The Edmonton Oilers did not have a great start to the 2018/19 NHL season. They got off to a mediocre 9-10-1 start under Todd McLellan and it looked they were poised to miss the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
But since bringing in Ken Hitchcock to lead the bench in late November, the Oilers have looked like a completely different team.
Despite key injuries (Andrej Sekera, Oscar Klefbom, Kris Russell) and little roster change, the Oilers are currently 9-4-2 under Hitchcock and are still in the mix to battle for a playoff spot.
Here is a look at the “new-look” Oilers and some key adjustments made by Hitchcock so far.
Elevating his stars
Overall, Hitchcock has gotten his key players to elevate their game. Since coming onboard he has re-united Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and the pair has been very productive. Both Draisaitl and McDavid are currently top-ten in scoring.
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has also been very effective, giving the Oilers solid two-way play and effectively running his own line. The "Nuge" has managed to find the net seven times and added five assists since Hitchcock’s arrival.
Hitchcock isn’t shy of using his star players (McDavid) and giving them heavy minutes. In a recent interview, Hitchcock said he “can play McDavid 25-plus minutes.”
He added that: "McDavid is an "effortless skater and his recovery rate, cardio-wise, is astounding and [it] is also a major reason why he'll be able to handle 24-25 minutes a night."
It is uncertain if playing McDavid 25 minutes is a viable strategy long-term but it seems to be working fine so far. So why fix it, if it ain’t broke…?
Redefining Lucic’s role
Hitchcock has also transformed the role of veteran forward Milan Lucic. Since arriving, Lucic has been pulled from the team’s top-six and first powerplay unit.
He has been put into a checking role on the team’s “identity line” that features Kyle Brodziak, Zack Kassian, and Lucic himself.
Despite his lack of offensive production, Lucic has been effective in his role as a checker. He has been noticeable on the forecheck and has created energy and scoring chances for his team.
He may never live up to his contract offensively but it’s fair to say that Hitchcock has at least found a way to utilize Lucic and let him make a positive contribution to the team.
Improved overall defense and puck support
From afar it seems like Hitchcock has altered the defensive style of his team and it has paid off.
They have tightened up their play in the defensive zone and have been very good with active sticks. The players seem more engaged defensively and have done a better job at limiting cross-seam passes and limiting their opponent's ability to generate good scoring chances in the slot.
On top of that, the team has employed the strategy to collapse in front of their net, out-manning opposing teams from pouncing on loose pucks by helping their defenders clear the puck from danger.
Hitchcock has also got his team to limit quality scoring chances with better puck management. In this article, the stats show that the Oilers have improved.
“controlled zone entries, [passes], [and] mistakes caused by forechecking play that result in a change of possession has dropped down from 87.1 percent to 78 percent under Hitchcock.”
It might be the reason why “Cam Talbot and Mikko Koskinen are boasting .925 and .936 save percentages since Hitchcock took over, as opposed to the .888 and .917 marks they had under McLellan."
Overall, there is a lot to like about what Hitchcock has done in Edmonton so far.
With so many key injuries on defense, it will be interesting to see if he is able to use this as an opportunity to help younger defenders like Darnell Nurse and Caleb Jones take their game to the next level.
It has been a small sample size but it looks like Hitchcock is currently giving young forwards like Jujhar Khaira and Jesse Puljujarvi a chance to develop into important complementary pieces as well.
What do you think of Ken Hitchcock’s performance so far? Do you think the Edmonton Oilers will make the playoffs this season? Let us know in the comment section below.