When the struggling Edmonton Oilers dropped the axe on head coach Todd McLellan and replaced him with the briefly-retired Ken Hitchcock last month, part of Peter Chiarelli’s reasoning for the move came from a belief his team’s roster was good enough to make the playoffs.
It’s only been 11 games, but it appears the embattled general manager was onto something.
Sitting five points below the cut line at 9-10-1 before the coaching change, the Oilers are an impressive 8-2-1 under Hitchcock — tied for the NHL’s third-best record over that span heading into Wednesday’s action — and occupy the Western Conference’s first wild-card spot.
As the 66-year-old has done throughout his career, he’s making previously-average looking goalies seem like world beaters.
The Oilers are surrendering similar shot totals since McLellan’s removal, but are giving up more than a full goal less per game on average as Hitchcock continues to implement his defensive structure.
Mikko Koskinen, a 30-year-old with four games of NHL experience in 2010-11 prior to this season, has wrestled the starting netminder’s job from Cam Talbot.
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In eight appearances since Hitchcock took over, Koskinen has a .936 save percentage, up from .917 with McLellan. Talbot has also seen a bump in his statistics with a .925 mark in three games after putting up an ugly .888 in 14 previous outings.
“It’s not going to change overnight, but we can start taking some steps,” Hitchcock said in the wake of his hiring. “I told the players I can take them to a place personally that they can’t get to themselves.
“But they’ve got to buy into that, and it’s not going to be comfortable at times.”
And while the three other teams that fired coaches during a 17-day November stretch in hopes turning around their seasons don’t have a forward group led by Connor McDavid, they haven’t responded nearly as well.
The Los Angeles Kings were the first to make a move, parting ways with John Stevens and his 4-8-1 record on Nov. 4. Former Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins is 7-11-1 since, unable to get much more out of a slow, veteran group.
Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with Chicago, was handed his walking papers by the Blackhawks two days after Stevens following a 6-6-3 start to the year.
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Jeremy Colliton was promoted from the club’s AHL affiliate to try to right the ship, but the rookie’s tenure behind the bench has been a disaster so far with a 3-12-2 record, including a regulation losing streak that stretched to eight games with Tuesday’s 6-3 defeat in Winnipeg.
“If I had (a reason) I would have fixed it already,” Colliton told reporters after the latest setback.
And the St. Louis Blues, who underwent a major roster overhaul this summer that included a blockbuster trade for forward Ryan O’Reilly, fired Mike Yeo (7-9-3) the day before McLellan was sent packing Nov. 20.
Craig Berube, who has won two of his last three, is a pedestrian 4-5-1 as interim coach.
St. Louis (28th overall), Los Angeles (30th) and Chicago (31st) are the bottom three teams in the West. At the other end of the spectrum, the Oilers are flying, winners of four straight and six of their last seven.
Hitchcock, however, is still looking for more.
“We’re going to need more contributions from more people if we expect to be a playoff team,” he said following Edmonton’s 6-4 victory in Colorado on Tuesday. “We’re going to push in that direction.”
Battle of Alberta Brewing?
Speaking of Alberta teams, if the playoffs started Wednesday, the first round would have featured Calgary taking on Edmonton in the post-season for the first time since 1991. Like the Oilers, the Flames were 8-2-1 over their last 11. Edmonton owns a 4-1 record in playoff series against Calgary, with the Flames’ only victory coming in 1986.
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Pettersson Continues to Impress
The meteoric rise continues for Elias Pettersson, the NHL’s first star of the week. Vancouver’s 20-year-old rookie centre is the first player since Alexei Yashin in 1993-94 to record 32 points in his first 27 NHL games. Pettersson’s 16 goals are also the most by a rookie to start a career since Alex Ovechkin scored 17 times in 27 games in 2005-06.
Blue Line Prowess
With scoring up across the NHL, a group of elite defenceman are the owners of some impressive stat lines. No blue-liner has averaged a point a game in a season since Erik Karlsson in 2015-16, but Washington’s John Carlson, Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, Ottawa’s Thomas Chabot and Calgary’s Mark Giordano all currently sit at or above the threshold. The last time more than one defenceman averaged a point a game or better in a season was in 1995-96 when Brian Leetch, Sergei Zubov and Ray Bourque accomplished the feat. Karlsson, Nicklas Lidstrom (2005-06) and Mike Green (2008-09 and 2009-10) are the only other blue-liners to reach the mark since in a full season.
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Joshua Clipperton’s weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press