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Photo Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports

Long way down

For most of his tenure behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers, coach Ken Hitchcock has more or less assumed the role of the kindly old uncle, at least publicly, when it comes to addressing the shortcomings he inherited with his team. More often than not, he’s accentuated the positive whenever possible while trying to coax effort and results from the players he has to work with.

That took a left turn after an indifferent 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at Rogers Place Saturday. With the Oilers now six points out of a wildcard spot in the Western Conference, Hitchcock ditched his Mr. Nice Guy persona, grabbed a rubber hose and applied it liberally during his post-game availability. It’s something Hitchcock has done countless times during his long NHL coaching career, but it’s the first we’ve seen of it here.

So, here we are. The Oilers fired Todd McLellan after a 9-10-1 start. In comes Hitchcock, who is now 15-16-4 after the loss to the Sharks and, for the first time, sounding as frustrated as McLellan often did near the end of his run. If McLellan and Hitchcock, who have combined for 1,272 wins as head coaches – McLellan has 434 and a .594 points percentage while Hitchcock has 838 and is .601 – can’t push this team over the top, who can?

You know things are bad, as they have been for most of the last dozen years around here, when the Belanger Triangle, former Oiler Eric Belanger, who is now a TV analyst with RDS, chimes in as he did last night on Twitter:

TESTIFY

Hitchcock knows how he wants this team to play. He said so the day he took the job. He has made those expectations clear to his players. He got was he was looking for Thursday in a 4-1 walk past the Minnesota Wild to snap a six-game losing streak. Not so much, not at all actually, against the Sharks, who are a better team than the Wild and didn’t need all the help they got from their hosts.

“We didn’t even give ourselves a fighting chance,” said an obviously agitated Hitchcock. “This, for players, has to be really unacceptable. To play that way, with so much at stake, to be able to move with two or three points of eighth place and play this way, it can’t be acceptable . . . I don’t have the answers, but we can’t play this way and actually expect to win hockey games, not at this time of year. Quite frankly, not ever. Maybe in an exhibition game.”

Instead of playing hard on both sides of the puck as they did against the Wild, the Oilers apparently thought trading chances on odd-man rushes against the Sharks was a better game plan. They had breakdowns and missed assignments – Leon Draisaitl losing the handle on Evander Kane on San Jose’s second goal was notable but not the only one — all over the place. The Oilers have shown they can follow the game plan, yet too often choose not to.

“I think it’s a symptom of something much bigger,” Hitchcock said. “It’s priorities and what’s important. It just can’t be acceptable. At this time of year the coaches can’t want it more than the players. In the end, the players just have to reach a point where they’re just sick of it.” For context, Hitchcock’s entire post-game availability is here.

WHAT NOW?

Anybody paying attention knows this team has deficits. We’ve talked and written about lack of balanced scoring, not having enough depth on defence and inconsistent goaltending until we’re blue in the face. There will be games when this team doesn’t have enough talent and is simply overmatched even when the game plan is followed to the letter. Until the team is made-over in the longer term, that’s the reality.

This isn’t the kind of team that can blow-off game plans and collectively shrug when proven coaches like McLellan and Hitchcock provide a blueprint based on what they know works as it applies to the personnel they have. If the players the Oilers have now, a group that’s won nothing and accomplished precious little, aren’t willing to buy in, what’s next?

Game after game, year after year, we’ve listened to a losers lament coming from the Oilers’ dressing room. We heard more of the same Saturday. When do regrets give way to results? We know the Oilers aren’t good enough now, but when the players can’t even bother to try to give themselves a chance, you get what we have here – yet another exasperated coach and condolences from Eric Belanger.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Flint

    I believe the issues are two-fold: 1. Patience 2. Honesty.

    We’ve seen decades of high picks being touted as insta-cup success. We see failed teams and every year management and the media talk about how next year will be different.

    Case in point this off-season. What was the media saying in the off-season about this year? 98pts. Playoffs. etc. How? This is a team that got 78pts last year and did nothing to improve in the offseason. The answer=McDavid. This is a team that Chia systematically dismantled what little depth scoring they had resulting in a worse roster than last year, and people are still talking playoffs… one week ago “we’ll still make the playoffs”. Why? McDavid.

    The NHL doesn’t work that way anymore. You need more than 1 great player and 1 pretty good player. You need strong salary cap managment, not what the Oil have. Nobody wants to have the courage to say the Oilers are a bad team with a superstar player…. except the fans. But, the fans don’t make the decisions.

    The ownership, Edmonton media, everyone started counting the cups when McDavid got drafted. Who cares about building a team…. WE HAVE MCDAVID!

    Tell that to Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the upper management. You don’t have anything until you have it, and the playoffs are a long way away for this team.

  • Al Theeathoone

    Wrong Coach?

    Todd McLellan came here with a “I’m gonna teach these guys how to play Hockey attitude. That’s what we all thought this team needed. A Coach who was going to rule with an iron fist, and stop gifting ice time for slackers. Play your best or sit. Sadly that never happened – except the time Todd made Taylor Hall sit at the end of the bench. When Hall got on the ice – seconds later he scored. That pissed off McLellan and Hall was out of here. Make no mistake who was responsible for Hall being traded. He had to make an example out of Hall and show the rest of the team who was Boss… Massive mistake.

    The team eventually quit playing for him and finally someone realized it and canned the smooth talking but no action McLellan.

    Still thinking this team needed another Coach with an Iron Fist, they hired Hitchcock. We all thought he’s gonna come in here and finally teach these idiots how to play Hockey. Might as well have kept McLellan. The players know how to play or they wouldn’t have made it this far in their careers – they simply don’t know how to win and can’t play at their best because their confidence has been destroyed by a Coach that thinks they don’t know anything.

    All you have to do is look at the photo up top to tell what the Oilers current problem is. Hitch has completely lost the room, just like McLellan. Look at the photo. The only one who actually looks like he’s listening to Hitch RANT, is McDavid. Maybe Benning but it’s hard to tell what he’s looking at for sure.

    Lucic, Nurse, Draisaitl and whoever is behind him, Kassian and whoever is behind McDavid are all totally ignoring Hitchcock (while he’s in full rant). The Oiler’s biggest problem in a nutshell. They DO NOT respect him any more. They’ve had all the yelling and criticism they’re gonna take. They’re fed up….

    The problem is not that the players don’t know how to play Hockey. They just don’t know how to maintain confidence in themselves, and confidence is 80 percent or more of Hockey. They simply don’t know how to win. They need to be taught how to beat the next team they’re gonna play, not play some made up “system”. There are no such thing as Coach’s systems. There are 30 other teams all claiming to have a “system”. Are there 31 “systems” that are unique to each team? What if 20 teams are using the same system? How does that work? Systems are a farce. Conjured up to make Coaches appear to have a plan.

    When you’ve got 20 or more players on a team that are all playing badly including both Goalies, it’s not the players. It’s the Coach. Yes the Oilers have a third of the team that don’t belong in the NHL, that’s a given. So do more than half of the league’s teams. Where do you think the Oilers got some of these players from? Other teams with a third of their line up being non NHL caliber Players that’s where.

    When 17 to 20 team members on a team aren’t producing at all – something else is wrong. Ask yourself how is it that Reider can’t score? How did Lucic go so long without scoring? How come Talbot is so bad. He lost confidence that’s how come. Same with Kosco. Same with all the other Goalies we’ve had.

    Game plans and team confidence is how you win Hockey Games.

    Wrong Coach for this team. Period.