Minnesota Wild Coaching Candidates: Ken Hitchcock

With free agency fast approaching, the likelihood of a coach being hired increases with each passing day. While we here at Hockey Wilderness are not overly concerned with who it is, and were not inclined to cover it much until the coach was actually hired, the people have spoken. We will talk to the people who know best the four coaches mentioned, the bloggers who covered them. 

First up is Ken Hitchcock, most recently with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Reaching out to Matt Wagner from The Cannon, the local SBNation Blue Jackets blog, turned out to be what looks like a cathartic exercise for Matt. The information below is invaluable to those looking for info on the potential coaches. Be warned, Matt wrote over 2500 word on the topic, everyone of them high quality.

Enjoy in moderation, then let us know how you feel about Hitch being behind the bench. Thank you to Matt for taking the time and expending the energy necessary for such a post. Truly magnificent. 

By Matt Wagner, The Cannon

Ken Hitchcock: Old Dog, New Tricks?

When John H. McConnell personally stepped in and hired Ken Hitchcock as the new coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets in November of 2006, the perception was that he was bringing in a man who knew how to make a winning team.

This was a very reasonable assumption. He's coached over  1,000 games at the NHL level. The man has a Stanley cup ring. He's one of the most successful coaches in WHL history. He's coached three consecutive NHL all star teams. It's a resume of exceptional talent and tremendous willpower, but somehow, despite leading the Blue Jackets to their first (and so far only) playoff appearance, it all came crashing down with terrifying speed, leaving him out of a job and back on the coaching market within three years.

Now that he's been targeted as a legitimate candidate for several jobs, including the Wild, it's worth looking at his tenure in Columbus, what he can still bring to the table, why things came undone, and what he may have learned from the entire process.

The Fundamentals

When Hitch took over as the head coach of the Blue Jackets, one of his most frequently used words was "structure."  The defense was expected to play a much more stay at home game, not quite the full on trap, but certainly a more smothering style, with greater emphasis on shot blocking and position, while offensive stars like David Vyborny, Rick Nash, and Nikolai Zherdev were told that 2 way play was going to be much, much more focused on (one of the more notable conflicts between Hitch and Zherdev was over ice time. Zherdev did not like being put on the bench for being too loose or irresponsible, wanting to play as much as possible. Hitch responded by telling him (and the media) that he'd get playing time as his defensive play warranted it. Put in that light, his trade to New York in 2008 isn't so surprising.)

Even once his defense corps was given a larger veteran boost with the additions of Mike Commodore, Jan Hejda, and Fedor Tyutin, Hitch tended to keep the team in very "simple" schemes. It was extremely normal for the D to stay back on an offensive play, ready for turnovers or changes. Forwards supported the D and worked to "suffocate" the opponent - it's a system that works beautifully, but it requires intense focus and can be badly broken by a mistake.

Offensively,  Hitch's tenure in Columbus was a mixed bag.

On the one hand, players like Nash, Zherdev, and to a lesser extent Manny Malhotra or Jason Chimera had some strong offensive production. On the other, the rest of the team was a distinct tier (or three) below the main performers - a good example is 2007-08, where the drop from Nash (69 points) and Zherdev (61) was down to Michael Peca (34). You could claim it was a case of offense by committee, but that involves the committee actually getting involved.

Outside of guys who had enough talent to make offense happen regardless of the situation, there never seemed to be a consistent plan for creating scoring opportunities. Players were simply expected to wait for the opponent to make a mistake and try to get the puck to the net - and far too often scoring was accomplished almost by accident, and the it felt like an unusual occurrence for the defensemen to be actively involved in scoring chances.

Even in practices, Hitch focused heavily on zone play and defensive performance. Offense was something that either would happen naturally, or would be compensated for.

