Stay or Go: The Ken Hitchcock Quandary

Ed CmarCorrespondent IJanuary 17, 2010

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 10:  Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets looks during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena on October 10, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Blue Jackets defeated the Coyotes 2-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Columbus Blue Jackets are mired in a slump that, by most team's accounts or legacies, would be unprecedented; however, for this organization, it's been seen, before, again and again, in their nine-year existence. 

It became an expectation:  Start the season strong—well, for the first five to nine games, anyway, proclaim that season to be "the year," plummet to the bottom of the NHL standings, only to repeat, time and time again.

However, when Ken Hitchcock was hired, in the early part of the 2006-2007 season, only days after being caught in the undertow of an ownership change in Philadelphia, it signaled what appeared to be the light at the end of an endless tunnel.

At the press conference to announce the hiring of Ken Hitchcock, John H. McConnell, the patriarch of the organization, proclaimed the following:  "This is the man who's going to save our franchise."

At the end of Hitchcock's inaugural season, Doug MacLean was fired as team President and General Manager (GM), a role, along with coaching—be it in fact or in appearance—that was viewed as perhaps the step in the right direction. 

Rather than rest the fortunes of the organization on a single person, the Blue Jackets would have an organization where duties would be segregated, roles would be defined, resources would be allocated to where they should properly fit, and the organization could finally deliver on Mr. McConnell's wish to, at last, make the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Part of that segregation of duties was to hire (both) a President and GM—this time, it would be two separate people: Mike Priest was hired as team President and Scott Howson, a former Assistant GM with the Edmonton Oilers, was hired as the GM.

Within two seasons, the Blue Jackets finally made the playoffs, during the 2008-2009 season.  Scott Howson incrementally built a team with youth and promise, a team destined—or so was thought—to become a force, for years to come, in the Stanley Cup playoff picture.

Twenty games into this season, the Blue Jackets came out of the starting blocks, with a 12-6-2 record, their best start, ever, in their history.  They were also the league's youngest team, so the future would only get brighter.

And now, 30 games, since, the Blue Jackets are in disarray - since their solid start, the Blue Jackets have gone 6-17-7, which includes a recent three-game winning streak, only to be followed by a three-game losing streak. 

With an overall record of 18-23-9, any playoff aspirations are over - not essentially over...over.

Obviously, a lot of the blame has been placed on Ken Hitchcock, the coach with a legacy unmatched by most coaches in the NHL: A Stanley Cup title, an Olympic goal medal (Team Canada), an International Hockey World Championship (Team Canada), over 500 career victories. 

The organization knew what to expect with Ken Hitchcock.  His was a reputation of being tough on players, of having a leash far too long for veteran players, and far too short for younger players, of wearing out his welcome, particularly amongst players, for his demanding ways—24/7/365. 

They backed him up at every turn, as follows:

The Nikita Filatov fiasco, in which Filatov, tired of Hitchcock's constant corrections, miniscule time on ice (TOI), and healthy scratches (being benched, but not due to injury), departed for the KHL, 19 games into the season—this was the No. 1 prospect in all of hockey last season.

Not buying out the contract of Frederik Modin, a veteran forward who'd missed approximately 2/3 of his games for a period over two seasons, to include the first 20 plus games of this season.  This once great player, whose ability to play through injuries is the stuff of legend, but, the result of which has slowed the strapping Swede to a shell of his former self. 

Thus, the Blue Jackets are saddled with playing someone who's not going to be a part of their future, taking up valuable ice time from their younger talent.

Not allowing young sensations—Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek—valuable ice time, burying them on the third and fourth lines, further stifling their growth and sapping what remaining confidence they have.  As a result of their struggles, what some pundits proclaimed as a Sophomore Jinx, proved prophetic.

Stating that Hitchcock's job is not in jeopardy, in any way.  This, while mired in a 3-14-7 slump, while coaches like Jon Stevens is fired for a 1-8 slump and Andy Murray, a finalist for the Jack Adams Trophy, just last season, is fired for merely losing four games in a row.

In the midst of that slump came blowout loss to the Vancouver Canucks, by a score of 7-3.  After leading 2-0 early in the game, the Blue Jackets were presented with a surge by the Canucks, and they not only faltered, the players essentially quit.  If there was ever a case for a team walking off of the ice, and forfeiting a game, as insane as that sounds, this was it.

So, if there were ever grounds for firing, these occurrences seemed to be the death knell.

But, here we are, the team has no prospects for the playoffs, and Ken Hitchcock is as safe as any coach in the NHL, including those who are doing quite well, this season.

With all that, do I believe Ken Hitchcock should be fired?  As much as this pains me, to say: Unequivocally yes. 

Do I believe he will be fired?  Not a chance.

As insane as that may seem, there's a very simple reason it won't happen:  The organization can't afford to buy out his contract.

It's been said, by my constituents, that firing Ken Hitchcock would leave the team with no financial burden—buying out his contract, that he would be hired within a day or two, much like it happened when he was brought in as coach, in Columbus.  Well, I believe my constituents are wrong.

When you look at the teams who are struggling, and the coaches who either were fired, or remain there, in the mess, their coaching styles and philosophies are identical to Ken Hitchcock's approach.  So, if you're looking for a shake up, why would you hire more of the same?

So, while I believe Ken Hitchcock would be hired, by another team, were he to be fired, at season's end, I don't buy the notion that someone immediately picks him up, in mid-season.

So yes, the organization can't afford to buy out his remaining contract.

With that revelation, while it took me a few years, with the new regime, to come to this point—but, the light has come on.  It's now so clear to me:

This organization is not about "wins and losses": If they were, Ken Hitchcock would have been fired no later than 10 games into their 24-game slide.  It's apparent that the organization really doesn't care about the faithful, as much as I thought they did.  They needed to send a signal, to the fans, that ineptitude, such as that, is unacceptable, and that they care about the on-ice product. 

But, they didn't, and now, they're stuck with siding with the man who did, indeed, save the franchise, but, has left the team in a position, where they were—the 2006-2007 season—when Ken Hitchcock took over as coach.

Before you lay blame entirely at the feet of Ken Hitchcock, there lies the other reason he won't be fired, during this season, and possibly the following year:

The organization is as much a part of the blame as the coach, possibly more so.  In a follow-up article, I will lay out where as much, if not more, blame should rest:  The ownership group and the General Manager.  Stay tuned...


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