushed within the nhl lineup.

            The point is they were ALL put in at the top some belonged some didn’t. But the MO of the Oil org is to continue to do so.

    • Towers-of-dub

      The goal is playoff hockey. You play the regular season for one reason only. Get to the playoffs and figure out a way to beat a team 4 out of 7 games, and it usually starts with solving their goalie.
      If a kid wants to maintain his NHL employment, he better figure out how to do it himself.

  • I have always taken pride in being part of a very knowledgeable fan base. I get worried when people ready to cut bait on a 20 year old cause he is not lighting up the score board. I see JP learning how to be a hockey player on a mediocre team, haven’t heard him complain where he plays or how many minutes he is on the ice. If we trade him for pennies on the dollar someone is going to benefit from his grind as a player in Edmonton. We get blamed for the development of Yakupov but two other teams had a crack of making a hockey player out of him.

    Until JP says he wants out we keep him a Oiler. He will be a good player on a good team one day. Why not us?

    • ed from edmonton

      I agree that JP gives all the indications that he wants to develop into an NHL player and is trying. Unlike Yak who stick to his guns to play hockey “his way”. Whether he can improve enough to establish himself as a effective NHL player is still an open question. He could be a Shane Doan, a big guy who took a few year to develop but when it happened was an excellent player. Or maybe Ethen Moreau, never a top 6 player but a big guy who could skate well and play solids bottom 6 minutes. Or maybe a Magnus Pajaarvi a marginal 4th line player on a bottom team.

      • IRONman

        Red wings develop players. In the playoffs 20 straight years. Oilers don’t develop. 18 yo here is your jersey, go score some goals. Hall, Nuge, Leon, ect. Selanne was 22 yo when he was NHL ready. Sad management

        • Beer_League_Ringer

          … So much cherry picking in these dramatic examples of poor development. NO one talks about 8 years of trying develop Dubnyk, or Cogliano playing NCAA x2 years after being drafted. No one talks about sending Drai back to Junior. No one talks about Nurse, Bouchard, Jones, Bear, Khaira, Benson, etc. There is no formula and Hall, Nuge, Klef, Eberle, were not “ruined” because they played right after being drafted. Each player is an individual and a new case. All the development in the world wouldn’t help Yak, Magnus P, Anton Lander, etc.

          • Couldn’t agree more with you Ringer, Most of us want to remember Eberle by his stats but the play offs 2 years ago is stuck in my mind. Personally I would kept him for a while to get his value up, Chia dealt him at all time low

            I think if Yakupov was stapled Datsuyk wing was only way to make him into a hockey player.

        • ed from edmonton

          Recently the Wings do not have the depth or quality to keep players who can play in the NHL in the AHL or anywhere else. Dylan Larkin played at 18 Their current roster incudes a 19 and 20 year old d men. when they are the only option the wings play young players as well. Everyone plays the players who give them the best chance of winning. If they don’t the paying customers should demand a refund.

          • Beer_League_Ringer

            @ ed from ed
            This all day everyday is the reality. The Wings didn’t rush kids because they were making the playoffs. Now that they suck, guess what? Rookies play if they can help the team, they “develop” if they can’t make the team.