Ken Hitchcock has a Stanley Cup ring that he richly deserves, despite the controversial winning goal by Brett Hull. He has 533 NHL wins, good for 13th all time in a league that seldom celebrates coaching success. He was part of Team Canada's gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He has the respect and even admiration of many NHL GMs who appreciate his indefatigable work ethic and commitment to defense, and their value in shaping a team's identity.
Hitchcock led the Blue Jackets to the only NHL playoff appearance in their history. He will reprise his role with Team Canada in Vancouver. It's a better than even chance that he'll be part of a medal-winning effort once again.
But what the 58-year-old Hitchcock doesn't have, or so it seems, is a rapport with young players.
Blue Jackets GM Scott Howson relieved Hitchcock of his head coaching duties on Wednesday, a day after an uninspired 5-1 loss to a team, the Colorado Avalanche, that is having success largely because of the young players in its lineup. In today's NHL, not relating to youth appears to be the No. 1 reason why good coaches with a world of experience in doing things their way are finding themselves on the unemployment line.
Not that anyone will admit that.
"This season has been very disappointing for the Blue Jackets organization and our fans and the responsibility for that rests with all of us from management to the coaches and players," Howson said in a press release. "Hitch worked tirelessly to build an identity for this team that was missing before he arrived and he deserves a great deal of credit for those efforts. He earned and received the opportunity to turn things around this season, but unfortunately that has not happened and it has become apparent that change is in the best interest of our organization."
Howson's not wrong and he's not being unfair. He just left out the part that has been whispered about Hitchcock even last season when Columbus had some success and a playoff appearance, and especially since mid-November.
Peopled with young players including Olympian Rick Nash up front and the talented but still inexperienced Steve Mason in goal, the Blue Jackets simply weren't connecting with their coach. Throw in the fact that they lost 2008 first-round draft pick Nikita Filatov to Russia reportedly because he didn't like Hitchcock using ice time as a carrot and stick to convince him to play defense, and the veteran coach clearly had problems that went beyond Mason's spectacular fall-off from a season ago. Hitchcock then became the 23rd NHL head coach who has been replaced since June 2008. Anyone who says they are surprised is either lying or horribly uninformed.
Eighteen months and a nearly 75 percent turnover rate behind the benches. The amazing thing regarding Hitchcock's tenure in Columbus (he had previously been fired in Dallas and Philadelphia) is that he lasted as long as he did. He coached there for 26 months, his winning record (125-123-36) depending upon what you think of overtime and shootouts, but he was 10-20-7 since Nov. 19 and his 22-26-9 overall was good for 14th place in the Western Conference. That meant Hitchcock, who is also said to have had conflicts with the superbly talented but painfully young Derick Brassard, was out of time.
The surprising thing is that Hitchcock wasn't replaced by an up-and-comer from the AHL or even a hot junior coach, the two trendy replacements for aging bench bosses because they are said to better "relate" to today's youth-rushed talent. Howson turned to 54-year-old assistant coach Claude Noel, if only on an interim basis.
Since the salary cap took hold coming out of the 2004-05 lockout, young players have become something of a precious commodity in the league. Entry-level contracts come cheap, far cheaper than experienced players even if they are pretty much just third- or fourth-line performers. Cheap is good for franchises that yearn to stay well under what is now seen as an excessively high cap figure of $56.8 million. That opens the door to youngsters, many of whom are seen as talent that must produce now. The experienced veterans, it is hoped, will come later.
Fine for the kids, especially the truly talented ones, but woe to the coach who prefers players who know their role and how to execute it.
Are you reading this Andy Murray? Did the St. Louis Blues at least tell you the truth behind closed doors?
No GM is going to send a coach off into his good night with the reputation of not being able to work with kids. That's why you hear things like "the team was not progressing" even though many of the players currently on the St. Louis and Columbus rosters were simply going through the learning experience that comes with having success early and then falling back as teams play against them with greater intensity.
Still, you have to wonder if Murray or Hitchcock will get another chance in the now youth-conscious NHL. You also have to wonder if once the Blue Jackets move past Noel (or the 54-yer old shows them that he can relate to their kids), Howson won't be placing a call to Filatov.
Mother Russia looks nice right now, but NHL money, a spot on Nash's wing and no one harping about defensive play can be a powerful lure...especially for a GM who has lost a potential franchise player.