NASHVILLE — We’re not going to lie. It’s been a “tough love” relationship between Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock and star centreman Leon Draisaitl.
There were nights when the coach wasn’t sure if the player would ever get there. And mornings when the player likely couldn’t stand to see the coach walk into the room.
Like after that 5-2 home-ice loss to San Jose, that post-game address when Hitchcock said, “At this time of year, the coaches can’t want it more than the players?”
We’ll tell you now: he was talking about everyone, but he was really talking to Draisaitl.
In the very first period of that defeat, Draisaitl allowed Evander Kane to breeze past him at the blue line without a hint of a challenge and score unattended. And then it got worse. Later in the game, he turned the puck over in the neutral zone before lazily heading to the bench for a change while the Sharks rushed up ice for a goal. For those inside the game, that moment told the story of a player who had left his teammates in a terrible spot. He’d made a mistake, then bolted for the bench, leaving the mess for the next guy coming over the boards.
To a 1000-game coach like Hitchcock, that play was like a cockroach: If you see it once, that means there are 100 other plays just like it, waiting to come out.
It was, for an Edmonton guy like Hitchcock who has watched from afar as this franchise has muddled around for a decade, the last straw. All these good players for all these years, and they never win.
THIS is why.
It drove him over the edge.
“The coaches can’t want it more than the players,” he said after that game, a comment that echoed through the league.
His players were sour. His bosses warned him not to pour more negativity on a brand that was already a tire fire. Our Nick Kypreos reported the Oilers were thinking of replacing him.
So what did Hitchcock do? He showed his players the film. He showed Draisaitl the film.
Monday night in Nashville, after Draisaitl had been the best player on the ice by some margin, scoring both Oilers goals in a 3-2 shootout loss, Hitchcock sounded like a coach becoming vindicated.
“Coaches get players to places they can’t get to themselves, and the tug of war that goes on until they get to that place is hard,” he said. “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 (to make the playoffs) or whatever, we’re here now, and we’re competing like hell,” he said. “My hope is, we continue down this path. Because this is the path that you can be competitive for years on. 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.”
The Oilers finish a stretch three out of four games without their captain Connor McDavid. This lineup, as poorly constructed as it is, had two shootout losses and a win without McDavid.
“This was a good test for the guy right over there,” said linemate Alex Chiasson, nodding towards Draisaitl’s stall. “When they play together, they’re super dangerous. But Leon is capable of carrying his own line — he’s proven that in the past six to eight weeks. Tonight he was a horse. An absolute horse. Amazing.”
Draisaitl notched goals No. 37 and 38. He’s got 20 games left, and could well take a run at 50 goals, the first to score that many in an Oilers season since Wayne Gretzky (62) and Jari Kurri (54) in 1986-87.
He had a shorthanded goal, and his 15th power-play goal of the season.
“It’s my job to produce offensively, that’s what I’m getting paid to do,” he said. “I want to be a complete player and I take pride in doing the little things right and defending, faceoffs, penalty kill, whatever it is.”
Said Chiasson: “He thinks the game. He sees things. He’s smart. He can skate. He’s feisty.
“He’s got everything to be a superstar.”
An Oilers team with four players who have spent more time in the AHL than the NHL gave the Predators nice run Monday, hours after interim GM Keith Gretzky opted to keep the group together, in hopes they could forge some positive chemistry.
In hopes that Draisaitl, and every teammate he lugged along on Monday night, will start to play the kind of game that wins. Not just one that looks flashy, as has been the case here for far too long.
Hitchcock sees it. You can tell when you watch him talk about it.
He’s been searching for this game since the day he arrived. It’s almost certainly too late, we’ll give you that. But it’s here, it works, and now his best players are taking everyone else down the right path.
“(Draisaitl) has taken his game to another level. He’s embraced the details of being a really good player. He’s bought into what the coaches want,” Hitchcock said. “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 hell of a hockey player.”