Whew, it was quite a month since my last post; time spent watching the St. Louis Blues make their longest postseason run in 15 years. Speaking of the Blues that is where we will pick up our sports conversation. This week the Blues announced that Ken Hitchcock will be returning as head coach for a sixth season. This announcement has once again stirred up a fan base desperate for a Stanley Cup parade down Market Street.
First the facts, since Ken Hitchcock’s arrival the Blues have been among the NHL’s best teams; with a .667 regular season winning percentage. The Blues advanced to the NHL West Division Finals, the first time the organization made it that far since the 2000-01 season. Ken Hitchcock has won a Stanley Cup as a coach before and ranks fourth in coaching wins in league history.
As you can see above, the numbers speak for themselves but I feel this is the wrong move for the Blues. To be upfront, I was on board with moving on from Hitchcock last summer after the Blues woeful first-round exit to the Minnesota Wild. And despite the postseason success the Blues had this year, I am again in the belief they should have moved on from Hitchcock. I am not going to argue against Hitchcock being a good coach. Although there was some lack of adjustment in the series against the Sharks which has been pointed out by analysts; but I feel this has more to do with the point below.
The reason the Blues should have moved on from Hitchcock is his system. I feel that it is an outdated system and the league has outgrown his style of play. Hitchcock is a fan of the dump and chase style. The physical play, wearing a team down. He is defense first, defense second, and maybe offense third. Hitchcock believes in a conservative playing style; protect the puck, cycle it through, and wait for a shot. People will counter that, well the Blues made it the Western Conference finals this year and were just six wins away from a Cup. But let’s take a closer look at that. Yes the Blues made it further this year than they had in the previous four years under Hitchcock. But was their advancement because of the coaching or was it because the players rose to the moment?
The Blues biggest difference this year in the playoffs was their ability to “answer”. Whether it was answering back from bad calls by officials, answering back from bad luck on off-sides, answering back from being down, or answering back after dropping a game; the Blues showed resiliency all season long and throughout the postseason. He brought in Troy Brouwer and others, he crafted a team that he felt could finally play his system. But why didn’t he do that from the first day if that’s the case? But is the team constantly coming from behind and roaring back from tough situations really a coaching style?
Take a closer look at the Blues this postseason and you will see some of the same issues that cost them in previous playoff years under Hitchcock. The Blues were inconsistent. I know it is the playoffs and you are facing the best of the best. Other teams will take you out of your game plan and what you want to do. However Hitchcock and the Blues took themselves out of their own playing style as the playoffs wore on. How often did we hear that the Blues wanted to wear teams down, beat them up in the corners, and out-hit them. Well as the Blues progressively went on, their hits went down, their physicality dimenished. At the end of their run the Blues were no longer the team battling for pucks in the corner, punishing forwards with hits along the boards, or pressuring opposing defensemen. Their dump-ins and chip-ins were not being contested and simply giving possession back to their opponent. When being physical is your mantra, shouldn’t that be a consistent approach? And being physical is the ONE thing you can control on your own, the ONE thing an opponent can not change.
Now here are some other facts about Ken Hitchcock. The longest span between Stanley Cup wins by a coach is 12 by Scotty Bowman…Hitchcock is going on 16 years. Despite advancing to the conference finals this year, the Blues remain an inconsistent team. Whether it is jumping out to those “dreaded” two goal leads or playing at home with a chance to close out the series only to lay an egg and lose (Blues did that against both Chicago and Dallas). The Blues ability to fight back in games was great to see but why must they be down before fighting back? Isn’t that in itself reliant on coaching?
And speaking of coaching Hitchcock made some great moves in the postseason, dressing and sitting players and making the right call on lineups. However his inability to get the team have the team prepared mentally at the start of games has been evident over his tenure. Also his lack of ability to adjust in series’, such as closing up the middle on those long stretch passes that we saw from the Blackhawks, Stars, and Sharks was a prominent issue. Going further into his style of play; of the last eight Stanley Cup Winners only the Boston Bruins of 2011 played the physical type of game Hitchcock wants to play. No, this year’s San Jose Sharks do not qualify, despite their size they are not a physical team, ranking 23rd in team hits this season (SportingCharts). The NHL game has changed, Hitchcock has not.
The Blues decided to bring back Hitchcock one more year. Will he make adjustments? Unlikely, he still believes in his system so why would he change it up in his last year of coaching. Will the Blues be able to dress the same team next year? Again unlikely, David Backes and Brouwer probably out-priced themselves with their postseason play this year. Kevin Shattenkirk has been talked about as a possible trading chip. Those are three big pieces that may be gone. Will the Blues have that mental fortitude to come back in games? Unlikely, being a numbers guy I know that trends like winning close games, coming from behind, etc. always tend to balance out. This year was good for the Blues, next year might not be. And again, I would much rather have a team play good from the start than wait until their backs are against the wall.
People will ask “well if you don’t bring back Hitchcock, then who are you are going to get that is better?” I don’t know, that isn’t my job. I am not Tom Stillman or Doug Armstrong. I don’t have their connections or sit in on interviews. But I do know that Scotty Bowman wasn’t Scotty Bowman until he was given a chance. Joel Quennville wasn’t a Hall of Fame coach until he arrived in Chicago and won three Stanley Cups. The point is that you never know if a coach is going to be better than previous coach, but you must have an eye on the future.
That is where the big mistake for the Blues is in bringing Hitchcock back for one more year. They have some great young talent on the roster. Talent they will need to lock up by not jumping into unrealistic contracts from Backes and Brouwer. Talent that will be playing a system for one more year that will likely be changed in 2017 with a new coach. Rather than building the team for their next step, the future; the Blues are hoping for a repeat. They are staying status quo and not being proactive when status quo has them moving beyond the second round just once in five years. A similar statement was shared by former Blue Andy MacDonald.
By the Blues “hitching” their hopes to Ken Hitchcock they are only delaying the inevitable. We have seen what Hitchcock can bring and what his team’s can do. We have also seen the results still come up short. By bringing back Hitchcock the Blues are embracing an out-dated style of play for another year, with a roster that likely won’t be as suited for that style even. They have already lost their top two assistant coaches in Brad Shaw (who had survived the previous three coaching regimes in St. Louis) and Kirk Mueller (who was long talked about as successor to Hitchcock) due to the one-year deal that the Blues have allowed Hitchcock to sign yet again.
I have not been a fan of Ken Hitchcock and I do not like his system. Yes the Blues had a deep run this year but don’t let that gloss over what we actually saw. Just as the people who defended him the previous four years after their early exits, stating the need to look at the big picture. A deep run does not mean success and where a team finishes shouldn’t outweigh how they play. Only 1 team can hoist the Stanley Cup so I will never say a team had a bad year because they failed to do so. The Blues postseason run this year was fun, and stressful, to watch. But as I sit here and look back I see the same things I have seen the previous five years under Hitchcock; inconsistency and an out-dated style of play. While the Blues hopes have been “Hitched”, mine are still on hold.