EDMONTON – It hits them all here in Edmonton, eventually.
We’ve watched it from our seat at the post-game press conferences, year after year and coach after coach. From Todd Nelson to Todd McLellan, from Ralph Krueger to Dallas Eakins.
For each and every one of them, there comes a point where that sobering realization regarding the culture of losing here in Edmonton clubs them over the head, and on Saturday it was Ken Hitchcock’s turn.
It is bigger than he thought. It is bigger than all of them thought.
The culture is broken, and even the third winningest coach in NHL history can’t seem to repair it.
“I don’t have the answers,” said Hitchcock. “But we can’t play this way and actually expect to win hockey games, not at this time of year. Quite frankly, not ever. Maybe in an exhibition game.”
Hitchcock spoke after a 5-2 loss to San Jose in which the score flattered the Oilers. The Sharks cruised through half the game on reserve power, as they have on so many nights in this building.
Hitchcock has had some frustration this season, but this was different. There was far more gravity on Saturday.
“You look at us, we’re walking down main street to score a goal — it’s just us and the goalie — and nine seconds later it’s in our net. We can’t do the things we’re doing to ourselves and expect to be a playoff team.”
His forwards don’t back check with nearly the required intensity, while his defencemen are simply not of the pedigree to be left alone that way. His goaltending is average.
Edmonton entered the game two points out of a wild-card spot and played like they couldn’t care less.
Maybe this is what Peter Chiarelli built; maybe this is how good they are. But after a 4-1 win in Minnesota two days earlier, and some strong road play since the all-star break, this performance had Hitchcock reeling. He truly thought they were making progress, and then they sashayed out on a Saturday night and played like they were on the ODR, cold beers stacked in the snow.
“At the end of the day we have to decide if we want to play the right way because it’s successful, or we just want to do our thing. Today was a game where we just wanted to do our thing,” he said. “To me, it’s priorities and what’s important. On the fifth goal: We just turned it over in the neutral zone and went dribbling to the bench. Just walked to the bench and changed. It can’t be acceptable.”
It has been going on here for years, however, a sure sign that the culture is rotten.
It goes right back to the days of Hall and Ebs and Gagner and Gilbert. No one knows how to win, because no one has been taught what it takes. There is no institutional knowledge on things like compete and character. It does not exist, missing the playoffs for 11 of the past 12 years.
Hitchcock thought he had a bead on the issues when he arrived, after all of his visits as an opposing coach. Now he is seeing it firsthand, and it’s like a visit to the sausage factory.
“When you put skill ahead of work you get burned, and there’s just too much of that going on,” he said. “We address it all the time, we think we’re moving in the right direction and we just stumble badly. It isn’t even what the other team is doing to us, we just shoot ourselves in the foot.”
Not only has Hitchcock found himself in charge of a team that does not compete on a regular basis, they play at home — where the Oilers have lost 11 of their past 13 — as if structure is beneath them. Or, to be fair, so far beyond their means it’s pointless to try.
Yes, it’s not a strong roster. But it’s the good players who lack structure just as much as the rest. An example:
With the score 1-0 for San Jose in the first period, Edmonton’s second best player, Leon Draisaitl, blindly turned a puck over in the offensive zone. Most times, the guy who turns the puck over checks the hardest. But Draisiaitl cruised back through the neutral zone, stopped skating at about centre ice, and watched as his guy (Evander Kane) blazed past, went in on net, took a pass and scored from the doorstep while completely unchecked.
It was flagrant nonchalance at a key point in the game by one of your best players. We asked Hitchcock afterwards: Is it worse when a leader makes a play like that?
“That’s a good question,” he mused, buying time to chose his words on a question that clearly struck home. “I think it’s a symptom of something much bigger. It’s priorities and what’s important. It just can’t be acceptable.
“At this time of year the coaches can’t want it more than the players.”