Ken Hitchcock wasn’t brought in and put behind the bench in place of Todd McLellan to worry about what happens with the Edmonton Oilers down the road. His gig is here and now. We got another example of that in his post-game availability at the Xcel Energy Center after Thursday’s 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild when Hitchcock was asked about this goaltending.
With his ear still stinging from being hit by a puck – not to mention the slang Cam Talbot directed his way after getting the hook in a third-period collapse against the Chicago Blackhawks – a 35-save performance by Talbot had Hitchcock answering questions about who’ll get the crease against the San Jose Sharks Saturday.
If it’s Talbot between the pipes against the Sharks, as I suspect it will be, it’ll mark the fourth time in five games that Hitchcock will have gone with him over Mikko Koskinen, who got a three-year contract worth $13.5 million when Peter Chiarelli already had one foot out the door. If going with Talbot doesn’t sit well with the brain trust upstairs, oh well. That’s not Hitchcock’s concern. He coaches. They manage.
Those worried about optics, who think it looks bad to freeze Koskinen, the goaltender the organization just committed to for three more years, on the bench, can have at it. To those suggesting it shows a disconnect, maybe so. Is that actually a negative, given the decisions we’ve seen from Chiarelli and the management group as a whole in recent years? Right or wrong, Hitchcock’s mandate is to win right now and he’s going to do it his way.
IN THE MOMENT
“Solid again,” Hitchcock said of Talbot, who was terrific for 40 minutes against Chicago before the wheels fell off. “You know, like this is every night. He gives us a chance to win. I thought the guys played hard for him and he played hard for them. He’s got a little bit of confidence going right now, so that’s a good sign.”
Asked by Post Media’s Jim Matheson about going with the guy who isn’t signed past this season while Koskinen sits, Hitchcock said: “People talk about next year, whatever going on, I’m talking about next day. All I’m concerned about is next day, so whoever I think gives me the next chance, that’s what we’re going to go with. I don’t care. If one guy gets on a roll, I don’t care which guy it is, he’s the guy that’s going to have to play.” The entire post-game interview is here.
The juxtaposition between the small picture, winning games and enjoying success now, and the big picture, developing players and building a team that is capable of becoming a legitimate contender for more than a playoff spot, makes for great debate. Success with the former doesn’t guarantee the latter – especially if a team mortgages the future for a one-and-done post-season to appease fans or an unhappy owner. The best organizations find a way to strike a balance. The Oilers haven’t managed that for decades.
Brought out of retirement for the rest of the season when McLellan was sacked, Hitchcock won’t be around to see how the long-game unfolds three years down the road. Undoing the damage done and organizational deficits created by Chiarelli could take that long, but that’s up to whoever inherits Chiarelli’s job, not Hitchcock.
END OF THE LINE
Hitchcock is 67. He doesn’t need this gig, although running the bench here in his hometown is something he’s always wanted. He doesn’t need the money. Hitchcock is third in NHL career coaching wins. He’s got a Stanley Cup ring and a Jack Adams Award. His legacy is secure. Hitchcock doesn’t have to deviate from doing what he thinks is right to appease his bosses. There’s a measure of freedom in that.
If Hitchcock thinks he has a better chance to win by not playing Ryan Spooner, Brandon Manning or Alex Petrovic or by playing Talbot in front of Koskinen right now, that’s what he’ll do. That doesn’t mean he’s always right – there’s still much debate about why Jesse Puljujarvi is here if he isn’t even going to play 10 minutes a night. The Oilers pooched Puljujarvi’s development long before Hitchcock arrived, so I get the frustration by fans, but if Hitchcock thought his team was better with Puljujarvi playing more minutes, he’d be playing more minutes.
Hitchcock’s only timeline is the next day. Win Saturday.