Like spoiled milk, moldy cheese and that Russian dressing that’s been on the fridge door since the Bush administration, Ken Hitchcock has an expiration date.
His first head-coaching job in the NHL remains his longest tenured one: Seven years with the Dallas Stars, 503 games, with a Stanley Cup and two Western Conference titles.
Then came four years and 254 games with the Philadelphia Flyers before being fired in 2006. Then came four years and 284 games with the Columbus Blue Jackets before parting ways in 2010.
He’s coached the St. Louis Blues for four seasons and 281 games.
Look, there’s no denying the effect Hitchcock had on this franchise. His systematic structure produced four straight playoff years – Year 1 had him taking over for Davis Payne after 13 games – with the Blues twice finishing first and twice finishing second.
But their six-game bow to the Minnesota Wild is the third straight season that they’re out on their asses in the first round. This year’s loss came at the expense of the best roster, on paper, that GM Doug Armstrong has given his coach. And it wasn’t against the Kings or the Blackhawks. It was against a team they should have beaten.
This core hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt that it can succeed, but it’s time to find out if it can with another voice. There’s a reason Hitch hasn’t lasted more than four years in his previous two stops, and it’s because like other coaches from the same mold – that late Pat Burns and the hated Mike Keenan come to mind – there’s a finite amount of time these guys have the players’ attention and motivation.
Did you watch the Blues vs. Wild series? Was there anything you saw that would indicate they’re jumping in front of a bullet for their coach?
The idea of “message fatigue” is a very valid thing in the NHL. How many times have you seen a gruff coach replaced by a players’ guy, or vice versa?
That’s the direction I imagine the Blues go in if they opt not to bring back Hitchcock – please keep in mind any parting of ways would be mutual, as Hitch doesn’t have a contract for next season – but the question is whether they actually go in that direction.
There are two paths here for the Blues, and they eerily mimic the decisions that the other stumbling disappointment of dashed expectations in the Western Conference faced last summer – the San Jose Sharks.
The Blues have a good coach. He gets results in the regular season. His postseason results? Not so good, especially based on expectations.
The Blues have two players at the heart of their lineup who have been there for years – David Backes and T.J. Oshie. They’re beloved by fans. They’re leaders on the team. They’re vital members of the community. They’re really, really good guys.
But their playoff numbers, and lack success, could be as scrutinized as those of their coach.
(It’s not a perfect parallel, as Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton’s postseason performances far outshine those of Backes and Oshie, but just stick with me here.)
Backes had one goal and one assist against the Wild, giving him two goals and four assists in his last 16 playoff games. Oshie … well, let us know when he shows up for the first round. One goal and one assist in six games, and we might have noticed Steve Ott more than him this series. He does have five goals in his last 17 postseason games, but he’s also a minus-10.
So the question then becomes whether you save face by changing the face of your team.
Backes goes unrestricted next summer and is 31; he’s been with the Blues since 2006. Oshie’s only 28 and has been with the Blues since 2008. If you believe the core is the problem, then you take a melon baller and scoop out these two this summer. They both have enormous value. Maybe it’s just not going to happen in St. Louis.
Or maybe it will, with a new voice behind the bench.
As I said, the next move would be for a players’ guy. Todd McLellan has been mentioned, as he will be for every job, and once you get past the utter hilarity of the coach of the Western Conference’s OTHER annual heartbreaker taking over the Blues, he’s a good fit.
Dan Bylsma probably intrigues me the most. Replacing Hitchcock would be akin to replacing Michel Therrien with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Factor in his history with players like Backes, Oshie, Paul Stastny and Kevin Shattenkirk, and it’s a compelling fit.
Former Devils coach Peter DeBoer would fit that bill too. He’s an outstanding coach, with a bit of swagger, and that’s never a bad thing.
Look, it’s not an easy decision to move off Hitchcock. Ask the Penguins what it’s like to jettison a successful coach for the sin of playoff underachievement. There are going to be those who point to the Blues’ goaltending as being the culprit this time, as Jake Allen gave up three softies in the series and was pulled in Game 6. As Jeff Gordon wrote:
This was the last time this collection of players and coaches will work together. Disaster brings consequences. Change is inevitable, perhaps significant change.
“It’s terrible right now,” Allen said. “To get a chance to win a Stanley Cup, it doesn’t happen too often in your career. Especially with a team like this.”
So Allen earned his spot on the Pantheon of Blues Goaltending Failures, joining the likes of Ryan Miller, Chris Osgood, Roman Turek, Jon Casey, Curtis Joseph (Keenan Era only) and, of course, Jaroslav Halak’s balky groin muscles — famously fragile body parts that have their own special place in franchise lore.
That’s quite a collection.
But here’s the thing: Jake Allen could learn from this. Hitchcock said that himself. He’s 24, this was his first rodeo, and maybe he comes back older and wiser and better.
Hitchcock has no room to grow. This is the ceiling for himself and the Blues. Jake Allen could have been Jacques Plante in this series and it doesn’t change the fact that, yet again, this group under Hitchcock scored four goals in their four losses. Take out the six-goal explosion in Game 4, and the Blues scored eight goals in five games.
So once again, it’s goaltending and a lack of goal scoring. Same crap, different year, and something’s gotta change.
We imagine it’ll be behind the bench before it’s anything substantial from the roster Armstrong’s built.
Hitchcock will be fine. The Maple Leafs, Sharks and Flyers are three teams that might throw money at him if he's available. And why not: The next expiration date is in 2019...
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