ST. LOUIS – It all happened so quickly. The St. Louis Blues changed coaches after only 13 games. Now Ken Hitchcock is in charge, an experienced hand who says he knows how to get the most out of these players.
On Monday, hours after his introductory news conference as the successor to Davis Payne, Hitchcock was on the bench for his first practice with a team that’s off to a stumbling start. His first game with the Blues is Tuesday night, at home against Chicago.
Hitchcock plans no major changes, inheriting a staff and style of play, but will expect more consistency. He believes the Blues have the talent to be a playoff team, “but the buy-in has to be immediate.”
“I want us to be proud of the way we play the game,” Hitchcock said. “I think at the end of the day, I want people in St. Louis to say, ‘Man, that team plays the right way.'”
The Blues dismissed Payne after a 6-7 start left them in 14th place in the Western Conference in favour of a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience. General manager Doug Armstrong said he saw an underachieving team and another season getting away from St. Louis, which has missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons.
“Obviously, when you work with someone you try and support them all the way up until the last second,” Armstrong said. “This was based more on a gut feeling that there was a different direction could go with an experienced coach that could poke and prod and get a young core to meet their potential.”
Goalie Jaroslav Halak in particular has struggled with a 1-6 record. Forward Chris Stewart is off to a slow start with three points.
Hitchcock said it would take one practice to fix the power play, which misses the speed of injured forward Andy McDonald and is last in the NHL. He’s coached forward Jamie Langenbrunner with the Stars, worked with Stewart and defenceman Alex Pietrangelo and Carlo Colaiacovo with the Canadian national team.
“I’ve had great success in working with top guys and getting them to play,” Hitchcock said. “I think there’s potential with a lot of guys to be top players here.”
Hitchcock, who turns 60 in December, is the second-oldest coach in the NHL. Payne, 41, had been among the youngest. Hitchcock is the Blues’ fourth coach in six years, all of them in-season hires, and is signed through next season.
Armstrong was an assistant GM when Hitchcock coached the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1999-2000, so he turned to a familiar face. Hitchcock was available, serving as a Columbus Blue Jackets consultant after getting fired as coach two seasons ago.
Columbus gave the Blues permission to talk to Hitchcock, who said he’s watched every NHL team play at least four times “in preparation for the next gig.”
“I just felt like I couldn’t miss out on this opportunity,” Hitchcock said. “I know we’ve got a climb ahead of ourselves. We have as much or more potential than anybody around.”
Since being let go by Columbus, Hitchcock has been on a strength and conditioning program and also has worked on his golf game.
“You’re in the business so long, you don’t even know what type of stressful situation you’re under,” Hitchcock said. “I’ve had fun, but it’s time to get back to work. It has re-energized me.”