Unless another NHL team makes a desperation move like the St. Louis Blues did Wednesday morning, or he wasn’t telling the truth, Ken Hitchcock has coached his last game in the NHL. The record will show that Hitchcock was fired after registering 781 career victories, one painful win behind coaching legend Al Arbour for third on the NHL’s all-time list.
That, along with a Stanley Cup, a Jack Adams Award and a career as one of the most brilliant minds to ever step behind a bench, will be more than enough to land Hitchcock in the Hockey Hall of Fame someday. But this is about today, it’s about results and it’s about winning games and Hitchcock’s team wasn’t doing near enough of that lately.
Hitchcock said before the season that this would be his last behind an NHL bench, which probably made things a little awkward in the first place. Having your heir apparent, Mike Yeo, standing over your shoulder isn’t the best arrangement when you’re trying to assert your authority. But Hitchcock was pragmatic about it and never used it as a crutch. And something tells me that the person least shocked by all of this is Ken Hitchcock.
In the coming days there will be all sorts of blame laid at the feet of GM Doug Armstrong, who had a team that managed to get to the Western Conference final last season, but allowed key players to leave and didn’t adequately replace them. Even more will be placed at the uncertain feet of goaltender Jake Allen, who was signed to a four-year contract extension that kicks in next season and has rewarded the Blues by turning in the worst performance of his NHL career. It had gotten to the point where you could almost pencil the Blues in for five goals against on any given night. They’d surrendered at least five goals in five of their past six games and, in a development that should shock no one, lost them all.
It’s quite simple, really. The Blues are tied for the fourth-best team in the league in shots against, giving up only 27.6 per game and they’re in the upper half of the league in goals scored. But they’re tied for third-last in the NHL in goals-against average at 3.12 and their goalies have a combined save percentage of .894. Those are numbers that would have made the Blues competitive in the mid-1980s. There is not a coach in the world – not Hitchcock, not Scotty Bowman, not Toe Blake – who can coach his way out of goaltending that is that bad.
But it goes deeper than that. When the Blues allowed/had to allow the likes of David Backes and Troy Brouwer to walk in unrestricted free agency last summer, Hitchcock lost some of his most trusted allies in the dressing room. Hitchcock has never been a shrinking violet and some players can deal with his brutal honesty and penchant for making his players uncomfortable better than others. Hitchcock has admitted in the past that good coaches sometimes have to create chaos in the room to see how the players respond. The veterans who wanted to win bought into Hitchcock’s ways and had no problem with them while others weren’t so warm to it.
Hitchcock’s problems with Vladimir Tarasenko have been well documented and when the Blues handed the keys to the kingdom to Tarasenko, at the expense of veterans they had to let go, it did not auger well for Hitchcock. But Hitchcock knew a little while ago that while younger coaches such as Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville were cashing in on long-term deals, he would be on a series of one-year contracts for the rest of his career. And he was all right with that.
So the Blues, who were at one time this season one of the best teams in the league, find themselves hanging onto the last playoff spot in the Western Conference for their dear lives. If they continue to get the goaltending they’ve been receiving the last month, they’ll be out of the playoffs regardless of what kind of magic Yeo can conjure up.
But perhaps the Blues will be energized enough under Yeo to be able to rally, make the playoffs, then prove during the post-season that they are better than they have been for much of this season. Yeo was already supposed to take over next season anyway, so this should not be a bumpy transition. But all signs point to the problems going a lot deeper than the man behind the bench.
The truth is, there were a couple of fundamental mistakes made in team (de)construction. And with Allen signed to a four-year extension, it’s absolutely crucial that someone in that organization get their goaltender’s head back in a good place. Perhaps Yeo can do that. The Blues are desperately hoping he can because their short- and long-term success hangs in the balance.