An Argument for Hitchcock
Last season Ken Hitchcock led the Columbus Blue Jackets to the franchise’s first ever playoff appearance. The appearance, albeit a short one, was supposed to signal this teams step toward becoming a consistent competitive team. This season was supposed to be the next step. To the 2009-2010 season, already two games past the halfway mark, is a disappointment would be a gross understatement. The Blue Jackets currently sit a 15-19-9, a record good enough to have them tied with Anaheim for second to last place in the West. The team is in the midst of a 23 game skid that has seen them lose all but three. The team’s record would suggest they’re more interested in the Taylor Hall race rather than the playoff hunt. Fans and media members alike have been calling for changes starting with the removal of Ken Hitchcock. I believe that would be a mistake.
DISCLAIMER: No, I am not employed by the Blue Jackets organization. I’m not a charter member of the Ken Hitchcock fan club. This team has played very poorly for much of the season and certainly the coach should shoulder much of the blame. But, should he shoulder all of the blame? Has Steve Mason looked anywhere near the player he was last season? How about the stingy Blue Jackets defense of 2008-2009 that gave up the eighth fewest goals in the league last year? With an almost identical roster to last season why has the team has not performed to expectations? There are a couple of areas to examine.
There is the constant: the Ken Hitchcock coaching style. His philosophy of strong disciplined defensive zone play, clogging the neutral zone and a dump-n-chase strategy has brought about success. Hitchcock did not decide to change his philosophy over the summer, especially after over a decade of perfecting it. It’s the philosophy that won him a Stanley Cup in Dallas, brought Philadelphia within a game of the Finals and the Blue Jackets to their first ever playoffs. He’s been successful at ever level he’s coached at from Juniors through the Minors and the NHL.
Then there is the personnel, the makeup of the team. There are a few new faces, but most would consider them improvements from last season. Few wouldn’t consider the Anton Stralman or Milan Jurcina vast improvements over the likes of Christian Backman, Ole-Kristian Tollefsen or Aaron Rome. The forward corps was supposedly improved with the return of Derick Brassard and the addition of Sammy Pahlsson to replace Manny Malhotra and Michael Peca. Unfortunately, the personnel changes have not transitioned as smoothly as they were anticipated. Veteran players like Malhotra and especially Peca helped a great deal in the locker room, helping to get the young core invested in his the Hitchcock style. They also help ease the tension that can exist between a young players and a coach like Hitchcock, who is critical after successful outings, let alone bad ones.
That veteran presence has been missing in the locker room for the majority of the season. It’s no coincidence that management sought out a player like Chris Clark, to replace the missing leadership and help bring the young players along. Hitchcock has also made some concessions, finally electing to go with the hot goaltender, starting to bench players who under perform, regardless of their resume. Most recently Hitchcock acknowledging that the young players need to play in order to improve. They need to be able to make mistakes, learn from them, and get back on the ice to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Speaking to Dispatch reporter Tom Reed, Hitchcock spoke about seeing a “light at the end of the tunnel” when dealing with the youngsters.
There’s also something to be said of the Blue Jackets recent play. No they have not strung together the win streak that each Blue Jackets fan is hoping for, but they have appeared to cease regressing. In the past five games the Blue Jackets have allowed no more than three goals and have been in every one of them. The defensive zone coverage as a whole has been markedly better than the beginning of the season. The Blue Jackets are getting consistent play in two of the three zones and players appear to once again be buying what Hitch has been selling his entire career. There’s much being made about the lack of scoring, but it’s my belief that the team will continue to progress. Despite what some fans would like to believe, this is not a team that can play a run-and-gun game and win 5-4 consistently. The Blue Jackets do not have the type of personnel to play like the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals. Are they a team built in the image of Hitchcock’s 1999 Stars? No and he may finally have recognized it. The team and coaching staff seem to finally be on the same page and when that has happened, success has followed. It did not happen overnight last year. It has not this season.
Blue Jackets General Manager Scott Howson could announce today that he had fired Ken Hitchcock. Who then would take the realm of the team and organization? Many would reference Dan Bylsma and the success he had taking over for the Penguins midseason last year, stories such as his are very few and very far between. In the vast majority of cases the there is an extended adjustment period for players and the new coaching staff. Erasing everything and starting afresh rarely leads to overnight success. Has Peter Laviolette transformed the Flyers into the Cup Contender that many envisioned them since he was brought in to replace John Stevens in early December? Hardly.
I would much prefer continued progression and to see the Blue Jackets finish strong playing under the only man they have ever had success under. I look to an organization much maligned by CBJ fans and players alike, the Nashville Predators, as an example of how an organization should be run. The Predators, who came into existence two seasons before the Blue Jackets have had one coach in the franchise’s history: Barry Trotz. Trotz has had some sub-par seasons, seasons where the team regressed from the past season. But, management has stood fast and it has resulted in one of the most consistent teams in the league, financial issues aside. Ken Hitchcock is the Blue Jackets fourth coach in nine seasons. He has progressed every year with the team but this season. I happen to believe that if he can get this team to continue to improve this season, even without a playoff appearance, this team would be in better shape for 2010-2011 than with a new coach holding the reigns. Continuity is such a rare thing in the NHL, but it is hard to argue with its results.