Ken Hitchcock is back in the NHL as a head coach. In the Central Division. For a team that hasn't made the playoffs for a while, but that many felt could contend this season before it stumbled out of the gate. For a team that has the word "blue" in its nickname.
And while the hockey world was fixated on when Ken Hitchcock would take over the Columbus Blue Jackets, it turns out he was more interested in turning around the St. Louis Blues, who hired him on Sunday:
St. Louis Blues Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Armstrong announced Sunday night the club has relieved Davis Payne as Head Coach and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock will be the 24th Head Coach in franchise history and has agreed to a contract through the 2012-13 season. The team will hold their first practice under Hitchcock at 1 p.m. Monday.
Hitchcock, 59, has coached 1,042 National Hockey League games with Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, compiling a record of 534-350-88-70 for a .588 winning percentage. His teams have won 40 or more games nine times and was Head Coach of Dallas when they won the Stanley Cup in 1999. He has guided his teams to six division titles and eclipsed 100 points eight times. Hitchcock coached in three consecutive NHL All-Star games (1998, 1999, 2000) and was Assistant Coach for Team Canada when they won Gold in the 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics. The Blues currently sit with a 6-7-0 record in their first 13 games which is 13th in the Western Conference. The Blues will have five consecutive home games as they play Chicago (Tuesday), Toronto (Thursday), Tampa Bay (Saturday), Detroit (Nov. 15) and Florida (Nov. 17).
A few immediate reactions:
• Hitchcock goes way back with Armstrong, who was an assistant GM with the Dallas Stars when Hitchcock was their head coach from 1995-2002. (He was also a front office guy for Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Games, where Hitch was an associate coach.) Columbus GM Scott Howson, in contrast, fired Hitchcock 59 games after the coach led the Blue Jackets to the playoffs for the first and only time in franchise history. Guess where Hitchcock decided to coach?
• The Blues are 6-7-0 for 12 points. The Blue Jackets are 2-11-1 for 5 points. Take a look at the St. Louis roster. Take a look at the Columbus roster. The blue line alone would make St. Louis the more attractive job, with the potential to contend for a playoff spot rather than shepherding a prolonged rebuild with a goaltender whose as solid as vanilla pudding. (Keeping in mind, of course, that Hitchcock's fuse burns quickly in new gigs.)
• As for the Blues, they couldn't handle Andy Murray's drill sergeant routine, so the team flipped him for players' coach Payne and handed the keys to the locker room over to a young generation of talent with no adult supervision. Said TJ Oshie to FanHouse in Sept. 2010: "I think we're more relaxed with Payne. He's a younger guy, maybe a bit of a players' coach. He lets us play our own game."
That lasted one season. In came Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner for veteran leadership, and out went Payne for Hitchcock, a coach very much in the disciplinarian mold. (Langenbrunner played for Hitch in Dallas, incidentally.)
Hitchcock is, frankly, exactly what this team needs after meandering with a players' coach for parts of two years. Structure. Discipline. Consistency. Improved special teams. OK, it's going to be boring. Hitchcock's teams usually are. But you know what boring gets you? Strong performances from perennial underachievers, and teams that make the playoffs more often than once in six seasons.
• Why now, when the Blues hadn't bottomed out? Just speculating, but maybe Hitch had a decision to make about his future with regard to the Blue Jackets and the Blues. So the trigger was pulled before the Blues were in a position where Payne's dismissal was obvious. The bottom line is, apparently, the management felt Hitchcock was better suited to bring this team to success than Payne. (Update: The Blues asked for, and received, permission to talk to Hitchcock on Sunday, according to John Shannon of Sportsnet.)
• As for the Blue Jackets … well, the assumption was that Hitchcock would slide in behind the bench with one more year on his contract with the team. Scott Arniel remains the coach, and doesn't have any meetings with Jackets brass scheduled. As he told Puck-Rakers: "I'll keep showing up until somebody tells me I'm not supposed to."
Other than his contract, there never seemed to be a compelling reason for Hitchcock to take over the disaster that are the 2011-12 Columbus Blue Jackets. So he didn't.
UPDATE: Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentions another factor possibly at play here -- the Blues' change in ownership, whose process is ongoing. Is Matt Hulsizer a Hitchcock fan?
"It's shocking and it's disappointing, but in the end, you're responsible for all the areas of your hockey team," Payne said. "There were pieces that weren't firing on all cylinders and it's under my umbrella of responsibility. But I also can say that we were looking at a favorable schedule ahead and ready to turn the corner.
"That said, if this is what gets things going, then I'm all for it. I wish nothing but the best for the team and this group of guys. They deserve it."
That favorable schedule might have kept a coach management no longer wanted in a job ... in a job. Just sayin'.