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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



  • HockeyRooster

    My rec team back checks at 11 pm on a week night. Why can’t the Oilers put that kind of effort forward? I’m a satisfied fan when the effort is strong no matter what the outcome of the game. This team is not as talented as most but effort isn’t talent related. It’s a sad realization when the players seem to be at the bottom of the “we care about the Oilers” list. Not sure if this will ever change…

    • TruthHurts98

      No it’s over, Oilers might actually win the draft lottery. If not a top 5 pick. They’re awful top to bottom from the owner down to the goalie coach. Sadly it’s going to get worse. DOD 2.0

      • Oilers_1978

        It was over a long time back..st luois had 4/5 games in hand but oilers management and these media outlets keep saying we’re 2 points back bla bla…

    • JasonY

      I’m surprised people are still keeping track. This team clearly won’t make the playoffs. Last year they couldn’t. Little upgrade through the offseason due to cap space hell and little depreciating assets. Expecting a different result from essentially the same crew is insanity. Actually, one would argue the talent has gotten even worse.

  • Oiler Al

    Up front you have 3 NHL centers,with varying skills.Beyond the three, there is a cosmic gap when in comes to talent!Certainly not a single one is a legit line1,2 ,3 winger.A couple might make the 4th line, others should not be on an NHL team.These players look slow and lazy because they don’t have the skill/hockey IQ to play at the NHL level.It becomes tiring and irksome for the others to carry these guys.
    Goal tending and wobble on defense did not help the situation.all in all it makes for a bad team,certainly one that on most every game cannot score enough goals to cover this anemia on ice.

    • Kneedroptalbot

      Chia, Bruinized this team. Big, slow, heavy. They almost never win a race to the puck. How bout forechecking? they never get there fast enough. Connor said it best, we don’t have the talent to win games 6-5, we have to win 2-1, 3-2.
      How bout that identity line? What identity? (2011 Boston Bruins).

  • Viperx

    Honestly I didnt think the game was as bad as many others we have witnessed this year. Ya they sucked, but the sharks are a damn good team. Tough road trip coming up, time to loose for hughes!

  • The Rookie

    Seems like the same problems we’ve had since the hard working 06 team was dismantled. At least the mediocre teams of the late 90s had effort. Made up for the lack of skill. There’s a hand full of veterans I’d like to see sit for 2 games in place of the top line in Bakersfield. I don’t think they’d accomplish much against NHLers, but they sure would try hard.

    • Derzie

      This is exactly what would help in short term. Embellish some injuries and sit as many guys as possible and call up as many players as you can. Let them show the country club gang what ‘give a damn’ looks like. They have yet to see it under the OBC/regime. When the leaders drink wine, the players follow suit. Get some freakin leaders.

  • ed from edmonton

    Two years Gulatzen blasted the Phlegms after a horrible run of games at about this time of the seasons. The Phlegms were on the verge of falling out of the playoff race but went on a run and made the playoffs. Hitch’s criticism last night was not nearly as harsh as Gulatzen’s, but we will see if it has a lasting effect. Typical response in Oiler land has been a focussed effort for a period ot two, or maybe a game or two but that’s about it.

  • rivid

    It’s time to put all players on 2 way contracts. Perform and be rewarded with a NHL salary, fail to live up to the contract and you are sent down an receive a minor league salary. No more, no movement clauses, no clearing waivers for players, perhaps follow the NFL system and if you don’t play to the level of your contract then you are cut, no more pay check and free to sign with whomever. Players need to be held accountable. A little realism brought to the privilege that if you don’t work then you don’t get paid. Welcome to the real world.

