Ken Hitchcock started his NHL head coaching career with the Dallas Stars during the 1995-96 season. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Ken Hitchcock’s shelf life is getting shorter.
Hitchcock is recognized league-wide as one of the game’s true tacticians, an American Civil War buff whose soul is tickled by endless strategizing.
He’s also renowned for being as hard and cold as an empty hockey bench, especially on a team’s young players.
If you were to paint the Blue Jackets situation with broad strokes, this move may seem a bit like a vote for Nikita Filatov over Hitchcock. As a talented young Russian forward who has yet to embrace the nuances of the game, preferring to let his terrific offensive skill set the agenda for his play, Filatov basically epitomizes the kind of player Hitchcock has had trouble seeing eye-to-eye with.
The Jackets, as much as any team, were defined by their coach since Hitchcock took over a sad-sack squad early in the 2006-07 season and immediately instilled a strong sense of direction. The high point came last year, when the Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in their existence. Any notion of Hitchcock having an imminent expiry date seemed crazy at that point.
But here we are, more than halfway into another miserable season in Central Ohio with the franchise at another crossroads. To be clear, no matter how quickly Hitchcock’s ability to affect this group eroded, his firing – like all coaching dismissals – has far more to do with the collective letting down an individual than one wayward voice leading a team astray.
We all know ‘Hitch’ would still be behind the bench – a place he loves like no other – if Steve Mason wasn’t swallowed up by a horrific sophomore slump.
But that’s hockey. Kids struggle, especially goalies; injury-depleted bluelines kill clubs; the correlation between what happens from season to season is maddeningly crooked. Coaching most distinctly colored the Columbus experience the past few years – maybe now it becomes more about the players, with Rick Nash already entrenched as a superstar and Filatov getting a fresh start to cultivate his all-world talent.
As for Hitchcock, he was out of work for a matter of weeks last time he was fired, taking the Jackets job shortly after being axed by the Philadelphia Flyers.
He spent five full seasons in Dallas and parts of two others, winning the 1999 Stanley Cup. His Philly stop lasted three full seasons, one more than his stay in Columbus.
It’s not hard to identify the pattern there.
Tempting as it might be to suggest Hitch is headed to the tar pits with other coaching relics, the difference between Hitchcock and guys like Mike Keenan and Pat Quinn is he can still thrive in the system-heavy, post-lockout world. He may have some old-school techniques when it comes to communication, but the man knows how to arrange X’s and O’s.
At some point, probably not too far down the road, he’ll be applying those letters to a different set of numbers. Perhaps offering a little more rope to the youngsters on that as-yet-unnamed team might help reverse the trend of his diminishing tenure.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesdays.
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