In a recent media scrum, Terry Jones asked of Edmonton Oilers head coach Ken Hitchcock what he takes from this season and the experience? Citing that the organization will head a million different directions this summer, Jones suggested Hitchcock must have a lot on his mind. Hitchcock responded as many might have expected he would.
Saying, “this has been the best experience of my life,” he was sincere in noting that getting to coach in a market like Edmonton, for a Canadian team where it really mattered to fans, “I wouldn’t pass this for the world.”
Calling it a new feeling coaching where fans aren’t just fans, but also analysts, he loved the experience but understands the game of change in a business of hockey where results matter.
Change Is Not Hitchcock’s Friend
Hitchcock is no fool. He knows the odds of him returning as head coach for the Oilers next season are not strong. This would be the case whether he was actually the right man for the job or not.
Bob Nicholson recently said during an interview with Jason Gregor of TSN1260, as CEO, he has two major priorities: the first is to find a new general manager and the second is to secure a coach and that will come immediately after a GM decision because that new GM will have the power to hire who he wants behind the bench. Odds are, that won’t be Hitchcock.
A new GM typically chooses his own man and as a coach who was only signed to finish out the season, Hitch’s odds of staying in Edmonton decrease even more since the Oilers are not on the hook for any future salaries owed one of the best in the business — not that it would have mattered anyway.
Well aware of how things tend to work in the NHL, when asked how badly he would like another go-round with this team, Hitchcock replied, “That’s tough Jonsey because it’s somebody else’s ball game. I would just tell you from what I did this year, I wouldn’t change this for the world.”
Herein lies the second problem for Hitchcock. After being a likely casualty of change, the Oilers are not going to make the playoffs. While Hitchcock wouldn’t change what he did, what he did wasn’t enough.
A Bumpy Road Under Hitchcock
No doubt, Hitchcock is one of the best NHL coaches ever to be behind an NHL bench. That said, his style is unique. Often referred to as a coach who pushes buttons, his motivational style didn’t always mesh with this team. Whether that’s on the players or the coach is unclear but the results are what they are. 24-24-7 probably doesn’t cut it.
When he first arrived, as teams often do with a new bench boss, the Oilers went on a tear. Winning games regularly, it looked like the playoffs were a real possibility. Then things began to fade. A combination of injuries, line-juggling, interesting personnel choices, and over-playing stars like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, all led to the losses piling up and eventually overtaking the wins. No new GM can ignore that fact.
The fans, the city, and the players all want to see wins. It didn’t happen this season. That tends to lead to change and coaching often becomes the aspect of change that makes the top of the list.
Available NHL Coaches
With some really good coaches available, Hitchcock isn’t just selling what he did here (again, probably not enough), but he’s trying to sell what he can do versus what someone else can. Whether that’s Dave Tippet, Joel Quenneville, Guy Boucher, Randy Carlyle, or others who may become available based on the success or failures of certain NHL clubs, there will be no shortage of strong candidates.
Add to that fact, Bob Nicholson recently put himself on the hot seat in Edmonton with some ill-advised comments. As tends to be the Oilers way, to take the heat off himself, it’s more than likely he makes sweeping changes, giving the fan base and media something else to talk about.
Hitchcock said he feels, “If I’m good, I can coach until I’m 99.” Still, his desire to stick around may not be enough. A new GM, potentially a new President of Hockey Operations, new players and ultimately a new coach — much of which will happen because of expectations that heads need to roll — all leave Hitchcock on the outs for next season.
Maybe it’s not fair. But, that’s just the way it goes and for someone as savvy as Hitchcock, it’s not surprising he already knows it.