Well, this wasn’t quite what we all expected when it came to the coaching future of Ken Hitchcock, was it now? In fact, when most of us first found out Hitchcock was going back behind the bench, we naturally assumed it would be with the Columbus Blue Jackets. After all, you give up a nine-spot and you’re on pace for 29 points this season, you kind of figure that’s the natural order of things.
But Blues GM Doug Armstrong, who has a history with Hitchcock that goes way back to their days with the Dallas Stars, managed to hire him away from his Central Division rival when he brought on Hitchcock to replace the fired Davis Payne Sunday night. With a 6-7-0 record this season, Payne didn’t appear to be the first on the NHL’s firing line by a long shot, but when your power play has fewer goals than Claude Giroux, that’s presumably a sign things are not going well at all.
On paper, the Blues have a team that should not miss the playoffs, even in the ultra competitive Western Conference. But the team Hitchcock left shouldn’t be the bottom feeder in that conference either. That’s the funny thing that seems to happen when you don’t get very good goaltending from the guy you’re relying upon most to stop pucks for you. Both Steve Mason in Columbus and Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis have been dreadful this season and they both have to take their share of the culpability for their teams’ early season woes.
Now the question is, why would a team that seems to be screaming for a coaching change allow Hitchcock to go to a division rival for nothing more than the ability to get off the hook for the rest of his contract, particularly one that needs a coach such as Hitchcock more than ever at the moment? (For those of you in Columbus screaming for some kind of compensation, you should know the NHL did away with that a couple of years ago. The moment you give another team permission to talk to one of your management people about a job is the same moment you give up any right to compensation.) It will be interesting to hear GM Scott Howson’s perspective on that in the coming days.
The thinking here is even though the Blue Jackets are now staring down the prospect of facing Hitchcock six times a season, they thought it was worth allowing him to leave because his presence had become too much of a distraction and a veritable Sword of Damocles hanging over the coaching staff. Even though Hitchcock was assigned to work with the Blue Jackets farm team, he had been sitting with team president Mike Priest during games, which never creates much feeling of security.
The thinking was that Hitchcock, who still had the rest of this season remaining on his contract, would go behind the bench if the Blue Jackets fired Scott Arniel to guide the team for the rest of the season. That clearly was not a scenario Hitchcock wanted to see transpire, because he knew doing so would be a no-win proposition. And more importantly, it would have taken him out of the running for vacant jobs such as the one that came up in St. Louis.
And from the Blue Jackets perspective, what good would that have done anyway? They are currently the proud owners of five points in the standings. Teams in the Western Conference have, on average, been required to earn 94 points since the lockout to make the playoffs. That puts them hopelessly out of the playoffs before the season is even a month old. In order to qualify for the post-season, the Blue Jackets need 89 points in their final 68 games, or a .654 winning percentage, or a record that resembles something like 40-19-9.
You can be certain, meanwhile, that starting Tuesday night when the Blues open a five-game home stand against the Chicago Blackhawks, they will be on notice. Hitchcock has been known to lock horns with the stars on his team, but this Blues team is one without stars, so that shouldn’t be a problem. St. Louis is a decent, hard-working team that can play a pretty good game 5-on-5 and is actually a decent defensive team. They give up the second-fewest shots in the league and if not for being let down by their goaltending, they’d probably have a better record. This is a team that should be in the thick of the playoff race, hovering somewhere between sixth and 10th in the standings.
And the one thing we’ve learned is that if you let things get away early in the season, it’s almost impossible to make up ground. Payne was a good coach with a decent record coaching the Blues, but he was not Armstrong’s choice and it’s likely when Armstrong found out he could get Hitchcock, he figured the time was right.
Hitchcock will add discipline, structure, and accountability and will be on the Blues players constantly. Young struggling players such as Chris Stewart and T.J. Oshie would be well advised to prepare for long video sessions, some very difficult practices and perhaps the occasional extended view from the bench. The Blues management team is obviously thinking that will be enough to get this team into the playoffs. If that happens, Hitchcock will be looking a long way down to see the organization he left.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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