Oilers’ Hitchcock talks coaching strategies, changing style of play

Sid and Faizal breakdown Ken Hitchcock's first game as head coach of the Oilers and what they learned after yesterday's overtime win against the Sharks.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — What makes Ken Hitchcock so intriguing isn’t that he is so accomplished at his craft. Or that he’s won more games than every coach in NHL history but Scotty Bowman and Joel Quenneville.

He is an open book, and so by asking questions we — and by extension, you — learn so much more about his team.

Bill Belichick is the best in his business, but he shares so little that you could learn more from a football coach with a quarter of his experience. Todd McLellan is an excellent, cooperative, intelligent quote. He’s one of the best, but he’s not Hitchcock.

In fact, no one in the NHL is quite like “Hitch.”

With Hitchcock, it goes like this: you ask a probing question, and he treats it like a pilot hole. Then he drills deeper, and deeper, and we all discover what’s really down there. He shares because he’s been around long enough to have the confidence to share. Because his mentor, Clare Drake, shared.

He’ll admit what he doesn’t know, or is unsure of. Because no one has every answer.

He’s 66, a career coach who can look at Milan Lucic for one night from behind the bench and diagnose his issues the way the guy at the “Fix It” shops solves the carburetor problem in your lawn mower. But he’s also not so smart that he won’t admit to being wrong, a trait shared by the wisest people we’ve ever known.

So, rather than get in the way, here’s a rundown of a 14-minute session with Hitchcock, the day after his debut behind the Oilers bench in a 4-3 overtime win at San Jose Tuesday. His answers have been edited for brevity.

Enjoy:

On deploying Connor McDavid

“His recovery rate, cardio-wise, is astounding. He’s able to get back up to speed quickly on the bench. That’s something we’ve got to take advantage of. He can come out every second shift if it stays 5-on-5.

“My focus is going to be on building his game from our end, out. He needs to have the puck more, as do all of our centres, because that’s the strength of the team.

“I think we need to find ways to get them the puck more, deeper. That’s going to be the focus starting tomorrow at practice. Understand the value of playing inside the dots. Your touches are usually double. That’s what we want to do, is get way more touches for our whole centre ice (corps).”

On his coaching philosophy, offence versus defence

“When you have the puck, that’s for you. When you don’t have the puck, that’s for us. There’s no negotiation when the other team has the puck, no negotiation at all. I expect everyone over the next couple of weeks to start looking the same when the opposition has the puck. That’s the area in my domain, the stuff the coach controls.”

On playing McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together, or apart

“I’m right now really focused on keeping them together. I think they work really well together. They find the ice for each other, they see the ice. To me, Leon’s soft touches with the puck have really surprised me. I knew he was a good player, but I didn’t know he had touch with the puck like he does. I think the thing that is underrated is I’m able to do that because of the play of (Ryan) Nugent-Hopkins.”

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On the “Mike Modano Theory” — that McDavid may score less but become a more well-rounded player under Hitchcock

“I don’t see the scoring less. To me, it’s about value system. And even before Modano, it’s Tyler Seguin. I think Tyler Seguin was a perfect example of guys that needed to change and embraced it. He had a great offensive year and even a better defensive year. I think it’s just changing your value system and understanding that speed is a great weapon. Not many players have it. If you use it without the puck, you become more effective. If you use it with the attitude that you can create pressure, turnovers and mistakes, and you’re able to buy into that right away, you can make an impact right away because you can make the other team nervous not only when you have the puck but when they have the puck.

“Seguin bought in and was very effective. Modano bought in and was very effective. The way Connor is, he’s already two-thirds of the way there. Him and Draisaitl created about seven or eight turnovers yesterday that if I was the opposition I would be scared to death, because if you made one bobble, they’re gone. I think if I can convince him that he can create unbelievable pressure even when the other team has the puck, he’s going to be extremely effective.”

