When Edmonton native Ken Hitchcock took over Oilers coaching duties on Tuesday from Todd McLellan, the first thing he told the players that from here on in, things were going to get downright uncomfortable. Not that the Oils have been sitting in a comfort zone so far this season, what with sitting in sixth place in the Western Conference and a 9-10-1 record.
But in his Edmonton debut, just a few hours after meeting the team and still not knowing the names of everyone in the lineup, Hitchcock demonstrated why he's still one of the NHL's best-ever coaches when the Oilers beat San Jose 4-3 in overtime, breaking a three-game winless streak.
It's only one game under the watch of Hitchcock, who was persuaded to come out of retirement to get back behind the bench, but already there were signs of what he plans to do with the team. For openers, there were a lot of white jerseys hitting, something that's been a bit of a rarity in recent years. And while they were outshot by the Sharks, the team acted like they dominated more than usual in opposition territory, largely due to Hitchcock giving the team's leading scorer Connor McDavid more ice time than usual.
Hitchcock's Physical Style
Getting a lot more physical has been a hallmark of Hitchcock's especially with his previous tenure with the Dallas Stars, with whom he won a Stanley Cup. And while he likes his players scrappy, the coach with 22 seasons and more than 800 victories under his belt also likes to play it conservative. Don't expect any fancy long passes, but instead watch for shorter passes and even the defence to carry the puck further down the rink to set up offensive opportunities.
Expect more forward line changes, given the lack of depth in the Oilers, such as moving the underperforming Milan Lucic to the third line, where he delivered bodychecks galore to throw the Sharks off their game.
After one game, the Oilers were vaulted into fourth spot in the west at .500 after 21 games. And with three-quarters of a season left, if discomfort is the price for winning, watch Hitchcock shake things up even more.
What This Means
There's little doubt that Hitchcock has a reputation for turning teams around with a more physical, risk-averse style of play. Taking that to a team that's probably the youngest NHL squad he's ever coached will be a challenge for the 66-year-old coach.
Adding to the obstacles is the possibility for pushback from some players who gelled with the team's reputation for a speedier and a more finesse style on the ice. McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins might be the shiny superstars but whether that luster will be tarnished by Hitchcock's grinder philosophy could make the difference between the playoffs and an early golf season.
But Hitchcock isn't concerned about the Oilers legacy, given that he was hired at a point in the season when the Oilers still have a chance for a Stanley Cup run. He knows there's tons of talent on the team, and despite lack of depth on at least two forward lines and much of the defense, watch him reshape that talent in a way that fits his style. Judgment Day in the wake of the Oilers coaching decision will take place sometime in April.