Oilers settling into Ken Hitchcock’s possession-heavy style

Jeff Marek, Doug MacLean, Elliotte Friedman and Brian Burke discuss the play of the Edmonton Oilers in their win over the St. Louis Blues.

EDMONTON — The numbers barely make any sense. And surely they cannot be sustainable.

Can they?

Since Ken Hitchcock took over the Edmonton Oilers their record is 5-2-1. It’s an identical record to the Toronto Maple Leafs over the same span of games.

But here’s the kicker: Edmonton has scored just 16 goals over that time, compared to Toronto’s 32.

The 11 points Edmonton has picked up under Hitchcock is tied for seventh in the NHL, but the 16 goals they’ve scored ranks 29th.

The team has a great five-on-five Corsi — 52.9%, ranked ninth in the NHL — which tells us that Edmonton has found a way to possess the puck more than its opponents. And the old hockey adage goes, "As long as we keep getting chances, eventually they’ll start going into the net."

So we asked Hitchcock at Friday’s morning skate, with the Minnesota Wild in town for a key Western Conference game Friday night: how long do we hang on that old adage, before we decide that the offence needs to be upgraded?

"Well, that adage has changed," Hitchcock said. "To me, getting chances is not relevant. Possession time is everything. The more possession time you have, the higher quality of chances you get.

"We are significantly increasing possession time, and there’s a philosophy that goes with that," he continued. "How do you maintain possession of the puck? What do you do in the offensive zone? What do on your entries? What do you do on your forecheck? It’s all connected, and our players have really bought into that.

"We’re getting that, and that’s why I’m not worried about scoring goals right now, as I am about consistent possession time. Possession time equals offence."

Just eight games under a new coach, the Oilers are the proverbial work in progress. He’s got them halfway there, in that they’re maintaining possession and grinding teams down in the opponent’s defensive zone.

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Hitchcock talks about turning on the video of a game with no sound ("No offence to the play by play people,") and seeing five Oilers in the TV frame at the same time — both on offence and defence. That’s when he knows his team is supporting each other in the necessary way.

"We’re out there as a unit, as a group," said defenceman Oscar Klefbom. "And it’s not just the forwards job to score goals. We’ve got to score goals from the back end too. And it’s not only the defencemen’s jobs to defend. We’ve got to do everything as a whole group here."

Of course, the next step becomes actually scoring. Because in a 3-2 league, you can’t live on two goals per night.

That leads us to another truism in hockey: the team defending always tires before the team on offence does. That’s why possession leads to offence, because a worn-down defensive unit simply has to give up chances eventually.

Don’t they?

"When the other team starts to play straight-legged, you know you’re going to get a real quality chance. It looks like you’re on the power play even though it’s five-on-five," Hitchcock said. "We’re getting to that, where we’re making the other team play more and more straight-legged.

"That’s what you’ve got to try to get to."

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