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Photo Credit: James Guillory/USA TODAY Sports

At Random: No Shortcuts

“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.

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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.

Oct 17, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock yells to his team during the third period against the Arizona Coyotes at the American Airlines Center. The Stars defeat the Coyotes 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A FIT?

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.

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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?

Jan 9, 2018; Saint Paul, MN, USA; Calgary Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan against the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

WHAT’S NEXT?

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?

Previously by Robin Brownlee


  • Rufio Barcoli

    I wonder who the players are that Hitchcock has troubles with.
    I’m almost certain it’s not the likes of Khaira and Puljujarvi, etc.
    Must be some of the big names.
    I wonder who.
    Any expert insiders around to shine some light on this?

    • All Ice

      Awesome. Perfect. Let’s turn on our stars again. That way we can trade our best player in every position like we always have and keep all the reasons that don’t provide an outlet pass, a shooter or net presence for those players that are actually doing they’re job and are the only reasons this team isn’t in last place. That’s worked out great over the last decade!

    • Spiel

      My guess is it is some of the players on career contracts… Drai, Klefbom, Nuge, Lucic, Larsson. It is not McDavid. No writers in Edmonton have the guts to ask this question it seems…..”Coach, can you elaborate or give examples on what you mean by players not playing how you want?”

    • Beer_League_Ringer

      It’s lose, not loose. Lose is what happens when you don’t win. Loose is what happens when you LOSE weight and your pants are too big. You’ve been corrected 3 times now and it’s getting hard to treat you as an intelligent person.

  • Ten Long Years

    Hitchcock knows he isn’t coming back next year, so he’s riding out the season just as the players are. I don’t blame him one bit. He gave it his best shot, but some causes are just hopeless.

      • Beer

        I think I agree with you Brownlee, all great teams have talent and character. At the moment they are lacking in both, with the exception of McDavid, Nuge, Drai, Nurse, and Kleff. I just wish Kleff could stay healthy. The Kleff injury sunk the team without having a back up plan. oops, forgot Lars, and Kass. Kass isn’t tearing it up on the score sheet, but he has over come some personal demons, and appears to be there for his teammates even if he is a little overpaid.

        • ChillyPepper

          How does a team like Arizona manage to show up, play, and compete every game? Their injury list is impressive.

          Wait… no one in Edmonton ever had to earn their money. When you take away the motivation for success, success won’t happen.

        • ChillyPepper

          How does a team like Arizona manage to show up, play, and compete every game? Their injury list is impressive.

          Wait… no one in Edmonton ever had to earn their money. When you take away the motivation for success, success won’t happen.

      • neojanus

        To me, it is time to pull the plug on the season and start testing the players to see what we actually have. It’s time to stick to a lineup and see how it develops until the end of the year. Is Puljujarvi a bust as a top 6? Let’s find out now instead of the insanity of what we’re doing now. I assume that there is an agreement in place that he won’t be sent down until the end of the season because it’s the worst player management I’ve ever seen. Is Koskinen worth the contract (that I think is going to get buried because he ain’t)? Push him to find out. What do do with players like Lucic, Russell, Manning, etc? Figure it out now.

        Hitch was here to try to save the season and it’s not going to happen. I also don’t know if he’s a great developmental coach for half a team of projects. Bump him up to an adviser role and let Gulutzan steer the dying days of Oilers 18/19.

        It’s done. Accept it. Fix it… gawd, help us.

        • Beer

          The Pul has me concerned, on one hand he has NHL talent, but on the other hand he could have spent the summer in Edmonton last year and spent some time getting a grip on all the different dialects of the English language. Understanding what the coach expects from you can be a challenge if you don’t understand the message. Edmonton is a great place to be exposed to different cultures and different dialects, while at same time not being pressured to fully understand them during the summer months.

      • Hockey Forever

        “given the make-up of this group.” That’s the problem, not the coach. I get where you’re coming from, but the bottom line is… Not enough talent.

      • A-co

        He’s the right guy to be riding the heard down the stretch even if they are out of the playoff race….they will be able to identify all the players not buying in with loser attitudes and ship them out this summer….boo hoo old hitch is yelling behind the bench….he’s the coach listen or sit…as far as calling up players from the farm you’d hate to mess with what’s going on down there..be nice to see a couple players brought up to reward them…here’s to 15 wins in a row after the weekend for the condors

        • neojanus

          Yeah, I don’t want to break up the Condors right now. They deserve the success they are earning.

          My only disagreement with you is that I legitimately don’t like saddling Jesse with the 4th liners and Hitch won’t stop. He shouldn’t be here at all, but I swear that there’s a verbal agreement that he stays no matter what. He needs to play with skill and make a gazillion errors if need be and Hitch will never give up on the season. That stubbornness is hurting Jesse’s development right now and it’s a shame. Don’t get me wrong. The fact that he is still up here is f’ing lunacy and Nicholson should be ASHAMED of it.

          I maintain that the biggest problem is that the Oilers lack passing skill at every position. It is a game of skating and passing; the Oilers have maybe 4 decent or better passers.

  • Goaltender Interference

    To me, the problem was summed up in the second period interview with Nuge. Where I was screaming at the tv for the team to pick it up and show some f-ing intensity, when asked how it was going Nuge said they thought they were playing well and just needed to keep doing what they were doing.

    Yeah – I know the players just throw out sound-bites and cliches during these conversations but there are things they can say that indicate they get it when they’re not playing with passion. This has been a common thread the past dozen years, and the one time we saw a difference was in 2016-2017 when coincidentally they made the play-offs…

    The players don’t get it. Rome is burning and they think it’s just another day in the park. Maybe it’s true that they think if management doesn’t give a damn then why should they? I don’t necessarily blame them, but it would be nice to hear somebody in the organization tell it like it is for once..