EDMONTON — It was the post-game comment heard ‘round the Edmonton Oilers’ world.
“At this time of year, the coaches can’t want it more than the players.”
Head coach Ken Hitchcock said it on Saturday night, after a woeful home-ice performance in a 5-2 loss to San Jose, and his players had a full day off on Sunday to allow that thought to ruminate. To chew on it a bit, let it rate around their brains before walking back into Hitchcock’s video room on Monday morning.
“It was quiet, at the start,” said Hitchcock. “I think they were expecting something different.”
As it turns out, Hitchcock meant something different. When he said, “the coaches can’t want it more than the players,” it turns out us scribes took it out of context.
“The coaches can’t want it — and I meant the style of play — more than the players. The players have to want that style of play,” Hitchcock corrected on Monday. “It’s about the style of play.
“The way we have to play to win is a very difficult game. It’s very challenging, it’s physically demanding, it’s not fun. But it’s the way we’re built right now, but we have to play that way.”
Before, however, you mistake a savvy coaching audible for a quote being simply lost in translation, fear not. The Oilers plays took it the same way you did — like they need to dig in and want this thing more than they showed on Saturday against the Sharks.
“I think I can speak for everyone in our room. We all care,” began Darnell Nurse, who is emerging as one of the true young leaders on this team. “The coaches care, management cares, players care. We all have a strong want to make this something special. We all have that passion, that drive.
“Each and every person, from the person that cleans up Rogers rink, right up to Daryl (owner Katz) — everyone cares about this team, and the opportunity we have in front of us.”
Leon Draisaitl, whose defensive game is not yet as consistent as his offensive game, assured reporters on Monday that, “We want it just as much as everyone else. We all care. We all want it more than anyone on the outside.
“He’s the coach. He can say whatever he wants,” Draisaitl said. “If he thinks we weren’t good enough, which we clearly weren’t, then that’s his right to say that.”
Of course, when you play the way this Oilers team has played at home — losing 11 of its last 13 — talk is cheap. Particularly from Draisaitl, who was delinquent defensively on the 2-0 goal and nonchalantly changed at an inopportune time on the 4-1 goal versus San Jose, yet bristled when asked about it.
So, that is really where the Oilers are this season, now six points out of the wildcard spot and heading out on the road for three games. Talk is cheap, yet season tickets at Rogers Place are not.
Miss the playoffs this season and that’s 12 of the last 13 years, a stat that is, of course, much bigger than the players inside the 2018-19 locker room. That is why there will be a new GM and head coach here — again — when the 2019-20 season begins.
In the meantime, everyone who is getting on the plane heading to Pittsburgh Tuesday needs to toughen up and figure out how to play the way the coach is asking them to play. And if they can’t, well, then it will be fair to ask if the roster is competent enough to execute an NHL game plan at the NHL level.
“It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-your-hands-dirty message,” Hitchcock said. “You’re going to make mistakes along the way. It’s not going to turn overnight. You’re going to have emotional setbacks… We were so excited about the way we played in Minny (4-1 win) … and all of us expected we would carry it on. Well, we didn’t.
“But you’ve go to come back to work. You can’t just keep bemoaning the fact that you didn’t get it done. You’ve got to come back to work.
“You’ve got to grind.”