Stumbling Oilers Now Have A Hitch In Their Step
If Ken Hitchcock is the answer for the Edmonton Oilers, what is the question?
Probably something like, “Who did we piss off?"
The NHL team that dares to be known by first-overall picks alone finds itself spinning out of control yet again. As of Monday, the Oilers were dropping like a stone in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Their 10-10-2 record would leave them out of the playoffs for the twelfth time in 13 seasons.
For most teams, that would be bad enough. But for a Canadian squad that fancies itself as the Team That Wayne Built, another year in postseason purgatory is humiliating.
So replacing Todd McLellan with retread Hitchcock— the Billy Martin of hockey— makes some sense. You knew once you heard that Gretzky (an Oiler executive these days) and president Bob Nicholson (former president of Hockey Canada) were having high-level meetings that McLellan was ready for the drop.
Still— Hitchcock? He gets NHL coaching gigs the way the Oilers get first overall draft picks (Dallas Stars (1996–2002, 2017–2018), Philadelphia Flyers (2002–2006), Columbus Blue Jackets (2006–2010), and St. Louis Blues (2011–2017). Wasn’t he supposed to be retiring after his last job in St. Louis ended?
But the 66-year-old has the third-most wins of any NHL coach. He knows a thing or two about life behind the bench. Plus, Gretzky and Nicholson had worked with Hitchcock on Canada’s Olympic gold-medal teams. That matters. He will do what he does best in the short term. He’ll challenge his best players to be better. He’ll sort through which players throw snow, which players have more to give and which players need to be selling insurance somewhere.
And let them know what he sees. Which is important in Edmonton because, as we’ve written before, the team and the league need Connor McDavid, their best player, featured in big games on TV.
Another year out of the postseason will leave the NHL poorer and McDavid wondering what he’s doing freezing in Northern Alberta with an organization that can’t put a winner around him.
This management team was supposed to get McDavid to the summit. McLellan was considered a steal for the Oilers when they got him after a nice stint in San José. GM Peter Chiarelli was a good get after he built a Cup winner in Boston. If resumés mean anything they should have sorted out the talent coming through and produced a winner.
But it’s hard to be patient and analytical in the shadow of the Gretzky teams. The bar is set very, very high in Edmonton, and it only gets higher. McLellan didn’t get over that bar. And Chiarelli’s about to kick down the bar for a third time himself.
An additional irritant for the Oilers— and every other NHL club— is that the league’s culture is impossibly young these days. Despite the attempts to manage the economy of the league via salary caps and lockouts, the current financial equation has shifted the balance of committed money to a series of early 20-somethings.
There is no middle-class player left. Just a few very rich older players and a whole lot of rich young players coming off their entry-level deals. And the rest scrambling for what’s left over.
A player like Calgary’s Sam Bennett is a poster boy for the new economy. Drafted fourth overall in 2014, Bennett skipped a year in the salary grid because the Flames panicked over winning a few playoff games his rookie year. Bennett has been a disappointment since then, but Calgary felt forced to protect the asset, bumping him up to $1.95 M a year when he came to his second contract negotiation. It could have been worse. Had Bennett blossomed like many fourth overall picks, he’d have been able to extract a deal like Leon Draisaitl’s $8-million a year in Edmonton already.
The fear of losing these young stars— whether they’ve produced or not— has compelled teams to hand out eight-year deals averaging $8 million like they were iPods. This has resulted in coaches brought up in a meritocracy having to soothe athletes who see the NHL as a civil service with graduated pay grades.
Tough love has long been the calling card for Hitchcock and a number of coaches. Those who took his advice— Mike Modano comes to mind— soared. Others just did the la-la-la and collected big cheques but no glory.
But is it possible to use the whip on young men who have every material thing they could possibly desire? Has the time come NHL teams to consider coaches in their 20s who can talk generationally to the players they coach?
Hitch and the Oilers are about to find out.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps AreKilling Pro Sports And How The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.