By Rick Gethin
It’s hard to watch any team with young talent on the roster and obvious potential play so badly. Yet, that is exactly what the Columbus fanbase is enduring this year. The Blue Jackets are 5-13-5 in their last 23 games going back to December 1st, 2009. Almost two weeks ago I said that it was time for the Columbus Blue Jackets to pull the trigger and fire Ken Hitchcock. I said this not because he’s a bad coach that is running this team into the ground and deserves to be canned. Au contraire; he’s arguably a future Hall of Famer who has coached over 1000 games at the NHL level and won over 500 of them. He also has a Stanley Cup victory with the 1998/1999 Dallas Stars.
While that’s an impressive resume by any standards, it won’t help him keep his job as Head Coach in Columbus. The top management in Columbus, consisting of Team President Mike Priest and General Manager Scott Howson, need to come to the obvious conclusion that the Hitchcock experiment is not working. The disparity in age between the coach and his players is as glaring as the difference in his “defense first” style of coaching and the potential of skill-type players that are on the roster.
While Hitchcock has proven that his system works, it needs a team built to that mindset and that style of play. These Blue Jackets have tried to play the game within the system and it’s not working. While the players have tried to do their best to adjust to Ken Hitchcock’s way of playing, the opposite cannot be said. I sympathize with the coach as I have a hard time adjusting to the younger generation, also. But he has to realize that he has the youngest team in the league with few veterans on it. The boys in the locker room don’t have the voices of experience in there to translate what he’s saying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; not resigning Michael Peca to another year was a mistake. While it’s been documented that Hitch and Peca often butted heads, Peca was the bridge between the coach and the younger guys.
Team captain Rick Nash seems almost overwhelmed at this point, mired in one of the longest goal-less streaks of his career. He’s tried to carry this team on his back but is realizing that he can’t do it all himself. He seemed to call out the coach recently to Aaron Portzline (Columbus Dispatch) when asked if Chicago was the new Detroit. “Yeah, Detroit has changed their style and Chicago has picked it up,” he said. “It’s a puck possession game. You don’t see them dumping the puck. You don’t see Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews dumping and chasing. They’re making plays.” This goes against the grain of what Hitchcock’s philosophy of hockey is; the dump and chase. The frustration of what Nash is saying is clearly evident.
With 33 games left in the season, a different approach is sorely needed in Columbus as they look to the future. A return to the playoffs this season is almost a near impossibility, given the way the team is playing. A trade here or a little move there will not shake this team up as much as a coaching change will. If I were the GM I would replace Hitchcock with an interim coach to play out the remainder of the season, while at the same time conducting a thorough search for a quality bench boss. Ross Yates from the Syracuse Crunch (AHL) would be my pick to be the interim coach. He has been a coach for the Blue Jackets AHL affiliate since Columbus came into the NHL. He has experience developing young talent and wouldn’t be afraid to play the young guns that wear the Union Blue. He has the added bonus of having coached many of the skaters on the team when they played for the Crunch. But, I’m not the GM.
Ken Hitchcock should be given kudos for instilling a sense of discipline and cohesion to the Blue Jackets. He’s an outstanding coach who was just what this team needed when he was hired. But, saying that, I can’t fathom Columbus keeping him on as coach through the end of the season. Could the reason that he hasn’t been fired yet have anything to do with pressure from the Canadian Olympic Team management telling Columbus to hold off until after the Olympics? GM Scott Howson, et al., should do what’s best for Columbus and not let national pride get in the way. While that scenario definately has merits, I would hope that they have the interests of the Blue Jackets first and foremost in their minds. The fans and the city of Columbus deserve it.