Ken Hitchcock and the St. Louis Blues, hot off of their stellar 2011-2012 season, thundered out of the gate in the shortened 2013 (2012-2013) campaign, posting a 6-1-0 record. However, during the past four games, they’ve posted a 0-3-1 mark, the last three games of which have been at the once-friendly confines of Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Ken Hitchcock has seen this before.
What’s disturbing about the last four games is how badly the once-stingy Blues, particularly during their impressive 45-13-11 run under the tutelage of the reigning Jack Adams (Coach of the Year in the National Hockey League – NHL) award recipient Ken Hitchcock, have been at keeping the puck out of their own net, surrendering an average of 5.25 goals per game. Last season, the Blues led the NHL in surrendering an average of only 1.86 goals/game but are currently ranked 25th in the NHL, surrendering 3.12 goals/game. Statistically, it’s even more of a concern as, prior to the 21 goals surrendered over the past four games, the Blues were only giving up an even 2.0 goals/game over their first seven games played. Even more disturbing is that the Blues were only allowing 19 shots/game over their first seven games but have since surrendered almost 26 shots/game.
During their impressive run during the previous season, the Blues utilized the goalie tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. However, Halak is currently on injured reserve with a lower body injury so the goaltending duties have primarily been given to Brian Elliot and Jake Allen, who was brought up from the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League (AHL). Over this 4-game period, Elliot and Allen have combined for a putrid Save Percentage (Save%) of .801 which, in comparison to the exceptional Save% of the 2011-2012 regular season of .929.
For Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, this recent defensive and goaltending ineptitude is particularly alarming as he has experienced this feeling of déjà vu, once before, all too painfully.
At the beginning of the 2009-2010 regular season, after he led the Columbus Blue Jackets to their only playoff appearance the previous season, the Blue Jackets also came storming out of the gate with a 5-1 record, posting impressive, albeit closely contested, road victories against the likes of the Phoenix Coyotes and the Vancouver Canucks. However, commencing with the next four contests, began a phenomenon called ‘the tennis scores’, four consecutive games in which six goals were scored by the team who emerged victorious, only one of which were won by the Blue Jackets. Note also that their first loss resulted in giving up six goals against the San Jose Sharks.
The Blue Jackets did recover, somewhat by posting victories over the next eleven games, starting the first quarter of the season with what looked to be a solid 12-6-2 record. But Hitchcock knew that, beneath the solid record, there were deeper concerns. What Hitchcock noticed, immediately, was that his defense-first, north-south system of hockey was slowly being abandoned by his Blue Jackets players. In short, what got them into the playoffs was being abandoned in the minds of the players in an even more ridiculous player mindset of ‘we’re got this, coach’.
Hitchcock, knowing what was about to go down, immediately addressed this to Blue Jackets team management who assured the coach that everything was just fine and that this ‘new philosophy’ was a successful one.
And then came the meltdown. The Blue Jackets proceeded to go 3-14-8 over their next 25 games, won three consecutive games, then went 4-7 or 10-21-8 to all but knock them out of playoff contention and cost Hitchcock his job as the Blue Jackets head coach, one half-season after guiding them to their only winning record and playoff appearance in their 12-year team history. In the end, harbinger of bad, but correct news Hitchcock was cast as the problem, a coach who couldn’t relate to younger players and was too rigid towards adapting to an up-tempo philosophy, one that the players and Blue Jackets management seemed to think they had the wherewithal of executing.
What followed for the Blue Jackets organization has been the return to the ineptitude of their previous eight seasons and three consecutive losing seasons, culminating in owning the NHL’s worst record in 2011-2012.
What followed for Hitchcock was a mind-boggling exit from coaching for nearly 3 years, this for a coach with over 500 victories, an Olympic Gold Medal for Team Canada in the Winter Olympics, a World Tournament victory for Team Canada and a Stanley Cup title in 1999 with the Dallas Stars. Oh, and along the way Hitchcock accumulated over 500 victories during his career with a career winning percentage of nearly .600.
But, while there is cause for concern for Hitchcock, here’s why déjà vu shouldn’t occur like that, again:
- Management Support – much unlike his situation in Columbus, when both players and upper management ignored his justifiable concerns, Hitchcock has a trusted old confidant as his general manager. Doug Armstrong, the reigning NHL Executive of the Year, was Hitchcock’s former General Manager (GM) when he won the Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars. It’s believed that it was Armstrong who pushed for Hitchcock to be the Blues head coach after another disappointing start appeared to have doomed yet another season.
- Player Buy-In – again, in Columbus, a team with known locker room cultural problems, the same players who listened to his every word to guide them into their only playoff appearance, defied his teachings and decided to play the game their way. However, the Blues locker room culture is far different than what existed in Columbus. If Hitchcock needs to engage in Kumbaya sessions in St. Louis, the belief is that these players will allow it to take.
- Better talent – this relates particularly to their overall talent level, not only to execute Hitchcock’s system but for those elements that make for NHL success. The Blues have one of the great combinations of defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk along with other steady blueline players. In goal, when Halak returns, he remains one of the top goalies in the NHL and is even more effective in Hitchcock’s system which will benefit Elliot as he is far more effective in spelling Halak than in being ‘The Man’ and the workhorse goalie, similar to the likes of Henrik Lundqvist and Mikka Kiprusoff. And on offense, rookies Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz bolster a lineup that, while not possessing the firepower of the Pittsburgh Penguins, is effective enough at scoring goals to win most games, particularly so in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
So, while Ken Hitchcock is fretting over reliving his worst career nightmare, he can rest a lot more easily that his concerns will be listened to and that history shouldn’t repeat itself anytime soon.