It’s been two weeks since the Edmonton Oilers fired Todd McLellan, and two weeks since veteran coach Ken Hitchcock was lured out of retirement to step behind the Oilers’ bench. And if it was instant results Edmonton was after, they’ve seen just that.
Nothing more than mediocre at the time of McLellan’s firing, sporting a 10-10-1 record, the hope, and for some the expectation, was that Hitchcock’s no-nonsense coaching style would set Edmonton straight and spark a turnaround. From the outside looking in, too, Hitchcock has been able to do exactly that. Since his hiring, the Oilers are 4-1-1, defeating three divisional opponents, including the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights, along the way. In these two weeks, Edmonton has risen from third-last in the conference to a spot just outside the wild card. Best of all, Hitchcock’s hiring has brought with it some legitimate hope, something Oilers faithful have been hesitant to feel since the 2017-18 campaign went off the rails.
But how has Hitchcock managed to right the ship? What has he done since taking the wheel in Edmonton that has put the Oilers back on the right track?
True as it may be that six games is hardly enough to draw any concrete conclusions, there are some inferences that can be made if we dive into the underlying numbers in Edmonton. The first is that despite the assertion that the Oilers would be playing a less-exciting style of hockey under Hitchcock — slower pace, lower-event games that were at times defensive slogs — there’s little that would suggest that has been the case. The difference in play pre- and post-Hitchcock’s arrival isn’t as vast as one might expect.
In fact, while Edmonton and their opponents have combined for nearly five fewer shots at 5-on-5 and nearly two fewer at all strengths since Hitchcock’s hiring, there has actually been a notable increase in shot attempts. Across their past six games, the Oilers have managed two more shot attempts per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 with a combined 2.5 additional attempts between both teams. At all strengths, the increase in attempts has risen by two for and two against. The result of these changes has been an overall increase in two key underlying metrics, Corsi and shot percentages, at both 5-on-5 and all strengths. Under McLellan, Edmonton was only narrowly above 50 percent in both categories. Hitchcock’s preferred style of play, however, has driven the Oilers’ Corsi and shot percentages up, with the 53 percent shots percentage at 5-on-5 the standout mark of the bunch.
From a shot quality perspective, there is something to be said about Edmonton’s defending over the past two weeks, however. In the brief spell under Hitchcock, the number of scoring chances and high-danger chances have been an area of some concern despite the Oilers’ success and the bench boss’ reputation as a demanding, defensive-minded coach.
Here’s what the numbers show: McLellan’s Oilers were averaging 26.4 chances for and 26.1 against per 60 minutes at five-a-side, with 27.5 for and 26.8 against at all strengths. There has been a decline in chance generation and chance limiting under Hitchcock, though, with 23.9 for and 27.9 against at 5-on-5 and 26.1 for and 28.7 against overall. Measured by percentage, the Oilers have declined from 50.3 percent at 5-on-5 under McLellan to 46.2 percent under Hitchcock. There’s a similar decline of 3.1 percent at all strengths, and drops in percentage — which are more pronounced at 7.3 percent at five-a-side and 6.6 at all strengths — appear in high-danger attempts, as well.
That would suggest that across the past two weeks, the Oilers have actually had a harder time adjusting to Hitchcock’s systems than the win-column would suggest. So, why has the record told a different story? That’s in large part due to the efforts of Mikko Koskinen, who has become Hitchcock’s go-to guy in goal and seemingly benefitted more than any other player under the new regime.
In the six games since Hitchcock was brought aboard, Koskinen has gotten the call in five outings and his performance has been spectacular. He’s sporting a .954 SP at 5-on-5, has seen his all-strengths SP rise 10 points to .928 and he’s allowed two or fewer goals against in four of five. It’s tough to ignore what Hitchcock’s hiring appears to have done for the workload the Oilers netminder has faced, too. In eight appearances and 350 minutes with McLellan as coach, Koskinen was facing a hair shy of 30 shots per 60 minutes at five-a-side. Now, that total has dipped to 25.8 across 254 minutes under Hitchcock, with across-the-board declines from low-, medium- and high-danger areas. The average distance of shots against has declined, as well.
A more favorable environment for Koskinen — Cam Talbot has seen just one game since Hitchcock was hired — has arguably been the greatest difference-maker in the new coach’s short tenure, and no matter what the underlying numbers say, that’s been the area that has likely spurred on the recent success. Edmonton’s 5-on-5 and all-strengths SPs have risen significantly, more than three percent apiece, thus allowing the Oilers to stay in and win games despite a noticeable downturn in shooting percentage.
Does that mean the six-game sample is a sign of things to come? As noted earlier, a two-week snapshot is barely enough to suggest that a great turnaround is happening or has happened already in Edmonton, and it's clear there's still work to be done. The Oilers are going to want to increase possession numbers further and you best believe that Hitchcock won’t be resting easy if his team continues to be out-chanced on a night-to-night basis. But the best thing Edmonton can ask for is signs of improvement, a few of which are there. The most important of which is that Edmonton, at long last, is getting some goaltender and has strung together wins with some consistency.