Whether it’s a matter of buying into all the nagging coach Ken Hitchcock has done since taking over behind the bench of the Edmonton Oilers and getting into his ear or simply doing whatever it takes to shut him up — maybe both — there’s no doubt that Leon Draisaitl is playing the best hockey of his NHL career.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were hearing whispers that there was friction between Hitchcock and some of his players because of his constant demands and sometimes caustic approach, which isn’t news to anybody who has seen him work. There’s not much doubt some of that ill-will was between Hitchcock and Draisaitl.
That friction came to a head after a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks on a night Draisaitl was far from at his best — he allowed Evander Kane to wheel past him uncontested and score and he later made a lazy line change after a giveaway. “The coaches can’t want it more than the players,” Hitchcock said, uttering a quote that got tons of play and didn’t go over well in the room. Mark Spector of Sportsnet wrote about it here.
Hitchcock made his comment Feb. 9, and it coincides with the start of the seven-game points streak Draisaitl is on now, a stretch in which he has produced 6-4-10, including a power-play goal and a shorthanded goal in Sunday’s 3-2 shootout loss to the Nashville Predators. Draisaitl now sits at 38-38-76, just one point off the career-high 77 points he amassed in 2016-17. He’ll easily blow by that with 20 games left to play. Simply put, Draisaitl has never been better than he is right now.
WHAT HE SAID
“He’s taken his game to another level,” Hitchcock said. “He’s embraced the details of being a really good player. He’s bought into what the coaches want and it’s made him more effective on a daily basis. He’s in the right positions. His spacing on the ice is proper now. He’s not waiting to hit home runs. He’s a helluva hockey player.”
Asked about the team as a whole, Hitchcock said: “It doesn’t happen overnight . . . you don’t get people to play for each other overnight. It takes time and it takes a lot of pushing and pulling. I’ve said this before. Coaches get players to places they can’t get to themselves. The tug-of-war that goes on until they get to that place is hard. You’ve got to be able to coach through conflict, and the players have to be able to play through conflict. And there was some conflict, to get to this level, but we’re here now.
“Whether it’s too late or whatever, we’re here now, and we’re competing like hell. My hope is, we continue down this path because this is the path that you can be competitive for years in. If this is the way they’re going to compete and support each other, you can be really proud of what you’re putting out on the ice every night.” For context, the full interview is here.
Coaching a team, like raising children or being the boss at work, isn’t always pretty. If everybody likes and agrees with what you’re saying, chances are you’re doing it wrong. The message isn’t always what people it’s directed at want to hear. In talks I’ve had with players over the years, the consensus is coaches who are best at getting their message across, whatever it is, are balanced and consistent in delivering it. Expectations are clear, even if that can be a grind, as is often the case with Hitchcock.
THE WAY I SEE IT
The bottom line, no matter what the coach says or draws up on the white board or points out in video sessions, is that the results, good and bad, depend on the player more than anyone else. I don’t doubt Hitchcock has had a hand in what we’re seeing from Draisaitl right now, but none of the tough love or grinding about details means a damn thing if the player doesn’t turn those words into action. It’s just hot air without that.
Even with this heater he’s on as the Oilers cling to the outside hope of pushing for a playoff spot, I’m not sure we’ve seen the best that Draisaitl has to offer yet. At 23, is this the top-end of the guy who plays second banana to Connor McDavid or is there more? I’m not sure we’ll know the answer to that for another year or two.
If that’s the case, Hitchcock, 67, won’t be around to see it, at least not from behind the Oilers’ bench because he’s on a one-year deal and changes, starting with a new GM, are coming. If nothing else, nagging and nudging Draisaitl to be the player we’re seeing now for the next eight or 10 years with the team he’s always wanted to coach wouldn’t be a bad way for Hitchcock to go out.