If Ken Hitchcock is the answer for the Edmonton Oilers, what’s the question?
Probably something like: How badly have we pissed people off?
The National Hockey League team that dares to be known by first-overall picks alone finds itself spinning out of control yet again. The Oilers are dropping like a stone in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. Their 10-10-2 record before they played on Tuesday would leave them out of the playoffs for the 12th 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 Gretzky Built, another year in post-season purgatory is humiliating.
So replacing coach 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.
He gets NHL coaching gigs the way the Oilers get first overall draft picks. Dallas Stars (1996 to 2002 and 2017-2018), Philadelphia Flyers (2002 to 2006), Columbus Blue Jackets (2006 to 2010), and St. Louis Blues (2011 to 2017). Wasn’t he supposed to be retiring after his last job in Dallas 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 Canadian 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 he’ll let let them know what he sees. And that’s 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 post-season 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. General manager Peter Chiarelli was a good get after he built a Stanley 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 second time himself (the Bruins fired him in 2015).
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’s 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 and played him after his junior season ended in the spring of 2015.
Bennett has been a disappointment since then, but Calgary felt forced to protect the asset, bumping him up to $1.95 million 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 already have been able to extract a deal like Leon Draisaitl’s $8 million a year in Edmonton.
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 players 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 for 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.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.