The problem, when a coaching death watch begins, is that they often become self-fulfilling. The players start to hear rumblings about a possible change and it creeps into their collective psyche. They wonder about its implications, good and bad, for them as individuals. They stop playing on instinct; hesitation sets in.
Pretty soon, everybody is standing around, waiting for the other shoe to drop – and the frustrated general manager is there, watching the whole thing unfold, ready to tear out his hair because he doesn’t want to make a coaching change, but knows he may have to.
That, in a nutshell, is pretty much where the Columbus Blue Jackets stand at this moment …
These are the words of Eric Duhatschek, not me. He wrote this column while mourning the Team Canada loss to the US in the World Junior Championship in ‘Toon Town. In all seriousness, it’s a good read and worth your time. But Duhatschek does not call for Hitchcock’s head over the mess in Columbus; he blames Steve Mason and makes some references to Scotty Bowman’s troubles with Tom Barrasso back in 1984. I have a lot of respect for Eric, but the circumstances are different with Hitchcock. Unlike Bowman, Hitch has a well-documented reputation for not respecting young talent. Bowman had left Montreal for Buffalo because he wanted to run the whole show, taking on the role of GM in addition to coach. He had a record of 210-134-60 in Buffalo, but never won a Cup or made the finals. He quit hockey in 1987, but later joined the Pittsburgh Penguins as Director of Player Personnel. He returned to coaching upon the death of Bob Johnson.
It’s different with Hitch because he’ll stay until the end, as he did in Dallas. He has neither the strong record of Bowman nor the power of a GM. Bowman changed over the years and didn’t mind when his team would score more than two goals in a game, while Hitchcock’s only change has been to look for bigger defensemen. And Hitch is content just to coach the Blue Jackets and has said that he will coach whoever the team rosters, although Nikita Filatov would beg to differ.
I have mixed feelings about the current situation. On the one hand, I wish Ken Hitchcock would wake up and see that the game has changed and his style, strategy, and tactics need to change, too. He is a smart man who really knows the game and the team has made a lot of progress under him. But on the other hand, if the team keeps falling, the franchise will continue bleeding fans and losing more money. A high draft pick next year means that once again, Ken Hitchcock will be handling a young star, not something I look forward to. Do you think that John Moore, our current #1 pick, is going to be treated any better next September when camp opens up after a season like this one? It’s tough for young players under Hitch, but imagine how tough it will be for a young defenseman. If Hitchcock is back next year, what will the team get for Filatov, because he won’t play here. The team might have three young stars in camp next season; Moore, Filatov’s replacement, and the new #1 pick.
I’ll try to post more thoughts on Steve Mason tomorrow. I’ve run out of time today as my day job demands more of my time, but I will say that Mason has to share some responsibility for the way things have turned out. Mathieu Garon was signed as insurance, so maybe it’s time to use him more.