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.
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.
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.