      • Axe

        Two way contracts for everyone may never fly with the NHLPA but we need more accountability from the players.. It could be in the form of allowing teams to re structure contracts and only have a certain amount of the contract be guaranteed (similar to what the NFL has) and or an enhanced ability to buy out contracts during the season similar to the NBA (kind of cool that right after the the NBA trade deadline players contracts can be bought out and then re signed by other teams for a short period of time) . Why should a whole fan base be held hostage to bad contracts by someone like Chiarelli (see Lucic etc) for years to come.. I get that these rules are in place to protect the GM and owners from themselves but at the same time they are way too stringent.. As for No movement clauses I think the easiest way around that is to limit it to one or two per team and this way they can be reserved for elite players like Connor

      • Old Goat

        Don’t bet your house on that. You can bet Bettman will get an NFL no guaranteed contracts. The stars will give in on this to have the Olympics,World Cup etc.

      • Digger

        Robin,
        Longtime reader of your work and enjoyed it.
        It must then be time for a labor lockout till the proposed changes are accepted by the NHLPA. I’d rather watch 2nd rate players trying during a strike/lockout than this steaming pile of **** that we are forced to watch at the moment

        • Serious Gord

          Nhl labour/owner relations have never been better. FOr the first time both are interested in growing revenues.

          Thus they are focuses on improving entertainment value which we are seeing in rules changes on-ice. And some contract tweaks.

          But fans frustrated with lousy team management should focus their ire on the team not getting the league to change the rules to cover off their ineptness.

      • A-co

        Never is a pretty strong word for a guy that uses words for a living Rob…it could happen BUT for what it would take to get there would be ugly…it’s getting to the point the game is pricing itself out of being a real option for people to spend what little extracurricular monies they have….at the end of the day the owners created this by signing the cheques they have…maybe for fans of hockey they should give their focus and money to the junior teams in their own back yards and make these owners sweat a little…too bad because the nhl is the best of the best of hockey

    • hagar

      Character and accountability are best brewed from example. This oilers team is ran by people that refuse to admit their own faults, and that is this teams example to follow.

    • winteriscoming

      Not sure that is what happens in the NHL I believe you put them on waivers with intent to release then you are required to buy them out with a maximum of three per year. Correct me if I am wrong.

      • Kevwan

        Because the Edmonton market makes money for the NHL. Do you think the NHL is stupid enough to kill a money making market with relegation? Do you think that Oilers fans would still pay some of the highest ticket and concession prices in the league and NOT watch NHL hockey. You do know that there is revenue sharing in the NHL don’t you?

        Of all the stupid ideas coming from you flamer and other fans around the NHL the relegation of the Oilers is probably the dumbest

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    If you guys think about it, the name “Oilers” is very appropriate for this franchise, because they ruin everyone they touch. Think about it. Remember Pat Quinn? Legendary coach, one of the greatest in the game. But as soon as he comes to Edmonton, he sucks. Todd McLellan. Great goach, helming one of the best teams in the league for 7 years. But as soon as he comes to Edmonton, he sucks. Peter Chiarelli, good in Boston, creating a perennial cup contender. But as soon as he comes to Edmonton, he sucks. This franchise has this wonderous, almost supernatural, ability to turn gold into well you know. The only reason Connor hasn’t been affected, yet, is because he has anti-Oil powers that allow him to continue to pursue Art Ross’ despite the team being even worse this year.

    Speaking of which, is he still 1 point behind Kucherov, or did Nikita grab a couple of points during Tampa’s win yesterday?

  • Dark Knight Returns

    Okay, I will post again because I’d really like to read that analysis, cheers for “yes, I’d read that series “ and trash for “nah, I wouldn’t read it”.

    Hello writers in the Nation!
    I’m writing to request an article: given that the Oilers won’t make the playoffs and you guys might feel the financial pain from advertising going thin into the Spring, can you put together an article or a series of articles on who could the Oilers be getting back from each team when McDavid requests a trade?
    So for example, if McDavid is traded to Anaheim, what do you think is the return?
    If traded to Arizona, and see on.

    That would be an interesting series and we might as well warm up to the idea.

    #FreeMcDavid

    • Todd the electron rod

      What if he does request a trade? Is there an obligation to trade him? He signed a contract. He’s an employee.
      I suppose his options would include sitting out and forfeiting salary? Seems like a bad idea.

        • Derzie

          Connor doesn’t talk. It’s easy to guess what he may or may not be thinking. Only he knows. He’s competitive and has been a star his whole life. He knows what’s wrong/right in the OBC. Don’t kid yourself that he doesn’t. I’m sure his parents and handlers know even more.

    • 99bestever

      DNR you are obviously a fan of a different team. McDavid is not going anywhere!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Stop ? with these STUPID comments about McD leaving!!! Everyone else can go but McDavid will take this team to the Stanley Cup. He’s not a quitter! He’s not going to take your stupid comments seriously!! You must have been in the outhouse when God handed out the brains ?!!!

  • Gravis82

    There is no motivation to win cause the team both 1) sucks and 2) is going backwards.

    It’s no different than managing any group of humans. You have to prvide and direction and a Vision And the promise of future success. You can have that in a bad team even and still get the effort. We don’t have that. This season is a setback of epic proportions, by probably 5 years.

    I don’t care how much you make, in order to lead a group
    Of people successfully as winners and have them engaged, they have to know and buy into the plan

  • Axe

    Can we all agree now (especially with st Louis being on fire) that the playoffs look like a pipe dream and focus on selling any UFAs over the trade deadline and start focusing on improving the bleak future of this franchise? And if u r not sold, I am fairly confident the oilers will convince u over the next few games

    • Oilers_1978

      Playoff was a pipe dream..oilers ownership and the media kept it alive just for business…

      Blues always had games in hand, but media and ownership never used to mention that when saying we are 2 points back..3 points back..4 points back…and boom now after next game they will be 8 points back..

      Then they will say unless and until we are mathematically eliminated we are in ????

  • camdog

    The irony with Eric Belanger, is that’s the way he finished off his career here. He just didn’t have it anymore. 2012-13 when he played his last few games as an Oiler. Dustin Penner recently brought up his expierence here, last full season was 2010-11. Souray was 2009-2010. It’s the same effort, same results, same product, wash, rinse, repeat.

  • crobar

    I’m actually thinking of moving to Winnipeg. It’s like 15 years of getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. How much can a person take. I see ZERO chance this gets solved anytime soon.

    • Kool-Aid Man

      As long as the current management in place we ZERO chance of it EVER changing. If the suckers keep spending their hard earned dollars to fill Katz’s pockets, nothing changes except for players’, coaches’, training staff (except Schwartz) and GMs’.

        • Kool-Aid Man

          @ Digger

          You missed the point, to clarify: if fans stop buying Oilers tickets and merchandise, Katz MAY have listen to the fans and get rid of his crony management team.

          However, Katz and OEG have a 30 yr. contract with Rogers place. So I’m not too worried about the team going anywhere regardless of any outcome.

        • wiseguy

          This market would be granted an expansion team so fast your head would spin. We know exactly what we are wishing for. I’ve said it before, we should’ve told Katz to take his team (and management) to Seattle and we could’ve started over with an expansion team that’s not tied down by stupid contracts.

          • Digger

            Ask Quebec how they feel about losing their team. Ask Winnipeg how they feel about finally getting their team back. You are right in one aspect, they could be granted an expansion team. But when? You willing to wait 5+- yrs to start again? What guarantee is there that it would even happen anyway or that it wouldn’t be more of what we have now?
            I’m not.

        • Hockey Forever

          One thing that I think is missed in this “stop buying” argument. Many of these fans have been going for years. Sitting in the same section, they’ve made friends. They’ve watched each others children grow. They go out together to events other than hockey. To many of these fans, it’s about much more than just the game.

          And then there are the business tickets. Companies who buy sets of tickets to give to clients.

          To just say “quit buying tickets” isn’t looking at reality.

  • OldOilerFan

    Good article. The failings we have at every position are all well documented yes. But the thing that eats me is the work ethic. The Flames have had down years too, but those teams always worked hard. I can handle losing a lot more if I see an effort. Stupid plays in our own end and no backchecking makes me change the channel ….

  • Oilers_1978

    Realistic bold predictions..oilers will finish last in the west…

    I can’t imagine how mcd cope with this…

    The day of the draft media was joking how sad he looked after the announcement..

