Forget retirement. Ken Hitchcock may not be the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers anymore, but he’s not going anywhere.
Newly-appointed general manager Ken Holland confirmed that the veteran bench boss won’t be behind the bench of the Oilers next season, but he will remain behind the scenes as an advisor to the team as he helps the ever-rebuilding club finally get to the next level.
During an appearance on Prime Time Sports on Tuesday, Hitchcock opened up about his conversations with Edmonton brass over the past 24 hours.
“It wasn’t tough on me, to be honest with you. I went in last year with [former Oilers GM] Peter [Chiarelli] to help Peter and help the Oilers in particular and I knew it was year-by-year and I told them, ‘If you decide to move on from me, I want to help,'” said Hitchcock, whose job description will be sorted out in more detail within the next week or two. “Obviously Edmonton’s my hometown, the team means the world to me, the success of the team means everything to me, and I knew I couldn’t coach forever and I wanted to help in some way.”
Hitchcock took the reins in Edmonton on an interim basis on Nov. 20 following the dismissal of Todd McLellan. He had announced his retirement from coaching just eight months earlier, after spending the 2017-18 season as head coach of the Dallas Stars, but quickly reconsidered when the opportunity to coach his hometown team presented itself. He went 26-28-8 in 62 games as the Oilers’ coach this past season, and while it wasn’t enough to lift the team back into the playoffs, Hitchcock said the experience of being in the hockey-crazed market “reinvigorated” him. (The opportunity to coach a generational player like Connor McDavid certainly helped with that, too.)
“When they made the decision that they were going to change both the general manager and the coach, I fully understood that but I want to work. I want to help, I want to work, I want to do whatever I can to continue to help the team,” said Hitchcock, whose coaching career has spanned more than two decades on five different teams, and saw him hoist the Stanley Cup with the Stars in 1999. “I think I’ve got a lot to offer, especially on player evaluation and pro player evaluation and free agents and things like that. I know the league, as well as anybody or any coach and I, want to be able to help put this thing back on the track and help Kenny [Holland].”
Getting this Oilers team “back on the track” has proven to be a tough task over the years. In the 13 seasons since losing the Stanley Cup Final to Carolina in 2006, Edmonton has made the post-season just once — that was in 2017, and the team has stalled in the two years since. But in Hitchcock’s eyes, this is a club that’s not as far off the beaten path as the standings indicate.
“I’m a pretty hopeful guy, but I see this as a lot quicker turnaround than people think,” he said. “I think this is more doable than anything, because if you don’t have the top-end guys, you’re searching and hunting and you could be years looking for that type of player and you get into bidding wars on guys who are free agents to just try to find them. Well, they’re already in place. We already have them.”
Unlike other “80-point teams,” as Hitchcock describes the Oilers — meaning you’re 14 points or “a win per month away” from the playoffs — Edmonton happens to have arguably the best player in the league in McDavid, plus an elite scorer in Leon Draisaitl as the franchise cornerstones. Those kinds of players are extremely tough to find, and the Oilers have them under contract for the next seven and six years, respectively.
“Now we’ve got to look for people who make them better, and I think there’s a lot of those players in the National Hockey League that can really help teams and they’re littered right throughout the whole league, every team’s got them,” said Hitchcock, who praised Holland as a no-nonsense evaluator who is well-suited to be able to find those guys — and fast.
“What we need to help ourselves with is we need the role players and the depth players to be zero maintenance,” Hitchcock said. “We need those players to come in and us not spend 30 seconds worrying about whether they’re going to come and play. That’s my opinion, is that the players that come in to help this team, they have to bring it every day so that it opens up space so that we get more room for our top guys.”