Next Oilers coach should make preventing goals top priority

HC analyst Brian Burke joins the Starting Lineup to discuss the Ken Holland hiring in Edmonton, whether he thinks Holland can turn things around quickly, and what his timeline is for them to make the playoffs next.

So the Edmonton Oilers need a new coach. Again.

I should wax my skis as often as they change coaches.

This time, it’s Ken Holland’s turn at bat, to take a swing at signing a guy who completes his contract in Edmonton.

The good news is, we know exactly what he’s looking for. Two things, actually:

One, it is time for this organization to figure out how to kill a penalty. Of the 33 franchises that have played an NHL game in the last decade, Edmonton’s 79.2 per cent is better only than Arizona’s 78.9 per cent — and the Coyotes have had roughly half the time to figure it out.

A good penalty killer in Edmonton is like a small forward in the NBA. Six-six isn’t small, and sub-80 per cent isn’t good.

Beyond the PK, it’s time to dispel a few myths about the type of coach required in Edmonton.

For example, when Dave Tippett’s name comes up, and people predict that a “defensive-minded” coach will impinge on the offensive instincts of Edmonton’s best players, we would remind you that Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins each had career years under Ken Hitchcock last season.

We would also remind you that the 207 goals Edmonton allowed in 2016-17, the only time they’ve made the playoffs since 2006, was their lowest since the lockout.

Don’t kid yourself — all coaches are defensive coaches, and keeping the puck out of their own net has to be priority No. 1 in Edmonton from now on. Last season that started with the top players.

Under Hitchcock, Draisaitl’s game was transformed. Gone was the bad body language, the long periods where he drifted out of the battle, and the indifference when a game started getting away. Draisaitl kept his team in games by being the only 50-goal, 100-point player in the NHL, and kept them in the fight by showing that he was in it too, right to the end.

Whomever steps in as coach — whether it’s a veteran NHL boss like Tippett or an experienced AHL coach like Todd Nelson — he has to have the experience to know that everything starts with McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse and Oscar Klefbom. Those are the players who get the ice time, who set the template for the way this team is going to play.

Hold them accountable, get them executing all the details necessary to cut down the goals against, and everyone else will follow. If the best players are on their own program, eventually the bottom of the roster throws its collective hands up and abandons the game plan as well.

“But,” you say, “didn’t they play that way last season, and the team still lost?”

Mostly yes, and certainly yes.

On the back end, Nurse needs a coach who can take the riskiness out of his game. He’s a guy you can build around, but it’s got to be less risky. Up front, McDavid (46.6 per cent) and especially Nugent-Hopkins (45.1 per cent) need to get a handle on faceoffs.

Edmonton has missed the playoffs 12 times in 13 seasons. We’ll let you guess which franchise (out of 33) has the worst faceoff percentage (48.1 per cent) over that time. These are the details that any new coach has to demand of his best players. Hold them accountable, and the rest will follow.

On the flipside, it’s up to Holland to give his team depth players who have the capability to support his stars. The fact that McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins all had career years offensively, and the Oilers missed the playoffs, is a tell on how substandard the roster in Edmonton is.

The defence in its current state, the roster of wingers, and the bottom-six isn’t good enough to make the gains in goals against this team requires to succeed. No coach can win with a lineup this thin, so Holland has to get to work so his new hire has a prayer at succeeding.

So, that’s the bad news. The good news is, if Edmonton can make games a race to three goals, they’ve got superstars who can literally account for two (or three) of those goals every single night. It’s a luxury that only gets squandered when you allow so many goals that it takes five or six to win.

Whatever his name is — and it will be someone Holland is very familiar with — the new coach and his staff have to cut down the goals against. Give a goalie a chance to look good in Edmonton, and you might be surprised.

It starts up at the top of the lineup, and Hitchcock made some decent strides there last season.

Give the new coach some decent depth, and who knows? Maybe he can finish his contract in Edmonton.

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