NHL Coaching Carousel Off The Rails?

Marc Elliott

NOYES…. As you know by now the St. Louis Blues recently dismissed Head Coach Ken Hitchcock. A couple of weeks later I am still trying to clarify my thoughts on the strange process and season that led to this unceremonious dumping of a certain future Hall of Fame Coach. “Hitch” has the credentials for Hall entry, no questions asked. And far be it for me to give a rats posterior about anything going on with the Blues. I haven’t liked them since 1967, that continued forth post NorthStars, and it hasn’t changed.  

At any rate, I write about this because it is one of the more bizarre situations I have ever seen unfold in an organization during a season. Hitch came into the NHL in 1990 as a Flyers assistant. In 1993 he took over the Dallas Stars IHL club in Kalamazoo, MI, the K-Wings, and in January of 1996, when Stars GM Bob Gainey who had also been coaching the club, fired himself, Hitch came in and posted a 15-23-5 record in 43 tilts. From that point forward it was onward and upward again for the Stars organization. When the NorthStars left Minnesota I vowed I would never watch the NHL ever again. I dove into HS and college hockey and for almost two seasons I didn’t watch. But then with one of the best rosters in the league and a disciplined, structured system in place the team climbed steadily. My attention returned.

In 1999 the franchise won a Stanley Cup. It was bittersweet. I was as diehard a NorthStar hockey kid growing up as there could be. The devastation of the departure and then the muffled euphoria of them finally winning a Cup, but not being in my beloved home state was strange. I never lost sight that it was Hitch’s coaching and leadership that got the team there and he would always be special to me because of that. He was ousted from the Stars in 2002. So he goes to Philly and has a fairly decent run there. He gets dismissed and goes to Columbus and does only so-so there, but you know, that was an organization in disarray at the time. He eventually gets let go there too and then John Davidson and the STL Blues come knocking. He had 2 partial seasons, the one lockout year and then 3 full seasons and in 413 regular season games his clubs went 248-124-41. Every year was a winning season for the team. The playoffs were a mixed bag and in the 5 years he was around at the end of that season he had a 2nd round exit, 3 first round exits and a trip to the Conference final, losing to the San Jose Sharks last spring. To me his STL playoff record is a testament to how tricky it can be to navigate a team to a win in the SC tourney.  

In 2012 they beat SJ, then lost to the Kings, the two “heaviest” teams in the West at the time. In 2013 they lost to the Kings again. In 2014 they lost to the Hawks. The Wild ran them in the 1st round in 2015, but last season they made it to the Conference Finals, eventually losing out to SJ…. again. They won both rounds one and two in 7 games, but were sent home in six by the Sharks. What I had begun to notice amongst the fan base in the 2nd half of Hitch’s STL tenure was that a fair amount of them were getting itchy for something more out of the playoffs and they were ok if Hitch was gone. Well, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot eh? 

So, now for the news of the weird. STL GM Doug Armstrong and Hitch go way back, all the way back to Dallas if not before. I have to believe that both were sensing the volume of fan angst in the recent past, add to that that Hitch had begun to use the “retirement” word at the conclusion of the last couple of years and in the aftermath of last years SC ouster, it was determined that Hitch would return for one final season and then “retire“. And to top it off, “Armey” hired his replacement to serve as his “Associate” coach for this season. That person as you well know turned out to be former Wild coach Mike Yeo. This setup for one of the most unusual situations I have ever seen in about 56 years of watching the NHL. Was this hiring made to insure no more “one more year” deals from Hitch?

The team lost major parts of their core group in the off-season so you had to think that the chances for as much success as last year would be challenged. It wasn’t setting up for Hitch to have a real positive sendoff. Dave Backes was gone, the pest Steve Ott too, Brian Elliott, the vet between the pipes, off to Calgary with power forward Troy Brouwer. With Hitch working one final year, his assistants Brad Shaw and Kirk Mueller didn’t want to return to share lame duck coach status with Hitch, so there was Yeo and one of his former bench mates Rick Wilson on hand to oversee the unfolding mess. 

The short of the long? Hitch deserved better then to be dumped mid-season by this club. But then he is a grinder coach that has a shelf life with his players and he put his good friend Armey in a bad spot. Instead of announcing he would step back after last years decent run, he insisted on one more year. He insisted on that with a roster in definite transition and a goalie (Jake Allen) thrust into the number one spot, that to me, clearly was not ready to assume it. If Hitch and Armey had one Achilles heel spot between them, it is in how badly they have misjudged where Allen is in his career at this point. No matter how many times Elliott saved their bacon in the past, they had already anointed Allen over him. 

The team got a mini-boost from the Yeo changeover, but that has ended. They will be in a dogfight for the Wildcard once Nashville knocks them out of 3rd place in the Central. Yeo won’t get much more from this group then Hitch, and as for Hitch? I can’t believe he is ready to hit the golf course everyday. Whether he is or not, he deserved a better ending then this in STL…. PEACE