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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


  • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

  • VK63

    What the Oilers franchise is, metaphorically, is a compass with no magnetic north.
    Katz appears to have no clue whatsoever and from that stems this mess.
    Hitch is not infallible but he is symptomatic of the organization.
    They are lost and Hitch has no hope of leading them out of this because, frankly, they have no clue where they are going. Zero.

  • 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?”

  • Wesley41

    This team not having the talent is on current and former management,but not working hard or caring enough is on the players and not exceptable I have no evidence and this is my speculation only but Lucic really gives off the vibe of a guy riding out a sweet contract and not caring or trying!Problem is he’s suppose to be one of the veteran leaders on this team!

    • Wesley41

      I know the guy has a buy out proof contract and a no move so I don’t have any realistic options or ideas what to do with him if my speculation is even somewhat accurate!

      • Odanada

        A charismatic salesman with a touch of the blarney would convince an Eastern team that they will not beat Tom Wilson/Washington Capitals without a physical presence. They would have to convince them the Looch scoring drought is not a concern because he just needs a change of scenery. Milan is still a physical beast and we’re willing to eat $2M a year…… do the Oilers have any charismatic salesmen?

  • 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..

  • Gravis82

    Of course they are tuning him out. He is expecting them to play like nhl players, but they are not. Of course it will suck to work in that situation every day when your boss is screaming at you telling you , you are not meeting any reasonable expectations.

    But, that’s the way it will be. I would expect nothing les from hitch.

  • Beer

    Do player’s want Stanley Cups or big contracts? I think it’s a fair question. In the past, big contracts came with play off success, now it appears player’s contract’s are payed on possibility’s and probability’s based on unfulfilled potential. Why work hard? Pays the same. The expansion draft for Vegas was designed to put established franchises and by extension their fanbase(long time season ticket holders) at a disadvantage.

  • Shane

    Hitchcock’s trying to win so he’s riding the hell out of his best players. It takes ridiculous cardio to play the minutes Drai, and McDavid do as forwards. This team needs depth to help these guys out, and eat some of those minutes up. Kassian’s picked it up, and RNH, Rattie and Cave look like they’re really trying but man the rest… I don’t think they realize that lots of them aren’t going to be NHL players next year if they can’t show more.

  • Big Jacks Meat

    Hitch is looking more above him than below. its like trying to turn a bologna sandwich into a porterhouse.\

    He can only do so much with 1/4 of a NHL calibre team. Those above him are sitting there and wishing for hitch to make them look smart. Isn’t happening management. You have failed a passionate man , a generational player and what next ? you make me want to really just tune this team out. For good.

    • grumpyKoala

      The vast majority of the problem come from the attitude and not the talent. They get outwork and out shot by less talented player on a regular basis.

      The next Games… Carolina Islanders Yotes… There it is 3 team with significantly less talent but way more points!

      To hell with not a 1/4 NHL calibre team, I respect you Big Jack but I totally disagree with this.
      No courage
      No effort
      No backcheck
      No Jackstrap

        • Jimmy_Gatz

          … plus their Goaltending which is completely out of this world at the moment… Thomas Greiss saved 177 of the last 180 shots he has faced. 3 shutouts in his last 5 games. And he is only the 2nd best Goaltender on the team … A brilliant opportunity for Rieder to score …

      • Gravis82

        You do understand that attitude is part of talent right? You also understand that a humans attitude can be altered in as situation where there is no hope or goals right?

        No courage, No effort, No backcheck are all indicators of players not being NHL calibre. If however you are scoring 100 points, your flaws are balanced out with positives. If you are not scoring, you had better add something. Thing is, most on this team are adding nothing at all. That means one thing, they are not NHL calibre. Its not their fault really, they are just not good players. So yes, 1/4 are not NHL players.

  • Big Jacks Meat

    I would take an 80 year old glen sather to GM this team than anyone in recent conversations. Seriously.

    what a joke , from one step up from Hitch. He is not the damn problem and neither was McLellan.

    • Beer

      The game was changing in the eighty’s, mostly because of Sather. I believe he was consistently hard, but fair. Shape up or ship out. No graveling to agent’s or overrated player’s that felt they were entitled to a NHL career. How many times did Slat’s take a trip at 3 in the morning to look out for a player that was about to be in trouble -35? With the player’s driving the bus, the NHL needs to get a handle on this tactfully.

  • OnDaWagon

    Wasn’t it around mid January St. Louis was last in the west? Look at where they are today. Determination and willingness can create a lot of change.

