The NHL coaching ranks are under fire once again, as Ken Hitchcock will replace Todd McLellan as head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. Hitchcock will take over immediately, and will be behind the bench when the Oilers take on the San Jose Sharks tonight.
Like the firing of Mike Yeo in St. Louis, McLellan’s end seemed inevitable given the performance of the Oilers since the beginning of the 2017-18 season. A team front loaded with stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton has struggled to find any kind of consistency and are in danger of missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. They’ve lost seven of their last ten games and find themselves just a few points from the very bottom of the Western Conference standings, plagued by middling goaltending and a lack of secondary scoring.
The team does have upside, obviously, but needed a boost right now. Hitchcock is notorious for bringing about immediate defensive results when he joins a team, though there have been many examples of his tactics wearing thin after a few years. The team may not need to worry about that, given that they have only signed the legendary coach on for the rest of the season, at which point they will re-evaluate their position. That will likely also be when the organization evaluates their front office structure, as GM Peter Chiarelli is also feeling the hot seat after some questionable trades and signings the last few seasons.
Chiarelli admitted as much at a press conference to announce the hiring, but also announced that he still believes this roster has enough talent to go all the way. That will be tested thoroughly over the last three quarters of the season, with many expecting a change at the General Manager position if the Oilers were to miss the playoffs again. To avoid that, the team will need to buy-in to Hitchcock’s structured defensive style right away, something that may limit their already shaky offensive performance even further. Several current Oilers should be able to help their teammates in the transition though, as players like Kris Russell and Kyle Brodziak have plenty of experience under Hitchcock in the past.
That history is a very good one, despite the bristly reputation that Hitchcock has around the league. The 66-year old sits third on the all-time list for coaching wins with 823, and won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He also took home a Jack Adams award in 2012 for guiding the St. Louis Blues to a 43-15-11 record after taking over from Davis Payne early in the season. That’s exactly the kind of turnaround that the Oilers are hoping for with this move, especially given the fact that this team has legitimate superstars on the roster, something that Blues team lacked. In fact, the highest-scoring players on the Blues that year were David Backes and T.J. Oshie who ended with a combined 108 points, the same number McDavid accomplished on his own last season.
There is plenty to like about this move for Oilers fans, but also several troubling factors to consider. Most notably that McLellan was not able to motivate or structure this roster to reach the playoffs again even with the star power McDavid represents. It’s tough to pin that entirely on the veteran coach, given his record of success in the NHL previously. McLellan reached the playoffs in six consecutive seasons as the head coach of the San Jose Sharks, and never had a losing season in the seven years he spent behind the bench there. In fact, prior to coming to Edmonton McLellan had only experienced two losing seasons in all his time as a head coach, including his days in the WHL, IHL and AHL. There’s no doubt that he can lead a team, but for some reason wasn’t able to find sustained success in Edmonton.
If there is a turnaround coming, it will be a nice (potentially) final chapter for a coach that has waved goodbye to the game several times in the past. Hitchcock is an Edmonton native and could put the ultimate crowning achievement on a Hall of Fame career if he could take the team back to the Stanley Cup. That’s a lot to ask of just a coaching staff though, and will need more than just systems to accomplish.