COLUMBUS, Ohio – Coach Ken Hitchcock signed a three-year contract extension with the Blue Jackets on Wednesday, saying he welcomes the chance to turn the only team never to make the playoffs into winners.
“This is a challenge I want badly,” said Hitchcock, whose new deal will keep him behind the bench through the 2011-2012 season. “I want to be the coach that takes this team to the highest level.”
The 56-year-old Hitchcock has a career NHL record of 470-314-117 at Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus. His Stars won the Stanley Cup in 1999.
He said this is the first time he’s come into a job where the team wasn’t “readymade” and poised to make a run at a title.
“I don’t just want to be a coach who hops on the bandwagon of a team that’s already emerged. I want to be on the building side of things, from the ground floor up,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to what’s going to take place here.”
In his first full season behind the Columbus bench, Hitchcock’s Blue Jackets set franchise records for wins (34) and points (80) while going 34-36-12 in 2007-8.
General manager Scott Howson said it was important for the Blue Jackets to lock up Hitchcock to continue the franchise’s development. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“I don’t think there’s anyone in the hockey industry who wouldn’t have Hitch at the top or near the top of the list of coaches,” Howson said. “This is a really critical step for us, to have some stability and credibility at the head coaching position. It’s a great day for us to know that Hitch is going to be here with us as we seek to become a playoff team and then a Stanley Cup team.”
The Blue Jackets have been active in the past month, making major trades that brought center-winger R.J. Umberger from Philadelphia, forward Raffi Torres from Edmonton and defencemen Fedor Tyutin and Christian Backman from the New York Rangers, along with the free-agent signings of forward Kristian Huselius and defenceman Mike Commodore. The club traded away inconsistent and disappointing young players Gilbert Brule, Nikolai Zherdev and Dan Fritsche.
The Blue Jackets finished 11 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference a year ago.
“Last year I was really proud of our team because we maxed out a lot,” Hitchcock said. “But when the gears of the season got ratcheted up, we weren’t good enough. But we’re in that area now where we can play with anybody.”
He stopped short of predicting the Blue Jackets would make the playoffs, however.
“Making the playoffs means pushing established teams out. They are not going to go away easy. You are going to need to stick a stake right through them to push them out,” he said. “I can’t sit here and say we’re going to get in the playoffs. But I know one thing, right now when our team plays to the top level and another team plays to the top level we can compete against anybody every night now.”
One acquisition the Blue Jackets had yet to make was a first-or second-line centre. Umberger figures to centre the first line between captain Rick Nash and Huselius, but the second line was missing a triggerman to fit in with Torres and Fredrik Modin.
Howson said holdover center Michael Peca was close to signing a one-year contract that could fill that hole.
“Michael Peca’s signing is imminent,” Howson said. “He has the contract in his hands now. It was agreed to yesterday. As soon as we get it back and signed, we’ll make that announcement.”
Peca had eight goals and 26 assists last year, third-best on the team with 34 points.