    He must be thinking it’s just a bad dream he is going through…alas it’s not a dream… reality bites…

  • slats-west

    Eric Belanger lighting up the Oilers on Twitter? That’s a new low.

    Guy was a complete useless hack who was an arrogant [email protected]$$ driving his Porsche around the streets of Edmonton as he sauntered to 19pts in 104G ….really? That’s absolute salt in the wounds Robin.

    But some are missing the point of Hitch’s criticisms and comments – take the Hat trick extraordinaire Mr LeBanc from yesterday. Does he have more talent than our forwards? I would say no. He only scored 6 in +50G before last night. But what he had was 2nd and 3rd effort which is what Hitch is saying “the sharks put work ahead of skill” – for the Oilers we have it backwards….and have for over a decade. Belanger was proof of that crap.

    If these Oilers don’t have the stones or pride to shove that twitter quote down his throat then we are headed for the DOD 2.0

    • Dark Knight Returns

      Well same with the “November project “ idiot…. he didn’t win a thing in Edmonton and was nothing but a washed up dude when he came here and still: he snitched on his team mates.
      The organization has no class, top to bottom.

  • Ratt McNuge

    There’s still a rot going on in the team culture. The same rot that was here in The HOPE era. This tells me that the rot originates from the very top with owner Daryl Katz. Before Katz, the Oilers never had the most talented group, but they played with so much heart that they were easy to get behind. Ryan Smyth is the last great Oiler. The day they traded him, things seemed to change. The Oilers have been a hard group to get behind since Katz took over. He’s all about the money and hobnobbing with the old boys. Daryl Katz is the problem.

    • Dark Knight Returns

      Well he is the owner, so if he is the problem (not saying he is not) we better jump ship and start cheering for another team.

      Katz is not going anywhere

      • Ratt McNuge

        That’s the sad reality. I’ll never not be an Oilers fan. I’ve cheered for then all my life. Our only hope is he wises up. Unfortunately, I believe him to be a straight-up crook.

    • Derzie

      Not sure what people here do for a living, but how do you feel when the owner/leader(s) of your company spends their time living the sweet life while the inmates run the asylum? How about when you know that they are really bad at their job? How about a leader that knows what they are doing? One that makes it clear what your role is to being successful? It’s pretty simple really. The evidence is overwhelming. Avoid the games. Don’t buy tickets & merch. Do your part. We know that their fantasy bubble is supported by money. Break the cycle. Now. Today.

  • Jimmer

    Robin…where do we find “experienced leaders” to help the younger players like Connor, Leon, Nuge, Darnell…etc. to learn how to be “unselfish pros.” For me that is what keeps being brought up…playing for each other…playing the right way…
    How did Las Vegas figure it out? I expected Cinderella to turn into a pumpkin this year but instead they didn’t skip a beat.

    • slats-west

      I’ve been calling for that player for years. This version of it is Brodziak and Chiasson. the latter has done well and lots of stories of his game prep and a total pro. Brodziak we needed was about 3 years to late and his skills have waned. So we have them but are they tuned out? Or the wrong ones not sure.

  • Ko-D

    Oilers just need 2 good drafts, a new age GM and some quality signings and they can be a quality team. For the next season the focus has to be on building assets and creating a fun, hardworking, positive team environment. The top few players on this team are a dream foundation for a smart GM to build a winner.

    • Rick Stroppel

      SO SIMPLE!

      I went to a restaurant once. The food was lousy, the portions were small, the service was slow, the décor was ugly. The food was cold. But it was a great restaurant!

      All the Oilers need is about 6-7 NHL quality wingers, 3 or 4 NHL quality defenceman, a LEGITIMATE number one NHL goalie, a coach the players actually respect and listen to, a MUCH better GM, much better amateur scouts, much better pro scouts, a much better goalie coach, etc. etc., etc. Seriously man, they are THAT close!
      I appreciate the efforts of some people to put a positive spin on any of this. God bless you for remaining loyal to the team! But at a certain point people sound like a parent at a Timbits game where their kids’ team is losing 7-0: “go boys go…you can do it…you just have to try harder!”

