Ken Hitchcock's journey from coach on the hot seat to unfairly maligned sympathy figure has been fascinating to watch.
Since the Blues bowed out of the playoffs, early once again, the common refrain from fans, players, coaches, management and media types has been pretty much the same — something has got to change. Now what that something is varies depending on who is talking.
Front office changes, a coaching change, a roster overhaul and patience have all been suggested as possible solutions for the Blues annual playoff collapse. The area that has gotten the most scrutiny thus far has been behind the bench for two big reasons.
The first is simply because the offseason has yet to start. The draft is when the hot stove heats up and when trades can be made and when the rumors about player movement will begin. Right now, with four teams still playing, it's hard to figure out where T.J. Oshie will be playing next year.
The second reason, and probably the biggest, is Ken Hitchcock is already done as Blues coach beyond this season. It's true, really. It seems to get overlooked, but Hitchcock signed a contract with the Blues that ends June 30. On July 1 he, like Barret Jackman and others, will be a free agent.
Here is what teams with players entering the last year of their contract: Renegotiate before the term ends (see Steen, Alexander), make loud pronouncements of your desire to get the deal done (see Tarasenko, Vladimir), let the deal expire and say nothing (see Jokinen, Olli) or explore options before making a decision (see Ott, Steve).
Hitchcock has been in the last year of his contract since day one of the season. The Blues could have extended him at any point in the year and didn't. Armstrong could have come out and said "He's coming back," but didn't. Instead Hitchcock hemmed and hawed about a potential retirement and coached as a pseudo lame duck.
When the season ended, early again, Hitchcock said he needed time. He wouldn't make any commitment to the Blues, but rather he wanted a chance to see if his 63-year-old heart was still in it for this whole coaching thing. So Doug Armstrong, who somehow apparently has the full trust of owner Tom Stillman to keep making decisions (but that's another rant for another day), had some decisions to make.
Armstrong appears to be committed to Hitch, so he could just wait all this out until the coach decides to re-up. But what if Hitch doesn't? In the moments after Hitchcock said "I need time," what was Armstrong supposed to do? He shouldn't establish a backup plan? He shouldn't explore alternative options?
Mike Babcock just so happens to be in the same boat as Ken Hitchcock when it comes to contracts. He's widely regarded as a top coach in the NHL and has his name on the Stanley Cup and a pair of gold medals. Those gold medals were earned as the head coach of Team Canada — a position he got when members of the Team Canada brain trust (of which Armstrong is a prominent member) decided he was the best coach available. Hitchcock was chosen as an assistant.
So here's what Armstrong saw: A coach with no contract who may retire in one corner and a coach with no contract who may be looking to move on the other. Armstrong already has the Team Canada connection with Babcock and clearly has supported him as being greater than or equal to Hitch. Why wouldn't he make overtures?
It appears we'll never know how seriously the Blues tried to land Babcock, but the fact remains that the two sides talked. Babcock was out there, Armstrong took the temperature of the situation. Did it get very far? Probably not. Did the Blues ever really have a chance? Not really unless Babcock was just in love with St. Louis.
But suddenly, if you read the pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, this decision by Armstrong to engage with Babcock is "classless" — one of the single worst words used by sports people. You see, Hitchcock has decided in recent days (or weeks) that the fire inside him to coach is still burning and he wants back in. Therefore, apparently, he should be given a contract to lead the Blues.
Once again, with feeling, he doesn't have a contract beyond June 30. You remember last year with Steve Ott? He was a pending unrestricted free agent and the Blues made it kind of clear that he wasn't in the plans. And then, when Vladimir Sobotka bailed for the KHL, the Blues spun back around and offered Ott a contract. Where was the outrage over the Blues treatment of Ott.
He was a free agent, the Blues tried to find an upgrade, but ultimately (and quite publicly) settled on the backup plan. No one cried foul because that's what happens.
Bernie Miklasz wrote in the Post-Dispatch, "What do you think Blues players will do now, after seeing Hitchcock being brushed off and put to the side as management sought a coaching upgrade? After having his stature damaged by Blues management, how can Hitchcock recover to lead this team next season?"
Ignoring your feelings on Bernie, just focus on the message he's presenting: How will the players react knowing the management went looking for an upgrade? The answer is that they're probably well used to it. I think Brian Elliott might be able to share a few tips. As players this happens All. The. Time.
The Blues brought in Paul Stastny to push David Backes, they've publicly courted tons of goalies, forwards and defensemen. The entire NHL trade deadline is about teams trying to get better (and often failing). Remember when the Blues made it clear they really, really wanted Jason Spezza and didn't get him? How did the players ever recover from the slight?
The point simply is this: The Blues have treated Ken Hitchcock like they have every single one of their underperforming players. Armstrong saw a chance to upgrade his team and went for it. There's no reason to plan a pity parade for poor Ken Hitchock. All of this could have been avoided had he A) not constantly threatened retirement B) negotiated a contract extension before his deal ran out and C) not led a choking playoff team for four straight years now.
At the end of the day, Armstrong's objective is to hire the best coach for the roster he puts together. If Hitchcock is too slighted by the courtship of Babcock he can simply turn down any contracts and take any of the number of open jobs. He's not being held hostage in St. Louis.