Ken Hitchcock may be out of rope as Blues coach, but there’s another team that could use his services immediately: the Edmonton Oilers.
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
The expression feels far too harsh when we’re dealing with a class act like Ken Hitchcock, but its sentiment may apply in the case of the St. Louis Blues and the Edmonton Oilers.
Hitch’s stay in the Show Me State has a strong chance of ending this off-season. Yes, he accomplished a lot with the Blues. He guided them to a 43-15-11 record and won the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in 2011-12 after taking over from Davis Payne. Hitchcock’s Blues teams in his four seasons with them:
2011-12: 49-22-11, 109 points, won Central Division
2012-13: 29-17-2, 60 points (102.5 pro-rated)
2013-14: 52-23-7, 111 points
2014-15: 51-24-7, 109 points, won Central Division
Simply outstanding. Never fewer than 109 points in their past three full seasons. But then, of course, there were the playoff results. The Blues reached the second round in 2011-12 only to be steamrolled in four games by the eventual-champion Los Angeles Kings. The next year? A blown 2-0 series lead in the first round and four straight defeats to L.A. The next year? A blown 2-0 series lead in the first round and four straight defeats to Chicago. This year? Another first-round exit, this time at the hands of the Minnesota Wild.
The problem in St. Louis can be attributed on some level to personnel, sure. As I’ve said in this space several times, the 2014-15 Blues had one player, Steve Ott, who had even advanced past round 2 of the playoffs, and no one with Stanley Cup final experience. All the talent in the world can’t seem to trump whatever this team’s mental block is. General manager Doug Armstrong would be wise to pursue unrestricted free agent and three-time Cup champ Justin Williams this off-season. Isn’t he exactly what St. Louis needs?
Still, the Sword of Damocles should fall on Hitchcock, too. A team as stacked as the Blues has no excuse to stall in round 1 three straight years. Armstrong gave Hitch a one-year “prove it” extension after last year’s debacle and watched the Blues bow out of round 1 in six games a third straight time. Something has to change.
That’s not to say Hitchcock isn’t an outstanding coach who deserves gainful employment. He may not be a championship bench boss anymore, as it’s been 16 years since he guided the Dallas Stars to glory, but Hitchcock has carved out a nice niche: turning around young, undisciplined teams and getting them back to the playoffs.
Hitchcock took over the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2006-07 and shepherded them to their first playoff berth by 2008-09. That team included a 24-year-old Rick Nash; a 21-year-old Kris Russell; a 19-year-old Jakub Voracek; and a 20-year-old Steve Mason. Detroit swept that fresh-faced team, and Hitch didn’t even last the next year after starting 22-27-9, but he elevated the young group to respectability.
He did the same thing in St. Louis, inheriting a squad loaded with potential, including first-round gems like Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. He turned the team’s blueline into a dominant force, and made Jay Bouwmeester relevant again, by playing every D-man on his strong side, allowing for quick and easy breakouts. Hitchcock made Tarasenko and Dmitrij Jaskin earn their way to the NHL by ensuring they learned enough about the defensive side of the game.
Hitch is a progressive thinker. As he said a few years back, he attends sports seminars and learns army cadet psychology and listens to new music in hopes of tapping into young players’ minds. He’s evidently quite successful at getting results and maturing the youth into bona fide NHLers.
Well, then. Can we think of a raw, untamed team loaded with potential, desperate to become relevant again? A team that just overhauled its management structure and is looking for reliable hockey minds on every rung?
Enter the Edmonton Oilers. They’re mired in a nine-year playoff drought. They’re loaded with young talent, especially at forward, but they’re horrible defensively and they’re trying to de-cultivate a losing culture. They have Bob Nicholson running the show as CEO and Peter Chiarelli freshly hired as president of hockey operations and GM.
Todd Nelson did a fine job taking over as coach after the Oilers axed Dallas Eakins, but the franchise has a chance to really wipe its slate clean. New management, Connor McDavid, new coach? What better way to jumpstart a proper rebuild?
Hitchcock can teach structure and discipline to a team desperately in need of both. Here’s a look at the Oilers’ ranks in a few key defensive metrics while Hitchcock has coached the Blues since 2011-12, working backward from 2014-15:
Shots allowed per game: 20th, 26th, 29th, 19th
Goals against per game: 30th, 30th, 19th, 23rd
Shot Attempts Close: 24th, 29th, 28th, 28th
Now, look at the Blues under Hitchcock:
Shots allowed per game: 2nd, 3rd, 2nd, 1st
Goals against per game: 5th, 3rd, 8th, 1st
Shot Attempts Close %: 13th, 7th, 10th, 2nd
Sure, Hitch had a lot of great players helping his St. Louis teams post those numbers, and the 2010-11 Blues were strong defensively before he arrived. But Hitchcock’s teams have always excelled at preventing goals and scoring chances, dating back to his days running the Blue Jackets, Flyers and Stars.
There’s nothing the Oilers need more than increased defensive responsibility and accountability among their young core. And while Hitch doesn’t seem to have “it” in the playoffs, he’s the right man to make Edmonton matter again. Whether he becomes available to Edmonton depends on (a) whether Armstrong lets him go, (b) whether Hitchcock decides to walk away from the Blues on his own, as his contract is up and (c) whether Hitchcock wants to retire from the game altogether. He did say this week he needed time to reflect on the season and his career in general, which could imply he wants to hang up his clipboard.
But the Oilers would be a perfect final stop for Hitch. After all, he’s from Edmonton.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin