Blues and Hitchcock: Match Made in Heaven?

On November 6, 2011, Ken Hitchcock was announced as the new head coach of the St. Louis Blues.  Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne as head coach, a very curious move on many fronts.  While the Blues struggled a bit out of the gate, this season with a 6-7-0 record, Payne had an overall record of 67-55-15, a record Hitchcock’s former employer and division rival Columbus Blue Jackets would have cooed over, they of the 5-13-2 record and no imminent changes to speak of.

However, these were the St. Louis Blues, a team who had a legacy of being a regular Stanley Cup playoff participant – in fact, possessors of a 24-year streak of consecutive playoff appearances (1980-2004) – the Blues made the playoffs only once in the following six seasons and urgency was at a premium.

Enter Ken Hitchcock.  Hitchcock was plucked by Blues’ General Manager (GM) Doug Armstrong, who was the Assistant GM when Hitchcock coached the Stars to a Stanley Cup title in 1999.  As Hitchcock struggled to find a head coaching position since being fired by the Blue Jackets in February, 2010, many wondered if perhaps the window was closing for the future Hall-of-Fame head coach, a coach who could transform teams to greater heights only to, over time, wear out his welcome with his players.

While Hitchcock’s style tends to wear on a team over time, he also is a proven winner, albeit having won with a system that is generally believed to be of the pre-lockout (NHL lockout of 2004-2005) variety.  Hitchcock’s system was a gritty, 2-way, defense-first, puck-possession type of system although Hitchcock claimed it was always due to the physical, plodding players who played in his system.

Prior to Hitchcock’s arrival, the Blues were characterized as a gritty, offensively-impaired, physical team whose offensive philosophy was simply chipping the puck into the offensive zone, getting it behind the defensemen and chasing it into their offensive zone – commonly referred to as a “dump and chase” system.

On the surface, it would appear that Hitchcock simply melds the style he utilized with his prior three NHL stops – Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus; however, contrary to the belief that Ken Hitchcock is a stodgy, out of touch, old-school coach, he is about as tuned into what’s successful in today’s game as Lady Gaga is tuned into popular culture.

Hitchcock’s legendary reputation as one of the NHL’s greatest game-preparation and tactical coaches has not changed.  What has changed is that Hitchcock has adapted his system to his players – in short, a high-tempo system, with structure.

“To me, transition … the whole game has to be played behind people,” Hitchcock said. “It’s not so much chipping it in, it’s just making people turn. That’s the whole focus of the game. If everybody’s on that page, then you play faster. You don’t slow down to make a play.

“The whole attitude is you’re converging pucks, bodies and traffic at the net, so your whole game is towards the net. But in order to do it, you have to make people turn. We’re trying to create an environment where we make them face their goalie as much as we can so that they can’t defend facing up ice.”

Now, onto the other party of the perfect marriage, theSt. LouisBlues.  While the Blues have under whelmed over the past several seasons, they do possess the perfect mix of players for Ken Hitchcock and his system.

The Blues are a team with a good mix of gritty veterans – Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott – and an array of talented yet tough young players – TJ Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo and Chris Stewart – players waiting for a coach to provide them with structure and a direction, one with proven Stanley Cup playoff success.

Former Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Rostislav Klesla was asked about playing for Ken Hitchcock, his work-first mentality and his possible impact on the Blues:

“I think he was good,” he said. “Good structure . . . a lot of video, lot of teaching, but he would bring the best out of you. He was one of those guys that really pushes his players, and I think he’s going to do well inSt. Louis.”

Langenbrunner, who played six seasons for Hitchcock inDallas, echoed Klesla’s sentiment and says Hitchcock knows how to handle situations and that player’s will be held accountable.

“If you come and work hard and do what’s asked of you, there’s no issue,” he said. “If you get off of that, you’re going to be called out on it. That’s easy for guys to play under. They should be able to understand that, and hopefully it’ll push us along to the next level.”

The Blues have already responded to Hitchcock’s direction and tutelage: prior to last night’s 3-2 loss to the LA Kings, the Blues posted a 4-0-2 record, which represents a radical departure from the 1-3 record prior to his hire and the 6-7-0 overall mark.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Hitchcock’s arrival is the return to form of goaltender Jaroslav Halak.  Halak, the former Habs goaltender who led them to the Eastern Conference finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs just two seasons ago, has struggled with the Blues since being signed as an UFA during the summer of 2010 including the beginning of the current season.

But since Hitchcock arrived, Halak has been hot between the Blues pipes, posting a Goals Against Average (GAA) of 1.56 and a Save Percentage (Save%) of .939.  Prior to Hitchcock’s arrival, Halak was one of the NHL’s worst goaltenders, statistically, posting a GAA of 3.35 and a Save% of .856.

As to the reason for the change in Halak’s fortunes, one needs to look no further than the performance of Hitchcock’s two starting goaltenders during his last two full seasons in Columbus:  Pascal Leclaire posted a GAA of 2.25 – to this day, a Blue Jackets franchise record – and a Save% of .919 – and Steve Mason posted a GAA of 2.29 and a Save% of .916 on his way to winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie in 2008-2009 which is now a far cry from his struggles of the past two plus seasons.

The primary reason for this immediate impact is Hitchcock’s system of defensive responsibility for the entire team, an ‘all in’ mentality as well as obtaining an immediate buy-in from his defensemen as it relates to blocking shots.

Will Hitchcock’s demanding ways eventually wear off on his players?  Absolutely – however, for a team like the St. Louis Blues, their struggles of the past several seasons don’t put their players in a position to complain.

As is often said, winning cures all and the St. Louis Blues for the first time in a long time have an identity and a coach who can lead them to the post season.

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