“If you’re going to enter a Volkswagen in the Indianapolis 500, you better know a helluva shortcut.”
I’m dating myself, but back in 1975 before club fighter Chuck Wepner — he’s the palooka Sylvester Stallone loosely based his Rocky franchise on — stepped into the ring to face Muhammad Ali in a throwaway title bout for the champ, Linda Wepner was asked about her husband’s chances. She delivered that quote, and it has stood the test of time because it rings true.
Wepner wasn’t close to good enough to beat Ali and he didn’t know a shortcut to help mitigate that disparity in talent, so while he lasted until the 15th round based almost solely on his willingness to bleed and take a beating before being TKO’d, it was no contest. What’s that got to do with the Edmonton Oilers, Brownlee? Well, it kind of reminds me of the Oilers and what isn’t working for them under the direction of coach Ken Hitchcock.
What we know for sure is the Oilers aren’t close to good enough, as we’re seeing as they fade out of playoff contention, the latest loss coming by a 3-1 score against the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the same time, Hitchcock doesn’t know a shortcut. A notoriously demanding and caustic coach who has parlayed his tough love approach to 838 career wins, a Stanley Cup and a Jack Adams Award, he isn’t about to change his stripes now.
Simply put, Hitchcock can lean on his team, as is second nature to him, as much as he wants, but if they aren’t good enough, if they aren’t capable of responding, it’s not going to matter how much he leans. What you’re more likely to get instead of success is a group of players that shuts down and eventually tunes you out. On top of everything else that’s wrong with this team, I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing here.
As anybody who has read what I’ve written about Hitchcock knows, I’ve got nothing but respect for him. From riding the bus with Hitchcock in Kamloops in the mid-1980’s through career stops in Philadelphia, Dallas, Columbus, St. Louis and now at home in Edmonton, I’ve watched him work, coax, cajole and drop the hammer to squeeze as much as is humanly possible from his teams. Along the way, he’s earned the respect of his players — even those who hate his guts. I’ve seen it.
In the vast majority of those stops — let’s take Dallas — where he tormented the Oilers and won his only Cup, Hitchcock’s teams were a well-balanced blend. He had top-end talent like Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk, Jere Lehtinen and Sergei Zubov. He had that talent mixed in with veteran role players like Guy Carbonneau, Mike Keane, Pat Verbeek, Dave Reid and Craig Ludwig. When you’ve got the dimensions of talent, experience and guys who know exactly what their roles are, you can lean on teams like that. You can go to the whip. They can respond.
How many dimensions does this edition of the Oilers have? Their best players, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, are youngsters, relatively speaking. We know there’s not enough scoring depth or seasoned players on the blueline. Who provides the proven veteran leadership and gamesmanship? How many players on this roster are even capable of responding when Hitchcock starts to lean on them, challenge them? Not nearly enough, from where I sit.
Are we seeing a disconnect between Hitchcock and this group of players? We read rumblings about that from Elliotte Friedman on Tuesday after Hitchcock unloaded on his team in the wake of a 5-2 waxing from San Jose. Hitchcock watched practice from the stands after that game. He did the same today in Raleigh, letting assistant Glen Gulutzan run the show. Those two instances, in themselves, don’t necessarily signal trouble — he isn’t quitting — but the tension seems palpable, especially on the bench during games. Or is that just me?
Aside from Hitchcock’s outburst after the loss to San Jose, he’s been patient publicly with his players in post-game scrums. That said, we don’t know what’s being said in the dressing room or on the bench, so I’m not going to reach and say for certain I know there’s a problem, but as the losses mount and patience wanes, I wonder about it.
Is it possible, after less than three months, this team, lacking the dimensions it takes to respond to what Hitchcock is demanding of it, doesn’t like the way the message is being delivered? Are some players already tuning out the coach?