COSTA MESA, Calif. — The first thing Ken Hitchcock noticed about Connor McDavid was the noise.
“The bench sniffs it out,” Hitchcock said. “Any time he gets a step on someone, the bench gets loud.”
The second thing Hitchcock noticed about his all-world centre was his ability to recharge on the bench, a video game-like restore and ease-of-breath that he hasn’t seen since Sergei Zubov in Dallas.
“His recovery rate, cardio-wise, is astounding,” Hitchcock said. “He’s able to get back up to speed quickly. That’s something we’ve got to take advantage of. He can come out every second shift if it stays 5-on-5.”
Hitchcock said he is “really focused” on keeping McDavid in tandem with Leon Draisaitl for the foreseeable future, something he is able to do because the completeness of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins allows ‘Nuge’ to drive his own line.
For McDavid, that’s about the only thing that will remain the same in his new world under Hitchcock.
His new coach says the best player in the world has room to grow.
“My focus is going to be on building his game from our end out,” Hitchcock said.
That was perhaps the least surprising thing Hitchcock has said in his two days on the job as the new Edmonton Oilers head coach with his reputation preceding him. He has been notoriously demanding of his star players, from Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick to Rick Nash and Tyler Seguin.
His comments about McDavid’s new direction were a lightning rod for criticism on social media. Hitchcock was painted as a dinosaur, some saying that McDavid is not part of the problem.
Hitchcock, who turns 67 next month, pushed back against his reputation.
Before you judge, hear him out on why.
“He needs to have the puck more,” Hitchcock said. “As do all of our centres, because that’s the strength of the team. I think we need to find ways to get them the puck more deeper [in the defensive zone]. That’s going to be the focus starting tomorrow at practice.”
The end result if McDavid buys in, Hitchcock said, is to “double” his touches in a game.
“That’s what we want to do, get way more touches for our whole centre ice,” Hitchcock said.
For a team that GM Peter Chiarelli recently said does not have a B+ level passer on the back-end, that may be the only option – to get the puck in the hands of McDavid and Co. as close to their goal line as possible and let them take off.
“We’re not the fastest team in the NHL, but we can play quick,” Hitchcock said. “We’re having to make too many long plays. The buzzword in the NHL is ‘fast’ and I think it’s an improper word. I think ‘fast’ becomes impatient. I think you want to play quick. Look at the top teams, they find space to create pockets to play quick in and that’s what we want to get to.”
So, how will McDavid react to being poked, prodded and pushed by Hitchcock? He said Tuesday was his first time meeting Hitchcock. The two had never crossed paths. McDavid became the eighth player in league history to net 100 goals and 170 assists before his 22nd birthday on Tuesday night.
Knowing Hitchcock, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said a player of McDavid’s ilk will appreciate Hitchcock’s straight-forward approach.
“I think the generational player wants honesty,” Babcock told reporters Wednesday. “That’s what ‘Hitch’ is, honest as the day is long. I like people to be honest with me. If my boss tells me what he wants, I’ve got a chance to please him. If he doesn't, it’s hard. Hitch is going to let him know what he wants.”
Some observers say Hitchcock will want McDavid to sacrifice offence in order to play to his system. Hitchcock doesn’t buy that. He pointed to Seguin last year in his lone season in Dallas, when Seguin’s point production went from 72 to 78 points.
“I think Tyler Seguin was a perfect example of a guy that needed to change and embraced it,” Hitchcock said. “He had a great offensive year and an even better defensive year.”
Harnessing McDavid’s speed is how Hitchcock plans to appeal to the most highly evolved player in NHL history.
“I think it’s just changing your value system and understanding that speed is a great weapon,” Hitchcock said. “Not many players have it. If you use it without the puck, you become more effective. If you use it with the attitude that you can create pressure, turnovers and mistakes, and you’re able to buy into that right away, you can make the other team nervous not only when you have the puck but when they have the puck.”
Hitchcock said McDavid is “two-thirds of the way there already.” He said McDavid and Draisaitl created about seven or eight turnovers in his first game behind the bench.
McDavid may be asked to change moving forward, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a conversation. Hitchcock said he too has evolved through the battles with stars over the years to learn to engage today’s player.
For a cerebral player like McDavid, that might involve some listening. Hitchcock is ready for that.
Just don’t call him a dinosaur.
“There’s been lots of times over the past few years where we’ve gotten into discussions and the player hasn’t agreed with me and we’ve negotiated a change and we’ve met halfway,” Hitchcock said. “I think that’s what coaching is today. You’ve got to meet them halfway – and you’ve probably got to go the most distance at the start of the conversation.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli