Ken Hitchcock is old Edmonton, getting his start coaching midget hockey there while sharpening skates at an iconic local sporting goods store called United Cycle.
He learned to coach watching the legend Clare Drake run practices at the University of Alberta, and even when coaching teams across the National Hockey League, “Hitch” always kept in touch on what the Oilers were doing. Or more often, not doing.
On Tuesday, the 66-year-old took on another rite of passage in his old stomping grounds, joining the legions who have called themselves the head coach of this struggling NHL team, a club that has employed eight coaches over the past 11 seasons.
Head coach Todd McLellan was fired Tuesday, on the morning of the Edmonton Oilers‘ game at San Jose, having made it 20 games into Year 4 of a five-year deal. He was unable to make chicken salad out of a roster that has been clinically mishandled by general manager Peter Chiarelli, and paid the ultimate price. (McLellan has this year and next left on his contract, at $3 million per season.)
As the old saying goes, another woeful Oilers season might not be McLellan’s fault, but it is his problem. Or, rather, was his problem.
Frankly, it was time for a change here, where even one of the league’s top coaches had run out of answers. Somehow, McLellan could not win with one of the weaker defensive corps in the NHL, a crippling lack of depth scoring up front, and an .888 save percentage from starter Cam Talbot.
The talk of Joel Quenneville taking over was comedic, especially with Chiarelli’s tenure in Edmonton now in grave danger, having made the final move a GM can make before the sights get trained on him.
Which brings us to Hitchcock, the perfect candidate for this particular hire. Here is why:
• Experience. Only four coaches have worked more than Hitchcock’s 1,536 games behind an NHL bench. He’s seen every problem and fixed them all, and on a team whose problems always come back to allowing goals against, Hitchcock may make things a little bit less “fire wagon,” but you win in today’s NHL by allowing two or less goals per night. Period.
• Commitment. Hitchcock’s contract goes through the end of this season, then both sides will re-evaluate. With the GM in limbo, there isn’t another established coach out there who would sign a three-or five-year deal, not knowing who their boss might be next year. And there is only one coach of this pedigree who does one-year deals — and that’s Hitchcock. It behooves the organization not to be tied to a coach long term if the possibility exists that a playoff miss could cost Chiarelli his job.
• Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make. He’ll walk in and identify which players are lacking in which qualities, and make that very clear — likely by end of day Thursday. It will be, many times, exactly what McLellan told those players, but Hitchcock’s mandate will be to get a top-heavy group of forwards to defend better, and a struggling D-corps to play simpler, quicker hockey, if it’s able.
Hitchcock is not what you’d call a players’ coach. In fact, Ty Rattie — who could never make Hitchcock’s roster in St. Louis — will not be pleased with this move, we’re guessing.
But the answer in Edmonton, as far as the players are concerned, is simple: Play better.
Milan Lucic makes $6 million and has two goals in his past 66 games. Play better.
Cam Talbot has an .888 save percentage. Play better.
The support group of forwards Jujhar Khaira, Zack Kassian, Kyle Brodziak, Ryan Spooner etc., are simply not giving enough support to a superstar in Connor McDavid, who has been in on 28 of 57 Oilers goals scored.
Darnell Nurse has been a liability at times, in a year where it looked like he would take a big step forward. Oscar Klefbom needs to pull the trigger on the power play more often, to ward off the predictability we see in that unit. Matt Benning has to progress, not regress.
The new coach won’t be the same as the old coach. Not completely.
But he’ll ask for the same commitment, and I know one of his favourite terms is “dig in.” As in, “Don’t tell me you’re trying as hard as you can. There’s more.”
There is always more, and Hitchcock always asks for more.
Now we’ll see if this roster has more to give.