It’s good that the Olympics are closing in, or else Team Canada’s assistant coach Ken Hitchcock would be out of a job for quite a long time, after the Columbus Blue Jackets announced his firing today.
Ken Hitchcock is a good coach, not spectacular, but decent. He has a good resume to show for it. With the three NHL teams he’s coached, he’s got one cup, one cup-final appearance and two conference final appearance in his 13 years as head coach for an NHL team.
However, since the lock-out, Hitchcock’s performance have gradually worsened, missing the playoff twice and ousted in the first round twice, during which he was fired by the Flyers and switched to the Blue Jackets.
NHL Hotstove Senior Writer Anthony Curatolo wrote a good piece on Hitchcock, weeks before today’s announcement on how Hitchcock’s style doesn’t fit the “New NHL”. Hitchcock’s conservative playing style and mindset promotes work ethnics and experience. His game is boring, lacks scoring and he rarely puts his faith in young players to step up and lead the team offensively.
Under the Cap era, everyone knows it’s all about young talents and drafts. Money-issues aside, the rules of the game have been changed to encourage open-ice offensive battles and talent showcase. No longer do you see teams with more than three bona-fide superstar. Most GMs are forced to fill their line-ups with young players, sometimes fresh off the draft and coaches must adapt to best utilize their skill-set and talents.
Of course this is still a team-sport and all players must strictly follow the head’s game style if they want to be successful or actually if they want to play at all. However, a good coach should be able to put down his ego and appreciate each player’s individual talent and build the style around them. A great coach should be able to dig out the skills of players and magnify them, even if the players themselves don’t know they possess.
In this respect, Hitchcock is neither. Confidence is one thing, but stubborn is another. At times, when I watch the Blue Jackets play this season, it seems like Hitchcock is still living in the past, his glory days when the Stars claimed the Stanley Cup. Each and every game they lose, Hitchcock seems to be just waiting, waiting for the tides to change, and praying that his style of play will become successful again.
That of course didn’t happen. Now the teams sits 14th in the west, 11 points out of the playoff spot with 24 games remaining, and this is after their first appearance in the playoffs last season.
Just consider the Blue Jacket’s roster. A team basically the same as the one that got them 92 points and 4th in Central division last season. The team is full of young talent, including the leagues best power-forward in Rick Nash, and he is just 25, signed to 2017.
Rick Nash, the 1st overall in the 2002 draft, is believed by many as one of the best player in the world, and his maturation in the past two seasons support this. With 69 points in 07-08, 40 goals/79 points last season, Rick Nash continue to thrive early on this season but has slowed down significantly, as a result of a 11-game scoring drought. At his current pace, he should be able to finish with 73 points, which isn’t that bad. But many believes that at his current form, he could easily reach the 90-pts plateau if he was playing on a more offensive team.
Hitchcock has that effect on players. It’s all nice and good if the team wins, because with a lower stats, comes a cheaper contract. But I don’t think Hitchcock does it for money reasons. He truly believes in a learning curve for two-way hockey, and all of his players must master this before Hitchcock puts his faith in them. Sometimes this works, for top-ranked star players it works, because it keeps them in check, and they know they will eventually get the ice-time. But for young 1st-rounder with good potential, continuously playing them in a 3rd-line checking role affects their game and confidence.
Examples of this include, Lehtinen and Langebrunner were rarely used during Hitchcock’s time in Dallas, Patrick Sharp and Justin Williams were used as checkers during his time in Philly. Even a pure goal-scorer as Simon Gagne has just decent scoring performance under Hitchcock’s system.
Within the current Columbus roster, there are tons of good players, all under-performing. Derick Brassard, 6th overall in a deep draft in 2006, is a centerman with huge potential, who despite sitting out most of 50 games of last season, notched 25 points in 31 games. This year, Brassard only has 24 points in 57 games. Even for a player Hitchcock is willing to use, Jacub Voracek, 7th overall in another deep draft in 2007, has just 28 points in 57 games.
Then of course, there’s Nikita Filitov, 6th overall pick in 2008, voted by the Hockey News as the Best Prospect in the World last spring, was again used only as a checker. Eventually Filitov confronted Hitchcock, and of course was sent to the minors and ultimately “loaned” to the KHL. Could this simply be a more diplomatic version of Alexander Radulov of the Nashville Predators bolted back to Russia? Since Filitov has openly said that he will never play for Hitchcock again, does the firing of the coach means a likely return for the star prospect? According to Filitov, he is having a great time in KHL and his home in Moscow, Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson is worrying if they fired Hitchcock too late, and whether he can convince Nikita to return.
This season is definitely over for the Blue Jackets, hopefully they can get Filitov back and look towards next season.