Unpopular coach Ken Hitchcock will return to the Blues, but he says next season will be his last in the NHL.
The St. Louis Blues solved one of their most pressing off-season issues on Tuesday by signing coach Ken Hitchcock to a one-year extension.
Hitchcock then announced that the 2016-17 campaign will be his final season behind the bench.
"I'm ready to go for next year with these guys," he said. "It's going to be a fun season knowing it's my last."
The decision to press on with the 65-year-old is an obvious one. Since being hired in 2011, Hitchcock has guided the Blues to four of the five most successful regular seasons in franchise history. This past season, St. Louis went 49-24-9 and earned 107 points, good for second place in the hotly contested Central Division, before advancing to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2001.
Hitchcock has a 224-103-36 record in 363 regular-season games with the team, giving him the best winning percentage in club history (.667) and the second-most victories, trailing only Joel Quenneville (307). He's won a pair of division titles (2012, 2015) and a Jack Adams Award as the league's top coach (2012). It's an impressive legacy that includes the Stanley Cup he won with the Dallas Stars in 1999, one that cements his place among the greatest coaches in the history of the game.
Replacing him behind the bench would have been easy enough. Improving on him would have been almost impossible.
That doesn't mean the decision will be popular, however. There's a vocal faction of Blues fans who want nothing more than to see Hitchcock gone now, not next year. That includes former player Andy McDonald:
That frustration is understandable. Under Hitchcock, the Blues have been playoff pushovers. Three consecutive first-round bounces had them on the verge of cutting ties this spring. Another early exit and he would have been gone.
And he certainly has his blind spots, especially when it comes to his use of some veteran depth players. But even his most die-hard critics have to appreciate what the Blues accomplished under him this season. They eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks with a gut-check Game 7 win at home, then knocked off the division champion Stars in a Game 7 on the road before falling to the Sharks in six in the Western Conference Finals.
There were so many high character moments along the way that it felt like a real breakthrough for the franchise rather than a one-off. And 10 playoff wins? You don't change jockeys after a ride like that.
There are always concerns about the shelf life of coaches like Hitch who are hard on their players. Some saw that history of post-season flops as evidence that they were revolting against him. But as Alex Pietrangelo said, you don't always have to love your boss for a situation to work.
"Hitch is a competitor, he knows how to push the right buttons," the Blues defenseman said. "It’s not easy to accept it in the moment. But when you look back and look at the overall picture now of what he was able to do, obviously he’s doing it for a reason. He’s had success in this league for so long for a reason. Sometimes you don’t always agree with it, but it works.”
Hitch now has one last chance to make it work. And the Blues have a reason to rally around their leader, one last time.