Ken Hitchcock will be back behind the St. Louis Blues’ bench in 2016-17, and, unlike last off-season, the Blues extending Hitchcock’s contract didn’t take much deliberation.
The summer before the 2015-16 season, there was uncertainty surrounding Hitchcock’s future. He was on the hot seat after the Blues flamed out of the post-season in the first round for the third-straight season, St. Louis had spoken with Mike Babcock about potentially stepping in behind the bench and there was belief the Blues could choose to switch things up on their coaching staff. Instead, they stuck by Hitchcock, giving him one more year to prove he could get the job done.
That was the right decision for the Blues then, and keeping Hitchcock around for one more season is the right move now by Blues GM Doug Armstrong.
Hitchcock, 64, isn’t a finalist for the Jack Adams Award at this season’s NHL Awards, but the Blues bench boss was easily one of the best coaches in the league this past season. Hitchcock guided St. Louis through an injury-filled season — one that saw only six regulars suit up for more than 75 games — to the most success the team has seen with him patrolling the bench.
Despite the injuries, Hitchcock was able to lead the Blues into the second spot in the Central Division while riding a two-goalie system, boasting strong possession numbers and having one of the stingiest defenses in the league. Hitchcock’s trust in youngster Colton Parayko helped solidify the Blues’ blueline and, as the season wore on, rookie center Robby Fabbri started to come into his own as an offensive weapon.
Hitchcock and the Blues finally exorcised their demons in the post-season, too. Not only did St. Louis get through the first round — where they took down the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in seven games — but the Blues got through the Dallas Stars, the Western Conference’s top seed, in the second round to advance to the Western Conference final for the first time in 15 years. St. Louis’ playoff run would end with a whimper in the conference final, but considering the overall performance put forth by the Blues under Hitchcock this past season, bringing him back for one more season absolutely makes sense.
There is one wrinkle to bringing Hitchcock back, however. The veteran coach said this will be his final year behind the bench. Hitchcock’s not sure what comes next, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tom Timmermann, but it won’t be coaching.
“This is my last one year deal, (I’m) not coaching after this year,” Hitchcock said, via Timmermann. “I’m done. I'm not coaching after this year.”
Finding a replacement won’t be easy, either. Hitchcock is one of the most successful coaches in NHL history, a surefire Hall of Famer with more than 1,400 games experience behind an NHL bench and an overall record of 757-453-88-106. His 757 wins put him in fourth all-time, and it’s likely by the end of the 2016-17 campaign, Hitchcock will add the 26 wins necessary to pass Al Arbour for third all-time in coaching victories. He’ll sit behind only Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and legendary coach Scott Bowman in all-time wins.
According to Timmermann, Hitchcock said the past season “invigorated” him, but he was hesitant to do the off-season work required to remain on top of his game and isn’t prepared to continue to do that work going forward.
One potential option for the Blues will be moving an assistant coach to full-time duties, and Armstrong said he believed current assistant Kirk Muller could be a potential successor to Hitchcock. The only issue with that plan is that Muller has only been offered a one-year deal to return and he could potentially look for a position with more job security, much like Blues associate coach Brad Shaw, who won’t be back next season, has chosen to do.
The Blues will enter the 2016-17 season with a taste of playoff success under Hitchcock, though, and maybe a repeat performance can again give him the drive to stick around for one more year. If that’s the case, the need for a succession plan won’t be quite as important or immediate. But for the time being, it looks like the Blues will have one more year of Hitchcock and that’s it, regardless of the result.