Ken Hitchcock and Playing Russian Roulette

Nikita Nikitin was the eighth Russian player who has been traded away while being coached by Ken Hitchcock.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Enter, Ken Hitchcock. Exit, Russian player. It sounds like a story we’ve heard before, doesn’t it?

Late Thursday night, just days after Hitchcock was hired to take over behind the bench for the Blues, Nikita Nikitin was sent packing to Columbus for Kris Russell. Funny, I thought, a Russian out the door that quickly. Maybe it’s a move just to make a statement. Maybe it’s just because Nikitin sucks. Or maybe it’s more than that.

Hitch’s battle with (probably overrated) Russian prospect Nikita Filatov in Columbus was very well-publicized, with the outspoken prospect complaining about ice time and not getting enough chances. ("You score the game winner with seven minutes of playing time, and it means nothing. The next game you get four minutes of ice time," he told Yahoo’s Puck Daddy.) Hitch took the high road with Filatov, eventually saying, "I really wish he would have just hung in there."

Let me preface everything by saying I’m all for trading Nikitin. He wasn’t any good for the Blues. He constantly looked lost on the ice. There was some evidence that he had marginal puck-moving skills, but overall I think we’re better off not having him than having him. I’m totally fine with this trade.

That said, I was curious after the Filatov ordeal and seeing how quickly NikNik was curbed. So I took a look at every Russian-born (or USSR-born, since times change) player who ever had Ken Hitchcock as his NHL team's coach. What I found could be complete coincidence, or it could be unsettling to a team whose biggest uber-prospect is a 19-year-old Russian and captain of his country’s national junior team.

Eighteen Russian/USSR-born players have skated with Hitchcock as their head coach. EIGHT of them were traded away (not counting Filatov, who was traded after Hitch left), only one of them playing more than 82 games under him before being dealt. Three players left as free agents for other NHL teams after one season or less under Hitch. Three more left Hitchcock's teams (Filatov during the season), after having played 41 games or less, to go play in Russia.

Here’s the list:

STARS
Sergei Zubov, 1996-2002 Traded to Dallas before the 96-97 season, already having scored 222 NHL points in 229 games; remained a Star long after Hitchcock left; played in Russia in 2009-10.
Arturs Irbe, 1996-97 Signed with Stars as a free agent; was backup for one season, signed with Vancouver next offseason.
Sergei Makarov, 1997-98 Signed as a free agent in November; played only 4 games that season at age 38. Never played in the NHL after that.
Sergey Gusev, 1997-99 Stars draftee in 1995; played in 31 games over two seasons; traded to Tampa Bay for Benoit Hogue and a pick.
Roman Lyashenko, 1999-2002 Stars 1997 draftee; played in 122 games over three seasons; traded to Rangers in third season with Dallas.
Valeri Kamensky, 2001-02 Signed as a free agent in July; played in 24 games during one season at age 35. Traded to Devils in January.
FLYERS
Dmitry Yushkevich, 2002-03 Came to Philly via trade; played in 18 games for Flyers during age 31 season; left for Russia after that season .
Vladimir Malakhov, 2003-04 Traded to Philly from Rangers in March; played in 6 games for Flyers. Left as a free agent.
Danny Markov 2003-04 Acquired via trade from Hurricanes; played in 34 games for Flyers; traded to Nashville for a third rounder.
Alex Zhamnov 2003-04 Acquired via trade in late February; played in 20 games for Flyers; left as a free agent.
Dmitry Afanasenkov 2006-07 Flyers claimed him on waivers Dec. 30; played in 41 games; left for Russia after season.
Alexei Zhitnik 2006-07 Flyers acquired him via trade in December, traded him to Atlanta in February.
BLUE JACKETS
Sergei Fedorov 2007-08 Had been in Columbus for two seasons before Hitchcock arrived; played 50 games for him before being traded to Capitals.
Nikolai Zherdev 2007-08 Had been in Columbus for three seasons before Hitchcock arrived; traded to Rangers after 82 games (one season) under Hitchcock.
Nikita Filatov 2008-2010 Drafted 6th overall in 2008; played 21 games over two seasons under Hitchcock; highly publicized fallout with Hitchcock; loaned to Russia in 2009, traded to Ottawa in 2011.
Maksim Mayorov 2008-09 Drafted in the 4th round in 2007; played in 3 games under Hitchcock, who was fired Mayorov's second year; still with Columbus organization.
Fedor Tyutin 2008-10 Traded to Columbus by Rangers in Zherdev deal; played regularly throughout Hitchcock tenure; still with team (though subject of trade rumors in recent days).
BLUES
Nikita Nikitin 2011 Didn't play an NHL game under Hitchcock; traded to Columbus 2 games into Hitch's tenure.

 

I understand that NHL players move around a lot -- and perhaps that's all this is, but other than Zubov, there’s not really a NOTABLE player on that list who doesn’t look like he made a hasty exit (Fedorov, Zherdev,  Filatov being the most notable). Like I said before, it could be complete coincidence, but it seems odd that nearly 45% of Russian players who’ve skated under Hitch have been traded away – and that lots of them got what seems like a pretty quick hook.

If nothing else, I think it’s safe to say that other than Zubov and, to an extent Tyutin, a Russian has never played a significant role on a Hitchcock-coached team for more than a year. I’m not saying he dislikes Russian players – I have no idea about that. I am, however, suggesting that the data show there’s some sort of disconnect there.

And even a disconnect is disconcerting, considering our biggest prospect just happens to be the best young player in Russia. I think Hitch’s notorious reputation with young players, combined with his history with Russian players – and finally, his history with young Russian players – is a legitimate reason to be concerned that Vladimir Tarasenko might turn into less than we’re hoping he’ll be.

I hope I’m wrong and he’s a 100-point scorer who’s a bulldog. I hope he’s the next big thing in Russian hockey and the NHL. But given the data I uncovered by doing some research (by the way, Hockey-Reference.com is awesome), I’m less excited about having Hitchcock behind the bench.

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