The ‘Hitch Effect’ is real and the Edmonton Oilers have turned their season around since Ken Hitchcock’s arrival behind the bench three weeks ago. Since Hitchcock took over, the Oilers are 7-2-1 and have been arguably the best defensive team in the NHL. So, how was Hitchcock able to step in and make such an immediate impact in the Oilers ability to prevent opposing teams from scoring? What is the ‘Hitch Effect’?
Well, it starts in the neutral zone.
Since Hitchcock took over, the Oilers are forcing teams to dump the puck in at a much higher rate than they were under Todd McLellan. When forwards are above the puck in the neutral zone, it makes it easier to funnel opponents into areas where defensemen can step up, close them off and force a dump-in. Under Hitchcock, the Oilers are forcing opponents to dump the puck in on 53% of their entries at even-strength, top-10 in the league in that time and a whole lot more than the 46% they forced under McLellan, good for 28th in the league.
That’s step one and it only works if you can retrieve the puck and execute a successful breakout. The Oilers have done a masterful job of that in the ten games Hitchcock has been behind the bench. Edmonton has retrieved the puck on almost 70% of opponent dump-ins and have successfully exited the defensive zone on 75% of those recoveries since Hitchcock took over, best in the league in that time and again a significant improvement from where they were under McLellan.
The combination of forcing teams to dump and chase and successfully retrieving and exiting the zone on a high percentage of these plays has allowed the Oilers to go from a team that spent a ton of time defending in-zone to a team that is right around league average. Under McLellan, the Oilers spent 6:14 per game, at even-strength, defending in their own end, 28th in the league. Under Hitchcock, that number is down to 5:45, good for 18th overall.
Edmonton has also limited opponents to under 12 shots from the slot per game, best of any team since Hitchcock took over, which has contributed to their league low 2.1 goals against per game in that time.
How sustainable is this stretch of much improved defensive hockey? Well, the Oilers expected goals against in the last 10 games is higher than what they’ve allowed, 2.6 vs 2.1, however, the 2.6 expected goals against is still best in the NHL in that time. There’s obviously more that goes into this defensive turnaround than forcing and retrieving dump-ins but that’s been a major catalyst to the Oilers success at even-strength. The penalty kill has also been much better under Hitchcock. However, the defensive improvements have come at a cost – Edmonton is scoring nearly half a goal less per game than it scored in its first 20 games, ranking 28th since the coaching change.
For now, the improvements defensively have outweighed the decrease in offensive production and the Oilers are winning games as a result.
(Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)