      This franchise has profound problems, therefore the solutions have to be profound.

      • Big Nuggets

        There is positive spin to put on things. The team has some good pieces and a few nice prospects coming up. The problem is all faith in management is completely gone so it feels like wishful thinking to imagine what could be with this team. They could be a great team as early as next season if they make the smart, or lucky roster moves, but how likely is it that they hire a GM that will make those moves?

  • Canoe Ride 27

    If you want to enjoy hockey again, watch the Condors. It’s a fun streak, Sekera needs his legs but looks legit, Starrett is lights out, and a very competent D. AHL TV on Apple TV is pretty decent.

    Oh and truly believe ANY of the Condors D could do what Manning does at no cost.

  • madjam

    You know when your team is not good enough to make playoffs , and help the stars contribute and stay motivated to win every night , the stars soon turn to being listless in many games . Faith in stars toward rest of team reduces to a losing level of competition . Coaching can do little to fix it – up to management to trade useless pieces and maybe even a star or two .

  • kelvjn

    Teams are too fixated for keeping players under control due to the 26 year old UFA thing.

    Instead of imagining changing the contract to 2 way AHL/NHL (which will never fly with NHLPA), a team is free to pick up fringe players on one year deals. As in the Las Vegas model. It worked very well when you had 1/3 of the team as end of year UFA playing for their career.

    To that end, go with the bridge deals for the elite young players instead of the rich 6 million 8.5 milion long term buying UFA years. Stop worrying about keeping all of them at 25 when the bigger problem is they stop progressing at age 22~24 and you don’t want them by 26.

  • Seattle_Hockey

    I moved to the US in 2000 and have remained a loyal fan of the Oilers since the late 70s. There were many years before the salary cap era where the Oiler teams were composed of players short on skill but with plenty of heart. These are the darkest of times. I can honestly say I can’t wait for the Seattle team so I have another team to cheer for.

    • A-co

      And just think…katz paraded the idea of moving this team to Seattle…you could have enjoyed this gong show in your own backyard and maybe Edmonton could have started from ground zero with an expansion team…what could have been

      • hagar

        That was the worst bluff ever. Katz immediatly regretted it and took out that full page apology. He already purchased all the land around the proposed rink location, and as soon as the fans last their sh,t over the threat, he got freeked out and backed off. He knew if he didnt get the rink in that location, all the realestate he hedged on , wouldnt pay off. He was never going to move the team.

  • Digger

    Sounds to me that even though McDavid is questionable the best player in the world, it seems he maybe just a tad too young and inexperienced to lead this team. Not to mention, too polite, to light a fire under the a** of the likes of “Drysaddle”. Personal performance is one thing, but getting a large number of people to perform at the high end of their skill set is quite another.

    • 99bestever

      The coach is supposed to help motivate the troops and get them to buy into their system. According to Hitch last night it is not easy coaching these multi millionaire kids. Hopefully what he said last night will work for a couple games.

    • Big Nuggets

      McDavid’s leadership is not the problem. When the team loses people start flinging blame at every aspect of the team. With better depth this team would get better results and McDavid’s leadership would never be questioned. It is still a team game even when you have the best player on your team. We have no 3rd line center, the wingers are substandard and the defense has been depleted by injuries when they were only of average skill to begin with. Not to mention goaltending.

  • Heschultzhescores

    It is baffling! When you think Todd and now Hitch are pretty much saying the same things. It’s like the guys won’t or can’t listen to a game plan and stick with it. The thing that keeps coming to my mind is a Hockey IQ problem, what else explains guys that can’t put it together and keep it together?

  • A-co

    Is part of the problem players making too much money to soon into their careers and the drive and focus just isn’t there? Maybe when your a made millionaire at such a young age their is a mentality that exists that you don’t need to buy into coaching and systems since I’m getting paid for my talents?? Or maybe it’s just the water? Spring is in the air this week…highs of negative mid teens