The Blues fired coach Davis Payne on Sunday night and replaced him with Ken Hitchcock, which I thought was curious.
First of all, the Blues were once again plagued by the injury bug a little bit. Not as bad as in previous seasons but it was still not a full squad. More importantly, thanks to an NHL scheduling quirk, St. Louis played nine of its first 13 games on the road. Okay, granted, they only won three of them, but they were also 3-1 at home. They were also, at the time of his firing, just one point back of Detroit.
None of that is to say that this was a good start for the Blues, but at least it was an understandable one, and one that they probably should have expected given that the roster isn’t all that good. But okay sure, fire Payne. That’s almost fair if you ignore that the team had a five-game homestand coming up.
But how do you go out and replace him with Hitchcock?
Hitchcock is a coach whose appeal I’ve never quite understood within the context of the modern NHL. He had a lot of success with Dallas, obviously, back when you could bearhug everyone who came across the blue line regardless of whether they had the puck, win Stanley Cups with illegal goals and buy as many superstar players as you wanted (and believe me, the Stars bought plenty of ‘em). He was also good, albeit less so, with the Flyers after getting canned by Dallas.
But the number of seasons in which his teams have won more than 40 games since the lockout still stands at a whopping two. His teams have 390 points in 374 games since the end of the lockout, an average of a little more than 85.5 points per 82 games, or “not good enough to make the playoffs.” Not that this kind of thing matters when considering who to hire as a mid-season coaching replacement. Teams seem to absolutely love hiring guys who are Name Brands when things go south. Hitchcock is now on his second mid-season replacement gig since 2006 and guys like Pat Quinn and Mike Keenan and Marc Crawford (i.e. guys who were typically far more successful prior to the lockout than after it) tend to have their names bandied about whenever a coach lands on the hot seat.
It’s pretty clear why, I guess. Hockey’s as much a good ol’ boys club as it ever was, often to its detriment, and the appeal of the stone-faced, square-jawed take-no-guff authoritarian lawman who gallops into town with big iron on his hip to clean up a town that’s gone to hell seems clear enough. “Payne was being too lenient with them! Let’s bring a guy who’ll kick their asses when they lose!” Of course, Payne was brought in to replace Andy Murray who himself was a stern and often bewildering disciplinarian to whom the players stopped responding. But that seems to be neither here nor there.
After all, Andy Murray isn’t One of the Greatest Coaches in NHL History. Hitchcock is. And it doesn’t matter that his time in Columbus ended so badly that they actually fired him two-plus seasons before his contract was up. They won’t even fire a guy who has like one win in 14 games, and they fired Hitchcock like 140 games early.
Beyond that, there seem to be a good number of talented young players who were mishandled by Hitchcock (Steve Mason, Nikita Filatov, Joni Pitkanen, RJ Umberger, etc.) to the point that their otherwise potential-filled development was derailed at least somewhat. Hitchcock is not in any way A Player’s Coach and won’t mollycoddle those who demand things like “attention” and aren’t willing to work up to whatever nebulous levels of Work Ethic he seems to have set for them on a given day. (Filatov may be the best example of this because he hated Ken Hitchcock so much that he went back to Russia; though who could blame him? The game after he scored a hat trick, he got less than eight minutes of ice time.) And hey how many supposedly tough-to-coach soft youngsters who don’t listen are on the Blues right now? Oh right, a million.
Teams love that mean guy/nice guy/mean guy coaching carousel but how often does it actually work? There just aren’t that many famed despots behind the bench in the NHL these days. You might get away with stretching the definition and calling John Tortorella one, but players apparently love him even if he’s a little gruff with the media and has a few guys he likes to kick around a bit. Certainly, none are doing all that well.
And maybe Ken Hitchcock bucks that trend and turns a mediocre Blues team into a playoff contender. But probably not.