ANAHEIM — And so the Ken Hitchcock era begins in Edmonton, as the confident coach attacks the roster like a Japanese Village chef goes after an onion.
Milan Lucic goes to the third line, but with a purpose, playing on a beefy, intimidating unit with Zack Kassian and Kyle Brodziak.
Connor McDavid gets double-shifted, but not with the usual wingers he was mostly deployed with by Todd McLellan. Hitchcock sits his fourth-line centre and sends McDavid out for his extra shifts between Ty Rattie and Jujhar Khaira, the captain’s positive osmosis now touching more teammates than it had before.
And now the talk is about how Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is ready and able to drive his own line, instead of asking whether Leon Draisaitl can.
He creates roles, Hitchcock, and then it’s up to his players to find theirs and run with it.
“Our team, before, sometimes all the lines wanted to play like Connor’s line,” assessed Kassian, looking at a suddenly changing culture and trying to make sense of it all. “Connor’s line is going to have its own way to play, and the other lines need to find an identity.
“Our line, we can grind, we can hold on to the puck and eat up minutes. That’s what a team needs to be successful.”
“I agree with (Kassian) 100 per cent,” Lucic said. “When you see someone of that stature, and he’s playing the way he is, and having the success that he is, it’s human nature. You want to copy that.
“It’s like when a team wins the Stanley Cup, what do the other teams do? They try to copy that.”
Sure, the league is moving towards speed and skill. But speed and size, of which Kassian possesses plenty of, isn’t totally passé. When fixed with Brodziak and Lucic, it wouldn’t make much sense for that trio to play a perimeter, skill game.
“When there’s a play to be made we’ve got to make it. But we won’t be going out of our way to stickhandle through guys,” promised Lucic. “And remember: Kass was a first-round pick. He does have a skill set to him. I was a second-round pick and have had my fair share of success offensively. Brodz had been in more of a checking role, but still…
“Yes, we’re expected to play a certain way. It’s not just meat and potatoes, doesn’t-matter-what-curve-your-stick-is type of stuff, but you’ve got to find a way to keep the straight-line game the most important part.”
There is no lack of confidence with Hitchcock, whose theme at his first real practice here on Thanksgiving Thursday was one of perseverance. His message, paraphrased, was, “So what if something doesn’t work, or a drill gets botched. Work through it. Make a second effort, and a third one, too.”
He wants his centres to receive the puck lower in the offensive zone to begin the transition to offence, and he’d like his team not to be so spread out when they don’t have the puck. He wants the Brodziak line to be his “Identity Line” that sets up momentum to be carried on by the next group over the boards, and he’d like Lucic to forget about 25-goal seasons, and help where he can help best right now.
“To me, he’s spent way too much time talking about not scoring, and it’s not going to help him,” Hitchcock said. “He needs to do what he did (vs. San Jose): he was physical on the puck, he protected the puck, he was great down low. A very, very effective player. He’ll score goals, chip in. But he needs to be a very solid, third-line player who gets to play on the power play.
“Never mind what he’s not doing. He can have a huge impact in the game.”
And he wants McDavid to become a better two-way centreman, right? Well, wait just a second on that one…
“I’m always trying to be a two-way player. I always tried to be a two-way player when Todd was back there, too,” said McDavid, pushing back on a question about changing his game. “Just because it’s a different guy back there, it doesn’t mean I’m changing my game.
“Just because Hitch is back there now, it’s not like now I want to play defence. I’ve always wanted to play defence. It’s part of the game, so you’ve got to be good at it.”
McDavid will learn from this coach, the way any 21-year-old would from a guy with more than 1,500 games under his belt. But Hitchcock will learn from McDavid too, and if the rest of the roles fill themselves up, the two may just get some playoff games this spring.
For now however, it’s the Anaheim Ducks on a Friday afternoon. A team the Oilers need to pass by if they’re ever going to get anywhere in the Pacific.