EDMONTON, Alberta -- After Friday night’s 4-1 victory over the Flyers, the Edmonton Oilers were 9-2-2 since luring 66-year-old Ken Hitchcock out of retirement to replace Todd McLellan as coach.
The move followed a pair of debilitating losses.
The Flyers changed general managers in early December after a promising victory, and it was followed by yet another debilitating loss.
They have been a smorgasbord of promising wins and crushing losses since.
``I think it’s a little different ,’’ said Flyer Claude Giroux. ``When a coach gets let go, new guy comes in, wants obviously to change a little bit ... system-wise and on the ice. But when you get a new GM, nothing really changes. How we get ready, our game plan, how we get ready for the game. All that kind of stuff. It kind of stays the same.’’
Hitchcock has lived and died on both sides of those words. He’s been replaced about as often as he’s replaced, guiding the Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup in 1999, the Flyers to the brink of a Cup final in 2004, getting replaced in both places when his methods grated or became stale.
Teams have tuned him out as often as he’s tuned them in. But the early evidence with the underachieving Oilers is they needed what he was offering.
So what was he offering?
``It’s just concepts. It’s not xs and os,’’ the former Flyers coach said prior to Friday’s game. ``A lot of concepts quite frankly were in place. And I think we had some things that went on early that allowed us to have some confidence. We won a game in a shootout. We won a game in overtime. We won in a rink in San Jose that has not been nice to us right off the bat.’’
So it’s just a different voice?
``No. I don’t think that’s right necessarily,’’ he said. ``I think it’s the same stuff but a different approach. I’ve learned over time that the pregame preparation is one of the most overrated things in our sport. Because you’re saying the same things over and over again. But postgame preparation is not. It’s really important. ... My job is to keep the train on the tracks and keep the players out of the ditch for a long period of time. And I believe you do it with hard review. Most of it is positive. But if you really review the details, then they start to become absorbed. Because there isn’t much that gets absorbed on the day of a game.’’
There have been just three full practices since “Hitch” took over, and the Oilers won’t have another full one again, he said, until Tuesday. Yet they entered Friday’s game having won five straight at home and scored 18 goals over the last four games. They have received praise for being more effective defensively. The trade-off for the high-powered Oilers is fewer scoring chances. But those early victories in Hitchcock’s tenure bought some currency for what he often describes as ``a buy-in.’’
``I’ve learned over time,’’ he said. ``The athletes now are better prepared than they’ve ever been. They’re more physically and mentally prepared. They’ve got strong opinions. And you better be prepared for the dialogue and the debate. And you better have the patience for it. And that’s a daily conversation that you need to have with guys all the time, and you better have that time. Because if you don’t, it gets away on you.’’
The obvious comparison is what didn’t happen when Ron Hextall was fired. The coach he hired, Dave Hakstol, remained, was even praised by team president Paul Holmgren. Hakstol has been handed some heady hurdles, not the least of which is an endless carousel of goaltenders due to injury, ineffectiveness, and even childbirth. But he also has a team filled with veterans making the same mistakes the Oilers were making under McLellan. The Oilers were a team that lost its collective confidence with one bad bounce of the puck.
Hitchcock is from the same coaching tree as McLellan, which left him conflicted at times in assessing his effect on the Oilers so far. His team gained confidence when they won those first few games, he said, ``But they were already on their way here for me.”
``Sometimes teams are in the position where they’re ready to listen," Hitchcock said. "That happened to me in Philadelphia, and we just took right off. The year we lost in the conference final we had the best team by a mile. If we stay healthy, there’s nobody that touches us. We win a Cup.
"I’m dying on the vine with that one because I knew how good we were.”
He also knows that, in Philadelphia and other places he’s been, the players will eventually stop listening. It may be happening in Philadelphia again.
When that happens, he said, ``You know it. Your job is to get them through the wall and out the other side. That’s very difficult to do. … You know that there is some resistance in the room. When they do it, and they don’t do it. And they do it, and they don’t do it. The feel that you have is, somebody -- or something -- is stopping them.”