He knew what some people were saying after he got fired by the Philadelphia Flyers earlier this season. The new NHL wasn’t for him, they said. Wonder what they’re saying now. The Columbus Blue Jackets have been re-energized since Hitchcock’s hiring Nov. 23, going 6-3-0 under his guidance, all three losses coming by one goal. They’re currently riding a five-game win streak heading into Thursday night’s game at Phoenix.
Apparently he can coach in the new NHL just fine, thank you.
“I don’t really concern myself with that,” Hitchcock said Wednesday. “Because the new NHL was here last year and in Philadelphia we were leading the National Hockey League, we were having an incredible season until the injuries caught up with us. So I don’t really listen to that, I don’t worry about it. I don’t even think about vindication.
“I know what you can and cannot do in the new NHL,” he added. “I don’t find the new NHL that different from the old NHL, you just can’t hook and hold, that’s the biggest difference. You have to move your feet.”
That, the Jackets are doing indeed. They’re also playing smarter defensively. They’ve allowed only four goals against during the five-game win streak.
“It’s really about pressure and position,” Hitchcock said from Phoenix, explaining his system. “We have a team that can play physical and we want that element in our game. But we also want to reload back to strong positional play. …
“We’re trying every day to increase the quicker reactions of the players, we’re trying to eliminate the hesitation so we can pressure hard but also reload hard. That’s our whole focus, to take out the thinking and make it automatic.”
Hitchcock credits solid goaltending and good positional play for the current success.
“Our goaltending has been exceptional, right from Day 1 here, both (Pascal) Leclaire and (Fredrik) Norrena have played great,” said Hitchcock. “And our team is getting better and better with positional play.”
Hitchcock has a reputation for being very demanding on his players. But the Jackets bought into what he was selling and haven’t looked back. The season that seemed lost less than a month ago is very much alive. The Jackets sit nine points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference with 53 games to play.
“One of the reasons I took the job is that there’s a real good spirit in this dressing room,” said Hitchcock. “But I think when a new coach comes in the slate gets wiped clean. The players have a chance to make things right for themselves, not for any coach or because of any coach. I think what happened is that the leaders grabbed the room right off the bat.”
Hitchcock credited the likes of Adam Foote, Sergei Fedorov, Fredrik Modin, Jodey Shelley and Rick Nash.
“They’ve been the first in line to follow,” he said. “When you have your leaders and best players first in line, it makes any coach’s job a hell of a lot easier.”
Winger Anson Carter has salvaged what was looking like a season from hell. After only putting up four points (2-2) in 20 games under former coach Gerard Gallant, some of which he spent on the fourth line, Carter has exploded for 11 points (3-8) in the nine games under Hitchcock.
“He was playing too complicated, he was trying to play outside of his capabilities,” Hitchcock said. “So we’ve really focused on having Anson play in straight lines, he needs to play closer to the net. And he’s been able to do that. His 30-plus goals last year (in Vancouver), if you total them all up they wouldn’t equal 300 feet. That’s where we need him, that’s where he scores all his goals. He’s got great hands from in tight, but he needed to be in that area.”
Hitchcock has been impressed with Carter’s line along with Jason Chimera and Dan Fristche.
“I think that line that we put together four games ago has been the biggest surprise for me,” he said. “They’ve really given us a boost and have scored every game, sometimes multiple times, and they’ve been a very, very effective line. They all play in straight lines with speed and tenacity and that’s really helped us.”