Thursday, February 4, 2010

Our Thoughts on Hitch - TopShelf 2/4/10

TopShelf: Ken Hitchcock was fired yesterday by the Blue Jackets. With two years remaining on his contract which pays him 1.3 million per season, GM Scott Howson cut the cord. Reasonable minds can differ as to whether or not the team's awful season was Hitch's fault, but what can't and shouldn't be argued is that allowing Hitch more time would have turned things around.

No doubt many of the players (if not most) liked Hitch and were comfortable playing for him. His style however (and I'm talking about his coaching/teaching style, not his style of X's and O's) was too combative and abrasive for a team whose success depends on its core of young players. Veterans can take Hitch's gruff approach and know how to deal with it. Young kids like Brassard and Voracek require a different tact. By the time Hitchcock got around to trying something other than screaming and prodding, his attempts to encourage and cajole likely seemed disingenuous. Combine that with the hypocrisy he showed in his dealing with underperforming vets versus under-performing youngsters (e.g. Huselius vs Brassard) and you can see why the young players would lose respect for the man.

As Howson made a point of noting in the press conference, what took so long to get to this point was management and ownerships desire to give Hitch every opportunity to right the ship. Virtually any other team would have pulled the trigger weeks ago. On one hand I want to congratulate Howson and Priest for giving Hitch time to try everything he could think of. On the other hand, the move was made when there was nothing left but a slim mathematical chance of making the playoffs. If a move had been made sooner, would there have been enough time left to make a playoff push? We'll never know. I am willing to bet, however, that the next time Scott Howson is faced with this kind of situation he will not be as patient. Live and learn.

What does this mean for the club moving forward? Short term, probably not much. The playoffs are a pipe dream. The only thing left at this point is determining if the players who have so woefully underperformed thus far use this as a springboard to show that they are capable of more. What will fans think of players who continue to play dispassionate hockey after costing the most popular man in the organization his job? For the long term, you can expect this to be a domino that is followed by a few others. Unless Claude Noel performs miracles he, along with Murph and Agnew, we're every bit as culpable in the performance of the team as Hitch was. And let's not forget they have been here even longer. My guess is that whoever is hired to be the next head coach will be given a clean slate to hire his own staff. As for players? Torres is a gonner. Sorry to say, but almost undeniably true. Modin will be gone. Jared Boll is 50/50 as an impending RFA. Jurcina is probably gone by next year as well, as he and Klesla are redundant and we have all the lugging blue liners we can handle. So for next year and beyond, you'll see an entirely new coaching staff (hello, Kevin Dineen?), and at least 3 if not more current players gone from the roster.

Finally, there is the tidbit reported by the Dispatch that IF Hitchcock is not hired by another team by some point in time, he could return to the organization in a consulting/ Sr. Advisor capacity. I am not sure how I feel about this. If you were a new coach coming in and trying to establish yourself with the players, organization and community, would you want the last guy (who was fired, BTW) hanging around the hallways giving Howson his thoughts and impressions of your performance? i don't think I would. My worry is that the stipulation that Hitch could be back in that role may have a chilling effect on the process of hiring the next guy.

Pepper Brooks: It’s a bummer that Hitchcock’s reign as head coach of the Blue Jackets ended yesterday. No one cared more about the team and its’ success more than Hitch. Unfortunately in the midst of the shocking (at least to those of us in Jacketland) free fall that the team finds itself in, some disturbing trends have emerged, including a lack of physical and mental toughness. Management felt that Hitch had enough time to right the ship but was unable to, so they sadly pulled the plug. Was firing Ken Hitchcock the right decision? Yes, it was. It is obvious that even though the provided provided lip service to being on board with Hitch, actions (or lack thereof) speak louder than words. They played uninspired on too many nights, like they were tired of Hitch’s demanding system. The young players, relied on to elevate the franchise to the next level took a step back instead of a step forward. Hitch was the fall guy. Was it all his fault? Of course not, but such is life as a NHL coach. Firing Hitch was big. Where the organization goes from here is even bigger. GM Scott Howson must hire a coach in the offseason that will get the most out of the guys he locked up over the last season. Howson needs someone to prove that Voracek, Mason, Brassard, Vermette, etc. are the players he thought they were, not the ones they’ve shown to be this season.
Anywho. Give us your thoughts, questions, concerns!


  1. I was a big fan of Hitch. I thought he was a brilliant strategist and understood the nuances of a really fast and fluid game as good as anyone in the league. You never doubted how much he wanted to win and how hard he worked to bring a winning culture to the team. Much like management said in the press conference, he brought a lot of credibility to the franchise and to the city as a hockey market.

    That all being was time for him to go.
    Every season brings a couple of ugly losses, but there were just too many this season. Way too many. The recent losses to LA and Colorado were just painful to watch. It was clear that the team just wasn't responding to him. What is ultimately more concerning is that there weren't any leaders that stepped up in the room to do their part in stopping the slide. More on that later. Related to that note -- the team bet heavily - and perhaps too heavily -- on youth. And that youth has not even come remotely close to fulfilling expectations. Nobody within the organization wants to make more of that issue being Hitch's responsibility, but it seems obvious to me. If Brassard, Voracek and Mason were playing to expectations, then they would be a much better team. Mason has some of the worst stats in the league and Jake and Brass have less than 20 goals combined. Colorado has more than 130 points from ROOKIES. The development of our youth has failed on an epic level and that responsibility falls to the coach first. This team was doomed from the start if the youth underperformed -- and they clearly have. However, this situation should implicate Howson in a big way. We all wanted to believe that the lack of off-season roster additions were testament to the core of the team and the promise of youth...but it became clear very early in the season that was an overly optimistic assessment. Nash has never had a No. 1 center and that is almost unforgivable. Putting that responsibility on Brassard was ludicrous and the decision was exacerbated by robbing him of his confidence in the first weeks of the season. Howson totally failed in providing a strong center for the first line -- a position which makes an equal impact in both the offensive and defensive zones of the ice. A #1 center isn't a luxury in the NHL -- it's an expectation.

    I wasn't as concerned when a franchise defenseman wasn't signed given the consistency shown last year, but I never anticipated the shortcomings (lack of oversight) of the conditioning program would result in losing the top-paid blueliner on the team. If something isn't done to address the deplorable strength and conditioning program, then that will be another big strike against Howson. Ultimately, Howson has to put the right resources, expectations and standards in place for those pieces of the organization. Again, that's not the fault of Hitch. And Hitch couldn't stop Tyutin from making countless neutral zone giveaways, or Juice from passing the team out of a scoring chance, or Mason giving up a soft goal at a crucial point in the game...but he never figured out how to stop them from repeating the mistakes. And now we have the Claude Noel era. I wish Hitch the very best and hope this finally motivates the team into playing to their potential.

  2. I don't necessarily blame Hitch for all of the struggles, but it seems this "tough coach, can't relate" thing eventually consumes him everywhere he goes. He is all class and will be missed.