Is Ken Hitchcock the Right Fit for Columbus Blue Jackets?

Ed CmarCorrespondent IDecember 27, 2009

GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 10:  Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the Columbus Blue Jackets looks on during the NHL game against the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com 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

As I've mentioned, before, I have been a huge Ken Hitchcock fan.  I used to have a vanity license plate, which referred to him.

I also remember what the Columbus Blue Jackets were, before Hitch arrived.  They were a team with no direction, no identity, no heart and no glimpse of hope.

If there was one coach who could possibly take this team towards the playoffs, and continue to do so, it was him.  Or, so I thought...

As those of you who follow the team know, they are mired in their worst ever slump—a 2-11-5 freefall—and that's saying something for this team's inept history.

So, seeing that I've struggled with trying to muster any energy to write something, anything, that's worth mentioning about this team, I decided to research the numbers behind something that's been puzzling many like myself:

Is Hitch as effective, post-lockout, as he was, pre-lockout?

In researching the numbers, out of fairness, one has to keep in mind that Hitch inherited a team that was the laughing stock of the NHL, a team whose best record was their inaugural season, one in which they were still several games below .500.

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Additionally, this was a team who had the reputation of being soft, and one no one feared going up against.  In hockey, that's not a sterling reputation to have.

However, in reviewing the numbers, some interesting data comes forth:

For Hitchcock's first 3 1/2 years in Dallas, his teams finished 73 games above .500, which includes the first season, in which he took over for the team, for the later half of the season.  If you extrapolate the data over the course of another, full season, Hitchcock's teams would have been 94 games over .500, for 4 1/2 seasons.

For Hitchcock's last 2 1/2 seasons, in Dallas (if you recall, he was fired in the middle of his 6th season with the team), combined with his first two full seasons in Philadelphia, his teams finished 94 games above .500—pretty uncanny, eh?

Then came the lockout.

As many of you know, one of the primary results of the lockout was the change in the all-too-cliché'd phrase, "the New NHL", a game which tended away from the goon-fest, clutching, grabbing, neutral-zone trap (well, that last one still goes on—like holding in football, team's do it, it's just a matter of who gets caught) game, to a more open, fast-paced, electrifying game, one freed from the thugs who were taking away from the purity of the sport, and drawing younger fans, in droves.

Hitchcock's teams have always been known as physical—some would offer to say, borderline dirty—teams.  In changing the game, it also created a challenge for Hitchcock, trying to compete with younger, more dynamic, speedier teams.  His teams were primarily veteran-laden, with players who were, in his terms, "heavy" and "weighty."  In the Hitch lexicon, those terms came to mean guys who played a physical game.

Much like Dallas, Ken Hitchcock's demanding style eventually led to players tuning him out, and, eventually, at the beginning of the 2006-2007 season, Hitchcock was fired.  In defense of Hitch, his firing was more the result of a new ownership coming in—bringing in their management personnel, both the GM and Coach—than overall player unrest.

A few short days, later, Ken Hitchcock was hired as the coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets.  Hitch was the guy, in the words of the late John H. McConnell, the founding owner of the Blue Jackets, "the man who will save our franchise".

Ken Hitchcock did deliver on his promise to Mr. McConnell, by coaching the team to its first ever playoff appearance, although the end result was a four-game sweep by the Detroit Red Wings.

However, to complete my analysis, I analyzed a period of 4 1/2 years, Hitch's last season in Philadelphia, and his next 3 1/2 seasons in Columbus, and found that his teams were 19 games above .500.

Again, in fairness, a totally different situation, particularly in Columbus; however, a drop-off of 75 games over .500 is significant, particularly if one of those years was his time in Philadelphia, post-lockout.

So, what does this all tell us? 

For one, while his coaching prowess cannot, nor should not, ever be questioned, what can be questioned is Hitchcock's ability to adapt to the "new NHL," and its video-game style.

For another, it shows that more veteran-laden, physical teams might not be suited towards playoff glory.  In reviewing the teams who have made the Stanley Cup finals and Conference finals, post-lockout, if you throw out the Anaheim Ducks triumphant SC Championship and Conference finals appearances, those teams were predominantly speed and finesse teams.

It was often said, during last season's Stanley Cup qualifying run, that this team, the Columbus Blue Jackets, were "built for the playoffs."  Well, a 4-0 sweep doesn't exactly conjure up images of a team built for the playoffs.

Add to that their struggling start, and current swoon, while teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending SC Champions, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, and the LA Kings are dominating, this current season, it can be argued that only three types of teams thrive in the "new NHL": Speed, Finesse, and Skilled—Defensively—teams. 

Even the descent of the Anaheim Ducks has more to do with the aging of some of its electrifying stalwarts, such as Teemu Selanne, Scott Niedermayer, and Chris Kunitz (who was later traded to Pittsburgh) than their physical play.

So, I ask, is Hitch the same revered coach, post-lockout, and

Is this team—Columbus Blue Jackets—really built for the playoffs?

In upcoming articles, seeing that I don't exactly have much to cover in terms of glowing performance, I will analyze additional reasons why this team is not quite prepared for the next step—the personnel side, and why their current coach might not be the proper fit—an asymmetric fit, for taking that next step.


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