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Did Ken Hitchcock Ever Stand a Chance

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Did the off-season actions of Doug Armstrong seal the fate of his coach before the Blues season even started

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Blues bench boss Ken Hitchcock has had an impressive career. He has survived in this league for over 25 years. His teams have made the post-season 14 times, 3 of the times he missed the playoffs were because he was fired mid-season. He coached the Dallas stars to a championship (whether Hull’s skate was in the crease doesn’t matter, Hitch has the ring to prove it). He has the fourth most wins of any coach in the NHL and is three wins away from passing Al Arbour for third. But none of that mattered yesterday when the Blues lost their third game in a row for the first time this season

Ken Hitchcock came to the St. Louis Blues on November 6, 2011, taking over for the inexperienced Davis Payne. During his first year with the club he led the team to an impressive 49-22-11 record, good enough for 109 points and 1st place in the central division. Building on their regular season success the Blues won their first playoff series in 10 years beating the San Jose Sharks in five games before being eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. In recognition of his new team’s accomplishments that season he was awarded the Jack Adams award for NHL coach of the year.

Blues fans were optimistic for the first time in years. They had a team that was filled with a mixture of veteran players and young emerging talent. They had a young captain who embodied the heavy bruising style his team was playing. They had a new ownership group that seemed committed to winning at all costs. And they just acquired one of the winningest coaches in the NHL. Unfortunately, that 2011-12 campaign might turn out to be his best with the club.

I don’t think its fair to say that Ken Hitchcock never got a fair shake with Blues fans. Most people understood that he was not a miracle worker and that success would take time. However, as time marched on people began to grow impatient. His teams would have excellent regular season success, finishing second or better in the conference every year, but could never find a way to carry that success into the playoffs. Some credited that to unfavorable matchups but most felt it was due to the grinding, exhausting style that he forced his teams to play.

Then things finally came to a head after the 2014-15 season. The Blues had just been bounced in the first round for the third straight year. This time it was to a Minnesota Wild team that most had thought to be inferior to the Central Division winning Blues. Many fans were more than ready to close out the Ken Hitchcock era in favor of a more offensive minded and contemporary coach.

The Blues however decided to stay the course, instead electing to trade fan favorite T.J. Oshie, who had questioned the coach’s philosophy early in the year, for veteran Troy Brouwer and goalie prospect Phoenix Copley while signing Hitchcock to another one year extension.

The front office was rewarded with one of the best post-seasons in franchise history, making it all the way to the Western Conference finals after winning two game sevens against two of the best teams in the conference. Ironically, the team’s storybook season was cut short by the very team whose first round defeat four years earlier helped usher in the Hitchcock era and very well may go down as the first and last playoff team Hitchcock faced as a member of the Blues.

This is when things took a weird turn. The team had a future hall of fame coach who had finally found success with his style of play. They had a fanbase who was finally satisfied with the way the previous season had ended. They had one last season to make a run at the championship before the expansion draft promised to shake up the entire league. It was a no-brainer.

Instead, the Blues decided to go a completely different direction. They elected to resign their aging coach to one last season meanwhile taking a classic Hitchcock style team and removing all the working parts. They let the veteran experience, that Ken Hitchcock so dearly coveted, walk in free agency. Regardless of whether or not you believe the front office should have resigned Backes or Brouwer, their departing forever changed the identity of the Blues.

They took a proven and reliable goaltending tandem in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen and broke it up. Instead of finding a way to hold on to the veteran net minder Elliott for at least one more year the club instead elected to let him go in favor of the yet unproven Allen. Solid goaltending and defense is a cornerstone of a Hitchcock coached team and in one motion the front office had compromised both.

They decided to transition the team’s roster from a heavy, hard hitting lineup to a smaller one supposedly built for speed and offense. Hitchcock has coached the same way for over 25 years and asking him to change styles in possibly his last year coaching in the NHL is what I liken to asking a veteran middle linebacker to suddenly play quarterback. Sure they can do it but when you’ve spent your whole career focusing on one aspect of the game why would you want to change. It just doesn’t make sense.

So here we are. Watching a slumping team struggle to find any semblance of consistency. They Blues have a defensive minded coach trying to lead a roster supposedly built for speed and offense. They have a young goaltender who is struggling to find his way. The Blues aren’t fast and they aren’t big. They can’t defend and they can’t out score their opponents. And stuck in the middle is a lame duck coach who looks as lost as the team in front of him.

Unfortunately, the man who is least to blame for this underwhelming season is probably going to be the one to suffer the consequences. The Blues have already surrendered third place in the division and are only a point away from dropping out of the finally wildcard spot. They look completely lost and uninspired. The front office needs to toss a hail mary in order to try and turn this season around. The list of options is becoming shorter and shorter. After the all-star break current coach Ken Hitchcock may very well be former coach Ken Hitchcock.

I’ll admit that I have always been hard on Hitchcock but I think that was fair. Right or wrong he probably never should have came back in 2015. I’ll admit that I never fully appreciated him while he was here but I think that was fair. For all of his regular-season success he seldom found a way to carry it into the playoffs. But I never would have done to him what Doug Armstrong did this year. That was uncalled for.