There’s a good chance the St. Louis Blues and Ken Hitchcock will agree on a one-year contract, perhaps as early as sometime this week. This is a situation that might rankle a lot of coaches, given that Mike Babcock just received an eight-year deal to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs. In fact, given that the Blues spoke with Babcock about the possibility of replacing Hitchcock, he might be excused for telling the Blues precisely where they could do with their one-year contract extension.
The public perception has been that the Blues have left their coach twisting in the wind over the past couple of weeks, that he’s their fallback option only if they can’t come up with someone better.
And you know what? There is some truth to that. And it’s also true that they won’t be able to find anyone better than Hitchcock, who is bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame someday. Even if they had hired Babcock, there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have gotten a better coach than the one they have now. Babcock and Hitchcock are basically the same coach, it’s just that Babcock is a version of Hitchcock who happens to be 11 years younger. Hitchcock understands this and probably doesn’t resent the fact that his friend, Blues GM Doug Armstrong, was thinking about the long-term interests of his franchise.
Where Babcock was last week is exactly the position Hitchcock was in in 2002 when he was hired by the Philadelphia Flyers.
But now that Babcock is off the market, the short-term solution is to bring Hitchcock back for his third one-year contract with the Blues, make some changes and hope that the dominance the Blues have displayed in the regular season under Hitchcock can translate into playoff success. In the four years with the Blues, Hitchcock has a .671 points percentage, but have won only one playoff series.
Hitchcock is the kind of coach who believes that long-term contracts, while good for job security and finances, are not the best thing, especially for older coaches. The thinking goes that an older coach with long-term security can more easily lose his edge, begin to neglect his attention to detail, and basically get complacent. And if you’re going to coach the way Hitchcock does and keep your players on the edge, it’s only fair that you coach from the same vantage point. Hitchcock probably also knows that if he does get fired and goes on the market, it won’t be long before a team looking for help behind the bench comes calling. So for him, not having long-term security is not a big deal.
Tony LaRussa, who is regarded as one of the most successful managers in baseball history, never had that job security and managed to stay with the St. Louis Cardinals, despite taking nine seasons in St. Louis to win a pennant and 11 to capture a World Series title. Barry Trotz managed to last 15 seasons in Nashville, all on short-term contracts and never having coached past the second round of the playoffs.
Hitchcock and Armstrong are friends, good friends, going back to their days when both of them were with the Dallas Stars. They talk constantly about what is going on and there are no surprises here. Hitchcock has found a lot of comfort in St. Louis and there’s a sense that he wants to try to get this thing right there. It takes longer to figure out how to get through the playoffs in the Western Conference and there’s the sense that Hitchcock thinks the Blues could be on the verge of doing that. To be sure, he doesn’t want to go anywhere at his age where he’s looking at a three- or four-year building process.
And if the Blues bring Hitchcock back on another one-year deal and things don’t work out, they’ll have the option of letting him go and Hitchcock would be all right with that. As crazy as it sounds, Hitchcock doesn’t want to be tied down by a long-term contract and be that guy who gets let go, then sits in limbo with an organization that effectively has no use for him. He has better things to do with his time.
Hitchcock is still an excellent coach. He knows that, the Blues know that and much of the rest of the hockey world knows that. There is a point when perhaps the Blues have to look at their personnel instead of the man behind the bench for their inadequacies in the playoffs. Armed with the knowledge that he is still one of the top coaches around, Hitchcock can afford to live with the uncertainty and take a one-year contract.
It won’t bother or rankle him, even while the younger version of him cashes in on the richest and most secure coaching contract in NHL history.