January 04, 2010
There are different types of coach firings in the NHL. There are the obvious ones, in which a personnel mistake is made and summarily corrected; we call it ‘The Melrose.' There are the 'shoot the messenger' decisions, in which a guff coach is swapped out for a players' coach or vice versa; the sort of thing that kept Mike Keenan in and out of jobs for the last two decades.
Then there's the 'reset button.'
The New York Rangers firing Tom Renney and hiring John Tortorella was a rejection of one system and style for another. Same with the Minnesota Wild's decision to part ways with Jacques Lemaire and go with Todd Richards; only that move was part of an even grander franchise makeover.
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.
The fact that Andy Murray has gone from Jack Adams finalist to the unemployment line in the span of six months for the St. Louis Blues has made the world safe to critically look at Hitchcock's standing with the Blue Jackets. Management, time and time again, has had his back. But the calls for this dismissal are growing louder as Columbus's odds for a playoff berth grow longer.
Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch penned a column that was inspired by the Murray firing, in which he wonders if Jackets management is being patient or negligent in backing Hitchcock:
President Mike Priest and Howson believe the Hitchcock style is the way to win in the NHL. They would prefer to keep him in place in the same way that Nashville has kept Barry Trotz in place. They believe that continuity is critical in a smaller market, and they are standing firm in this conviction.
Up to now, I have been consistent in my "stay pat" view. A losing streak can skew long-term perspective. But this is one hell of a losing streak. It has probably doomed the Jackets' chances at making the playoffs.
The fans are rightfully angry. They have essentially torched another pile of money. This season was supposed to be about advancing the program with younger players. Not only has the program regressed, the younger players have been underperforming -- and the veterans have been brutal. The only difference between Columbus and St. Louis? The Jackets are hanging together, but the Blues revolted. Believe it or not, Hitchcock is less aggravating than Murray.
Will it take a player revolt? Or will the team's diminishing returns be enough? Sports Judge believes Hitch belongs on the hot seat, while Rick Gethin of The Hockey Writers believes there's amply evidence that the team can get back on track with Hitchcock gone -- even if he shouldn't be blamed for all the team's ills.
Not that he'd be an offensive savior for a team that's scored fewer than three goals in its last 10 games, which is a new franchise record. But Filatov's plight speaks both to criticisms of Hitchcock's ability to develop young players and the defensive philosophies that are suddenly in question (thanks in no small part to goalie Steve Mason's(notes) sophomore implosion, of course).
That defensive philosophy, and its affect on the fan base, was at the heart of Carry The Flag's post about Hitch's future:
This is one of many reasons why I believe Ken Hitchcock is a bad fit in Columbus. It is a city used to exciting games thanks to the Buckeyes. They are built on winning, thanks largely to the conference the Buckeyes are in, and they are sold on the idea of sporting events being highly entertaining. If the Jackets can find a coach that can bring excitement back to the game, whether or not we are winning games 7-6, or losing them 6-5, I think it will be better for the hockey club.
Some fan bases are well built to tolerate 1-0 or 2-1 losses, but I personally do not think Columbus is one of them. The simple fact is, this team is built for high paced, high scoring games.
Perhaps. But it also has a defenseman corps that was propped up by Hitchcock's system before this season's flop. What will it look like in a more wide-open style?
GM Scott Howson told the Dispatch that "the decision in St. Louis is not relevant in Columbus, yet it certainly is. Murray's most notable coaching achievement was salvaging the Blues' special teams and coaching them into the playoffs last season. This year, the power play stunk and St. Louis was a conference also-ran, so he's done.
Hitchcock's calling card has been a defensive system that locked down foes and his getting the Jackets into the playoffs for the first time. This season? The third-worst defense in hockey and 14th in the West. The team has regressed, and perhaps Hitch's welcome is worn.
There's every reason to fire Ken Hitchcock right now. It's just a matter of whether the Blue Jackets feel a change behind the bench makes them a playoff team in 2010, and if they're ready for a franchise facelift stylistically.