On how his coaching strategies have changed when dealing with young players

“I think we’ve passed through millennial and we’re into the ‘I’ generation. I think the ‘I’ generation is fascinating because it’s the most prepared generation I’ve ever seen in sport. Academically, too. Culturally, the same. It’s my job to eliminate surprises. It’s my job to make sure they know what I want, why, and what’s in it for them. I’ve got to be open and explain that to them or else they’re not going to buy into that. I think if you’re willing to buy into that stuff, you’re making the adjustments that are necessary. If you just go at it stubbornly and say, ‘This is what I want you to do,’ and they don’t have any impact in the decision-making, and there isn’t discussion, then I don’t think you get anywhere.

“You’ve got to be comfortable opening up as a coach. You’ve got to be comfortable with the dialogue. I know there’s been lots of times over the past few years where we’ve gotten into discussions and the player hasn’t agreed with me and we’ve negotiated a change and we’ve met halfway.

“I think that’s what coaching is today – you’ve got to meet them halfway, and you’ve probably got to go the most distance at the start of the conversation.”

On the game in San Jose, and what he learned

“This team is built differently than even I thought. The third period, to me, was real interesting. There was every reason to not play: third game in four nights; you’re down, chasing the whole game. And then when you should be tired … we went exactly the other direction.

“The weight and the size and the diligence of this team was really impressive. It’s my job to get it out of them more and more as we move along.

“We’re not the fastest team in the NHL but we can play quick. Being able to do that with no practice? Just a bunch of (white) board discussion? That made me feel real good as a coach.”

On why the centres need the puck more, and what needs fixing

“We’re too spread out. We’re not close enough to the puck as a group of five. Our quickness has to be in 10-foot puck support, and we’re having to make too many long plays.

“The buzz word in the National Hockey League is ‘fast,’ and I think it’s an improper word. I think ‘fast’ … becomes impatient. I think you want to play quick. Look at the top teams … they find space to create pockets to play quick in, and that’s what we want to get to.”

On why he put together the Milan Lucic – Kyle Brodziak – Zack Kassian line

“An identity line. I believe that you have to have a group of players who set the work standard on your club. If you’re asking your top players to do everything, then you’re not putting players who should play that way in the position to have success.

“I want them to set the tone and the dial for how we want to play. They’re maybe not going to score as many goals as when they were younger, but when you see the way they played some shifts (Tuesday), they set the table for other people to perform. I don’t know who I’m going to put on that line, but whoever is playing with Brodziak has to play that way. They’ve got to grind that team down to where all they’re doing is chipping and changing, and then we’ve got them on the three-quarter ice game, and now we’re rolling.”

On the trials of Lucic

“There’s a reason he doesn’t score. He goes to a support position on the ice too quickly. He doesn’t hold (his) ice. If he holds ice longer he’s going to get a ton of chances — off shin pads, off skates — but he doesn’t hold ice. If I can get him to hold ice longer in critical scoring areas then he’ll be way, way more effective. And I think Kassian can do the same thing on the other side.

“It’s really simple, small adjustments. We’ll get them to do it at practice (Wednesday) and that’s going to be the group that changes the quickest.”

On how long it will take to change the way the Oilers play

“I thought you needed six or seven practices to get going, then I saw the third period (in San Jose) and said, ‘Whoa…’ I didn’t expect what I saw in the third period to happen. I don’t think we were a lot of fun in the third period for San Jose to play against.”

On coaching his hometown team

“Look, I got 550 texts in 24 hours. Forty from former Midget players who all live and work in the community. Season ticket holders. That’s a big deal.

“I feel a sense of responsibility that goes way deeper. When you’re getting 150 calls… People I sold sporting goods to are all of a sudden your best friend. That’s pretty deep.

“I feel that, and I’m not afraid of it. I know the responsibility that sits in front of me. There are people I lived my whole life with, it’s their team, and I’m responsible for getting it to play as well as I can.

“I get that.”

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