The normally very chatty Ken Hitchcock wasn’t picking up his phone Tuesday morning, which is understandable. But that will all change in a hurry. Now that he has been confirmed as the Edmonton Oilers new head coach, Hitchcock will have a lot to say – and he’ll say it pointedly – to a group that has spectacularly underperformed.
Strange profession, this coaching thing. Just weeks after Joel Quenneville was let go by the Chicago Blackhawks and hours after Mike Yeo, the coach-in-waiting who replaced him in St. Louis, was fired (leaving that bench wide open for Quenneville to step in), Hitchcock finds himself back in the game. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he was let go by the Dallas Stars after failing to make the playoffs last season, Hitchcock said he was happy to leave the bench as the third-winningest coach in NHL history to take on new challenges. But it’s impossible to let go, apparently. Every year for the last 10 years of his career when he’d represent Finland in international competition, Teemu Selanne vowed that would be his last. Yet there he was, leading his country to a bronze medal and being named most valuable player at the Olympics in Sochi at the age of 43.
The Oilers can only hope Hitchcock can be that kind of difference maker for them as he approaches his 67th birthday. Will it work? There are no guarantees with the Oilers, who seem to spit out coaches with alarming regularity. The last time the Oilers went with a legendary NHL coach who was thought to be retired and in that age group, they hired Pat Quinn and that was a complete disaster.
But Quinn was a players’ coach and, as we all know, Hitchcock is anything but that. In the coaching cycle of good guy/bad guy, Hitchcock brings to the Oilers exactly what they need at the moment, a taskmaster who will demand accountability and install a disciplined system of play that will require buy-in from everyone on the roster. It’s all well and good to say that the Oilers should have used this opportunity to hire an innovative, up-and-coming young coach instead of going to the recycling bin, but this is an organization that desperately needs to give its fan base some positive results now and not squander the talents of the best player in the world when he very well may be in the prime of his career.
Hitchcock is a career coach who knows exactly how to read his room and which buttons to push to get his players to perform. He has even acknowledged in the past that sometimes a coach has to create chaos in his own dressing room if that’s what it takes. But that likely won’t be the case in Edmonton, an organization and a roster that has seen enough chaos for the time being. What the Oilers need right now is a steady hand, one that will in no uncertain terms point out their shortcomings and do the work that is required to fix them. It is almost certain there will be a short-term bump for the Oilers, but in two days it will be American Thanksgiving, a demarcation point in the season where the majority of the playoff spots have already been locked up, if you can believe that. Going into their game tonight in San Jose, the Oilers are five points out of a playoff spot with three teams between them and the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference. That’s certainly not insurmountable, but it’s not quite as easy as reeling off a couple of wins. The Oilers are at the make-or-break point in their season, reeling from a string in which they have lost six of their last seven. If they were going to make the change, it had to be now.
Two more things that merit mentioning. First, for the first time in his coaching career, Hitchcock is returning home, which will undoubtedly rejuvenate him. Back when he was an unknown AAA midget coach working at a sporting goods store in suburban Sherwood Park in the 1970s and early ’80s, Hitchcock dreamed of coaching in the NHL. But it took him until he was 44 to get his first head-coaching job in the best league in the world. And now, as one of the greatest minds to go behind a bench, he gets to return where it all started for him. If for no other reason, Hitchcock will do everything in his power to keep this from going sideways.
Second, this is as much a referendum on GM Peter Chiarelli as it is a coaching change. The Oilers thought they had the right man in Todd McLellan, but years of questionable personnel decisions have put the Oilers in their current plight, which is having an expansion-level roster with the exception of Connor McDavid, a player they lucked into getting because they were so bad. If a coach of Hitchcock’s ilk can’t coax more out of this roster, the next step for Oiler fans will be to show up to games with paper bags over their heads because any and all hope for this team will have been lost.