The more you talk to Ken Hitchcock, the more it makes sense he’s a history buff.
He and his wife Corina, a retired pro golfer, both are. Every summer, they pick two cities anywhere in the U.S., Canada or Europe, visit them and learn the history of that area. They’ll do it again this off-season, though they haven’t picked their destinations yet.
History lets you learn from past behaviors and predicaments to better navigate the present and future, and ‘Hitch’ applies that philosophy to coaching the St. Louis Blues. Ask him to evaluate Ryan Miller’s goaltending performance and he compares the pending unrestricted free agent’s situation to that of Ed Belfour in 1997. Belfour was a star No. 1 netminder brought in to lead a contending team over the proverbial hump to a Stanley Cup. But there was a crucial difference in how ‘The Eagle’ and Miller entered their respective new environments.
“Eddie came to us in training camp and exhibition, and then the start of league play, and there was a two-month adjustment phase,” Hitchcock says. “Ryan came to us at the trade deadline, so we were still in somewhat of an adjustment phase, but I thought he was good. The on-ice adjustment was not surprising to me because of my experience going through it with Eddie. It’s the handoffs between the goalies and the defensemen, it’s the way you play in front of the net, it’s the way you play odd-man rushes. When you’ve been in the same program for a dozen years, and then it changes overnight, there’s an adjustment phase that takes place.”
Hitchcock, freshly extended on a new contract through 2014-15 as of a Wednesday announcement, understands that, to move forward, he can’t just draw from the glory days of Dallas, where he won a Stanley Cup in 1999. He has to take something from the recent past, painful as it is. He doesn’t deflect questions, spout clichés about getting better bounces or how “we’ll get ‘em next year.” He openly agonizes over his team’s defeat and he’s refreshingly open to talking about it, like he’s hoping to learn something.
So what happened to the team THN picked to win the Stanley Cup? It dominated much of the season. Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester had great chemistry on a deep blueline. Jaden Schwartz broke out. Alexander Steen’s game reached new heights. David Backes was his usual bruising self. President Barack Obama knows who T.J. Oshie is now. You name it and the Blues had it. They even geared up for a lengthy Stanley Cup push with the Miller acquisition at the trade deadline.
But it wasn’t enough. The Blues had Chicago on the ropes, up 2-0 after winning Games 1 and 2 of their Western Conference quarterfinal clash, but something bubbled beneath the surface. They needed last-minute equalizers to force overtime in those wins, and they had limped into the playoffs, literally and figuratively, dropping six straight.
“What our season was like was, everything went right for us,” Hitchcock says. “Every close game, every shootout, every game in overtime – we seemed to win. We had a lot of guys who had career offensive years. A lot of things went right until we started to sustain injuries towards the end. And then, all of a sudden, this cloud came over us where we were taking on an injury a game, or sometimes two injuries a game. And we didn’t have the depth that we were playing with, and we turned one-goal wins into one-goal losses.”
David Backes’ injury on a borderline hit from Chicago’s Brent Seabrook changed the tone of the series. The Blues lost three straight one-goal games, with every winner scored by a Conn Smythe recipient: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane in overtime, Jonathan Toews in overtime. Then the Hawks stepped on the Blues’ throat in Game 6. Given how even much of the series was, however, should St. Louis take positives away? Or is a second-straight first-round elimination simply not good enough?
“I look at it from the fact that we lost four straight,” Hitchcock says. “So I don’t care how we’ve lost four straight. Four straight isn’t good enough. And that’s the part we have to deal with. To me, the series was lost in Games 3 and 4. We played very well. And we played the best period and a half of hockey we’ve ever played in Game 4, and we still didn’t win the game. And then we did the same thing in Game 5, and we still didn’t win the game. So, to me, I’m looking at games 3, 4, and 5. That’s what we’re critiquing.
“Management has their thing to do, but we’re looking at it from a coaching staff standpoint, from personnel standpoint. How do we get better? And that’s what we’re in the middle of addressing right now. And believe me, we haven’t come up with all the answers yet, but we will.”
Blues management has already begun addressing some of those answers. It dismissed assistant coach Gary Agnew and goaltending coach Corey Hirsch. Whether a change in goalie coaching increases the chances of Miller returning remains to be seen, though GM Doug Armstrong has gone on record saying youngster Jake Allen will play with the big club in 2014-15 no matter what.
Questions abound about the Blues’ lack of an experienced veteran with a Stanley Cup ring, not to mention the team’s lack of a bona fide sniper, though Vladimir Tarasenko is trending that way. Time will tell if Armstrong decides more tinkering is in order. Then again, this team may be just where it needs to be, considering how close the Chicago series was game to game.
“If you just flat lose – you get beat 3-1, 4-1, whatever – you can look at things black and white,” Hitchcock says. “With the way we’ve lost the last two years, there’s so much grey area that you’ve got to go through. That’s the part that is very emotional for us, to be honest.”
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin