Ken Hitchcock (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock has taken an injury-riddled St. Louis squad and kept them near the top of the Central Division during a season in which he’s under more pressure than maybe any other coach in the league. No matter what the Blues do in the regular season, though, Hitchcock needs to get St. Louis deep into the post-season.
St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock won’t win the Jack Adams Award this season. The Florida Panthers’ 12-game winning streak and likely post-season appearance has made Gerard Gallant the early frontrunner for the award, while Barry Trotz’s outstanding Washington Capitals have put him in the conversation and Lindy Ruff has earned a spot in the conversation for turning the high-flying Dallas Stars into division leaders.
So, all that considered, there’s really not much chance Hitchcock earns himself a second Jack Adams in St. Louis. That’s all right, really, because Gallant, Trotz and Ruff would all be deserving of the award, as would a few other bench bosses in the league. But it’s hard not to be impressed with the work Hitchcock has done this season, especially because there may not be a single coach in the league who has had to deal with as much pressure — and as many tough breaks — as Hitchcock this season.
Each coach has his own unique set of challenges, to be sure, but it’s hard not to feel like Hitchcock had added pressure before the season even began. And that pressure has left Hitchcock fighting an incredible battle.
In April, Hitchcock’s Blues were eliminated in the first round of the post-season for a third consecutive year and Hitchcock was without a contract heading into the season. That led to the Blues interviewing Mike Babcock and, with Babcock interviewing for the gig, it seemed like Hitchcock could be replaced by the time the season began. When the dust settled, though, Hitchcock got a one-year deal with St. Louis and came back for the 2015-16 season.
With Hitchcock back in the fold, it seems fairly clear what he has to accomplish. The Blues need a deep post-season run, and they need it this season. Regular season success is nice, but it won’t mean much to Blues management if the team is packing up and heading home for the off-season in April again.
The pressure to not just make the post-season consistently but turn those appearances into wins and deep playoff runs can loom large. Hitchcock’s teams haven’t gotten out of the first round in any of the past three seasons, sure, but they were eliminated by outstanding Kings and Blackhawks teams in the first two seasons and the red-hot Minnesota Wild in 2014-15. It’s not like any of the losses were massive upsets. But even with post-season pressure on Hitchcock before the regular season has even concluded, Hitchcock has managed to put it aside and do incredible work this season during a campaign in which almost everything that can go wrong has.
In the off-season, St. Louis lost Patrik Berglund for four months and he only returned to action just before the midway point of the season. The depth of the roster took another blow, too, when Vladimir Sobotka, who was thought to possibly be heading back to the Blues from the KHL, chose to remain with Avangard Omsk. And the injuries really began to pile up when the season began.
So far this season, St. Louis has dealt with injuries to Robby Fabbri, Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz, Scottie Upshall, Vladimir Tarasenko, Steve Ott, Colton Parayko, Kyle Brodziak, Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson, Magnus Paajarvi and goaltender Jake Allen. That’s 13 players — more than half a roster — that has been in and out of the lineup at one point or another. In a two-game span this past weekend, St. Louis lost five players. All of those players — Stastny, Bouwmeester, Allen, Gunnarsson and Paajarvi — are considered week-to-week. As of Jan. 9, the Blues had lost 143 man games to injury, per ManGamesLost.com, and that number will only continue to grow.
With an injured list that long, no one would have blamed Hitchcock or the Blues if they hit a slide this season and had to fight to the finish for a wild-card spot. Realistically, that could still be the case as the season goes on, but as of Wednesday the Blues are just three points back of the Blackhawks for second spot in the Central Division and have a five point lead on the Minnesota Wild for the final divisional post-season spot.
None of this is to mention, either, that Hitchcock came into this season with the idea of altering the way the Blues played. Instead of playing it safe, he decided to push for a faster-paced, “reckless” brand of hockey.
“We've got to go back to reckless,” Hitchcock said when his one-year deal was announced, via NHL.com’s Lou Korac. “We've got more skill right now than we've ever had since I've been here, but skill, careful hockey doesn't win. You've got to play reckless. We need to get back to the reckless play that we had before and that's what Doug (Armstrong) and I talked about. You can do it and still be responsible, but we've got to get back to reckless play. We've got to ask more people to be involved both offensively and defensively.”
He said he studied what went wrong in the post-season and decided he need to make his team play more uptempo. They’ve done that, and they’ve done it well under Hitchcock’s guidance. At the end of the season, though, likely none of this will matter if Hitchcock doesn’t have post-season success.
In a division with the Stars, Blackhawks, Predators and Wild, it’s even more difficult to go on deep playoff runs. Even if the Blues end up crossing over to the Pacific Division, getting past the Kings is going to be exceptionally difficult. But the Blues need to get past the first round and at least make some noise in the post-season. Anything short of that and all the injuries, all the adjustments and all the pressure Hitchcock has overcome this season might not be enough to keep him in St. Louis.