Talk about a controversial oil change. If the Edmonton Oilers have a shot at the NHL playoffs next spring, it'll have to be without Todd McLellan. The team dumped the coach, replacing him with Ken Hitchcock on Tuesday, just as the Oilers are preparing for a road swing in California.
The firing took place as the Oilers struggle to play .500-level hockey. Their regular season record stands at 9-10-1, including losing two of their last games and six of their last seven matches. Hired in 2015, McLellan has helmed a team with loads of talent with the likes of Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl on the ice, but has taken the Oilers to the playoffs only once. That was back in the spring of 2017, when the team made it to the second round of post-season play, only to lose to the Anaheim Ducks.
Despite the team's lackluster performance of late, which has Edmonton sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference, McLellan leaves a team that statistically did better than they looked on the ice with a 123-119-24 regular season record under his watch. But his previous coaching stint with the San Jose, where he coached before his Edmonton hire, yielded better results including six playoff berths.
Hitchcock, who retired this spring after a second coaching run with the Dallas Stars, although he's very familiar with the Oilers. The veteran of 22 seasons behind the bench was born in the city and was a constant burr in Edmonton's saddle, frequently beating them in the playoffs. In 1998, Dallas swept the Oilers in four games on the road to the team's only Stanley Cup victory, which saw them dump the Buffalo Sabres at the NHL summit in six games. The veteran coach registered 800 lifetime NHL wins on Dec. 21, 2017 before announcing his retirement.
Hitchcock faces the task of directing a team with shaky goaltending, very little depth on the forward lines, a defence that can't carry the puck into opposition territory. Despite his credentials, Hitchcock is deeply versed in executing a physical, defensive-minded style of play, which may go against the grain of Edmonton's flashy, speedy offensive philosophy. How the Oilers make the adjustment to Hitchcock's tactics will be interesting in the 62 regular season games that remain.