    If you think you’re done, then you are done.
    If you are determined, then you will acheive

    GO TO WORK.

    • 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.

  • Axe

    It’s looking more and more like there is a disconnect between Hitch and the players and It does look like they are tuning him out. I don’t blame Hitch one bit! This is one is on the players! Hitch can’t make u (and shouldn’t have to) backcheck.. Do your job and have some pride as a well paid professional. Hitchcock is a man who came out of retirement to help his hometown team so I have nothing but respect for him. The players better be careful and tread lightly I don’t think history will be kind to them if they get another respected coach fired in five month.

  • Dark Knight Returns

    So what’s the suggestion?
    A coach like who, and haven’t we tried all of them? Eakins, Renney, Todd, the other Todd, McTavish…. now Hitch….
    You guys want Babcock now?

    The Oilers have lost 8 of the last 9, the problem is on the ice. The Oilers are getting beaten by teams that don’t have a McDavid, Draisaitl, Nuge…. the Coyotes can beat the Oilers, Anyone can for that matter.

    It’s time to look inside and face it: the current edition of the Edmonton Oilers does not care about winning. None of them. None of them care for each other, none of them wants to be here.

    Sure. Let’s get another coach, we better pay him well though….

  • KootenayDan

    Good players make good coaches and it really helps when you have solid goaltending to go along with good depth. This bs about a lack of attitude or effort, courage etc. is nonsense. The fix is simple, everyone knows this team needs secondary scoring and a better overall defense everything else is irrelevant until those issues are resolved. Thanks Pete.

  • camdog

    Strome and Cagguila trades have been like the butterfly effect in the dressing room. Todd didn’t like Strome and Hitch had it in for Cagguila. Surely if the fans are disgusted with the Manning trade, I can’t imagine it went over any better in the locker room. There is no trust between management, coaches and players. Todd also got in trouble with management for not wanting Bouchard. I’m certain there are other sources of friction within the executive group – they aren’t on the same page on where to go next, where there is conflict, there is poison.

    The number 1 reason they lose is still due to a lack of good players.

      • camdog

        Oiler executives/coaches stopped trying, this is the point. Trading valuable pieces at forward for AHL fodder. Todd gave up, Hitch is in the stands coaching. Nicholson blaming the water/culture. The Oilers management/coaches are the ones that gave up on this team first, the fans second. This team is over whelmed trying to pick up the pieces from an Oiler Executive that simply gave up on them early in the season.

  • Big Nuggets

    Don’t let the players off the hook by changing the coach. Learning how to show up to work everyday with your attitude in check is part of growing up. I know its a flawed roster more than anything with this team but its the only lesson to be learned at this point in the season.

  • Todd the electron rod

    Oh oh. Don’t look now. Two points out of dead last in the west. That is, the historically horrific western conference.
    The highly paid interim GM hopes to be a buyer at the deadline.
    I am not an NHL GM nor am I mathematically gifted but I believe selling at the deadline would be appropriate.
    What do I sell, you ask? Anything and everything. All of it.
    I hope the next post is that guy who always b*tches out posts like this because NHL GMs should come here to get ideas from dbags like me.

  • DannyGallivan

    We are headed for another top 3 first rounder. Yeah. Everyone is right. Save 6 or 7 we have a very good AHL team – most of whom would get waived through the league. We need a very good GM – you will have to pay big $ as nobody would want the gig. That is the key. Get out the broom as best you can and try to trade, waive, not renew etc to get rid of many of these players – Brodziak, Cave, Kassian, Lucic (ouch), Puly (AHL bound), Rattie, Rieder, Petrovic, Gravel, Manning…. Undo what Chia has done. Right now to beat the Oil, stop McJ and Drai and you win the game. Done. We can’t get back Hall, Ebs, Maroon etc. but water under the bridge. We will also need a coach (not GG). And stop bringing up AHL players prematurely to inject some life into a dead team. “We have a plan” said top management. Ya, what was that?

    Rebuild, again. If our D stays healthy and we can bring in 3 scoring wingers we can at least be competitive. Competitive = desire to win = work ethic/effort = competitive. You can spiral up or spiral down. We have spiraled down – including the coach who is frustrated his player care less than he does.

  • Ted

    I don’t think it’s the coach … His record alone shows his success. THIS man knows a thing or two about hockey! … The problem lies mostly in that truth of that famous quote! You don’t bring a tortoise to a horse race and expect to win! … The talent isn’t there! It’s time for another facelift! Ten days to unload some cap room! Go big on the clean up! Hopefully the new face resembles a race horse not a turtle on stilts!!