How Hitchcock's low-support system is turning the Oilers' season around

Andy Devlin / National Hockey League / Getty

Hiring Ken Hitchcock may be Peter Chiarelli's best move as general manager of the Edmonton Oilers.

The Oilers are 6-2-1 under Hitchcock, and 6-1-1 when Connor McDavid has been in the lineup. Under former head coach Todd McLellan, Edmonton was 9-10-1.

Hitchcock has implemented a few changes, but none bigger than ingraining his low-support system into the minds of his players. Edmonton's forwards are coming lower with and without the puck in the defensive zone, and it's paying dividends.

Here's a screenshot from the Oilers' final game under McLellan - a 6-3 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. When Vegas has the puck behind the net, Edmonton's wingers Zack Kassian (No. 44) and Jujhar Khaira (No. 16) are hanging high in the zone while defending the point. That leaves a Golden Knights skater wide open in the slot.

In Edmonton's most recent game - a 7-2 win over the Minnesota Wild on Friday - there was a noticeable change. When Minnesota has the puck behind the net, all five Oilers skaters are camped below the hash marks, prohibiting the Wild from making a dangerous pass into the slot.

Hitchcock's low-support system is also leading to some significant changes when the Oilers have the puck.

During one sequence in McLellan's last game, Darnell Nurse brought the puck up the ice. Leon Draisaitl is at the bottom of the screenshot below as he waits for a pass that can't be made because an off-screen Golden Knights player is lurking in the neutral zone.

McDavid is also off the screen waiting in the neutral zone for a pass. With no open outlets, Nurse takes a few more strides before he's forced to dump the puck, resulting in an icing.

Under Hitchcock, the Oilers' forwards are taught to support the defensemen on the breakout. Here, blue-liner Adam Larsson wins the puck battle, then Draisaitl retrieves the loose biscuit, and he hits a swooping McDavid in stride for an easy breakout with the club's best player leading the charge.

Getting Edmonton's forwards the puck earlier during the breakout is key. The Oilers don't have any defensemen who thrive while skating with the puck from zone to zone, or while making long stretch passes - which is what McLellan was asking out of his blue-liners.

McDavid, meanwhile, is arguably the best puck carrier in the NHL, as evidenced by his league-leading 248 controlled zone entries, according to The Point Hockey. Second-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also excels at skating from zone to zone with the puck.

The improvements after Hitchcock's changes have been substantial. Under McLellan, the Oilers were out shot at 5-on-5 nine times in 20 games, but with Hitchcock they've been out shot at 5-on-5 just once, and it was by a single shot during Friday's drubbing of the Wild, according to Natural Stat Trick.

Yet, the most important result of the schematic changes is the impact on the Oilers' goaltending. Here's a look at the performances of Mikko Koskinen and Cam Talbot since Hitchcock took over:

Stat Mikko Koskinen Cam Talbot
GP 4-1-1 2-1-0
GAA 1.82 2.29
SV% .934 .925

The Oilers still severely lack forward depth and mobility on the back end. But by getting his players to buy into his system - and giving his star player more ice time - Hitchcock has Edmonton trending in the right direction, with the team sitting just one point out of the playoffs.

How Hitchcock's low-support system is turning the Oilers' season around
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