February 03, 2010
The Columbus Blue Jackets fired Ken Hitchcock Wednesday -- or, according to the spin-tastic headline on the front page of their Web site, "Noel named interim head coach" -- and it's fair to ask if it's a case of "too much, too late."
They're 11 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference, thanks to a 2-9-5 stretch in December. On Jan. 4, we asked if the team was ready to make an enormous course correction to save its season:
If Ken Hitchcock were to be fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets, who are currently trapped in a 2-10-6 death spiral in an increasingly lost season, it would fit snugly in that last category. It would be an admission that the system he coaches, the style he preaches and the very identity of the franchise for the last few seasons has run its course.
One month later, they've made this franchise redefining decision, after a 7-7 January and with long odds on leapfrogging teams such as the Detroit Red Wings, Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks for a playoff seed.
"This season has been very disappointing for the Blue Jackets organization and our fans and the responsibility for that rests with all of us from management to the coaches and players," said Howson. "Hitch worked tirelessly to build an identity for this team that was missing before he arrived and deserves a great deal of credit for those efforts. He earned and received the opportunity to turn things around this season, but unfortunately that has not happened and it has become apparent that change is in the best interest of our organization. Claude Noel is a good hockey coach with a proven track record in the American Hockey League. He knows our team and is deserving of this opportunity."
Noel is 54, and was head coach of the Milwaukee Admirals for four seasons.
Wow, what a collection of falls-from-grace the 2009-10 Blue Jackets have become. Calder Trophy winning goal Steve Mason(notes) has a higher goals against average (3.28) than all but two goalies in the NHL. A Hitchcock system that helped the Blue Jackets to ninth in team defense last season has broken down to fourth-to-last this season. A playoff team that showed such growth last season regressed into a conference also-ran.
No question, this move is a desperation attempt at trying to turn around the fortunes of the team on the ice, which in turn brings in the kinds of revenues the team saw during its playoff run last year.
But it also refocuses a ton of scrutiny on Howson, who had received praise for the patient construction of the roster and retaining the services of Rick Nash(notes), but whose below-average, wafer thin blue line (check the depth chart) may be one of the primary reasons the team fell apart this season defensively. (Although let's not downplay Mason's role in that mess, either. He's been terrible.)
This is not a happy moment. A moment of relief, perhaps, and a chance for hope that things will get better for the CBJ - but by no means happy. You never want to see a good man, one who puts everything he has into his work, lose his job when losing his job means that he failed. And Hitch is a good man.
I only hope that Hitch finds his new place in the hockey world quickly, and that the Columbus Blue Jackets make the smart steps forward to secure their very bright future. Anyone who followed the team closely this year could see that it just wasn't meant to be.