Not surprisingly, the Jackets under Hitch maintained an extremely low converting power play - Ironically, only in 2009-2010, with the temporary rise to relevance of Anton Stralman, did they finally reach 14th overall.  By contrast, the PK, once Hitch had his systems in place and players he felt could execute it well, was stellar, rising as high as 9th overall in '07-08. There's a reason that Pascal LeClaire lead the league in shutouts under Hitch, and why Steve Mason was able to put up Calder trophy numbers behind a Hitch run defense. An interlocking grid of responsible forwards, shot blocking D, and removing scoring opportunities kept the team in games even when their lack of offensive firepower should have left them in deep trouble.

The Room

With a team as young as Columbus, a real question from day 1 was how he'd work to develop players like Kris Russell, Andrew Murray, Derick Brassard, and eventually players like Jakub Voracek and Nikita Filatov. Hitch has a reputation as a veteran's coach - one who was willing to allow things to slide for some of the older, proven players that he wouldn't tolerate from younger members of the club, and for the most part, that reputation seemed to hold true.

Conditioning, frequently a problem in Columbus, was supposedly to be an area of improvement under Hitch, but it's notable that players like Mike Commodore, Freddy Modin, David Vyborny, and Adam Foote were given a great deal of leeway in their offseason preparations and physical regimens (sometimes at the cost of their performance - see Commodore's tumultuous '09-10 campaign), while the younger players were given strong encouragement to work with the team's Strength & Conditioning coach, Barry Brennan, and stay local to Columbus during the offseason.

It also appeared that players with more NHL experience were given more "rope" in game situations - a turnover by Jason Chimera or Ron Hainsey would likely be overlooked, while a gaffe by Brassard, Tollefsen, or Novotny might mean the end of their evening.

A final aspect that characterized the locker room under Ken Hitchcock was the general environment. From open practices to press conferences, there was a constant underlying tension - even when the team made the playoffs for the first time, it was run like a string beneath the mood of the franchise. Hockey, in Ken Hitchcock's world, is work - and he expects you to take it just as seriously as he does.  You pay attention, you study the film, and you dedicate yourself.

That's not to say that players hated being in the room - or that he failed to develop players. While Hitch did sometimes prefer to work with "ambassadors" to his team - often his assistant coaches, or veterans like Michael Peca or Freddy Modin, particularly when trying to push issues, he's a student of the game, and enjoys being a teacher. He frequently brought in groups from the community to explain hockey 101, and happily would discuss points of the game in press conferences or on his radio show.

Perhaps some of the best success stories for how Hitch works as a developer are a pair of guys who aren't well known outside of Columbus - Andrew Murray and Marc Methot.

Neither is going to be regarded as a headline player, but each came into Columbus with a good bit of work effort, but perhaps not so much talent, and Hitch helped to refine each into a hardworking pro. Methot, especially, is one of the best defensemen in Columbus' d corps, and much of the credit for that goes to Hitch in teaching him how to refine his talent and approach the pro game.

Any player who is willing to put in the work will find Ken Hitchcock a willing and enthusiastic teacher - but you must demonstrate the willingness and the work ethic. He appreciates the players who go in, get their noses dirty, and aren't afraid to fight like hell. Developing skill players, however, is an area that stands out as a weakness - though he refined Rick Nash's skills, he didn't really develop them, and Brassard, for example, seemed to gain more from his time in Syracuse under Ross Yates in preparing for the NHL game than Ken Hitchcock.


The Downfall

A combination of these factors lead to Ken Hitchcock's eventual departure from Columbus - the "SRS BSNS" attitude, the difficulty in developing offensive players, and the conflicts between his treatment of younger players vs. veterans were a cocktail that could be mollified by winning, but stirred up into instability when losses mounted.

Into that mix, in 2009-10, came changes to a roster that, though it wasn't obvious at the time, represented a break between the team Hitch preferred, and the team Scott Howson was trying to create to meet the challenges of the increasingly fast and aggressive NHL.

The greatest loss in these changes was the loss of Michael Peca, who had frequently been a "buffer" between Hitch and the team at times of stress or difficulty in communication - a veteran voice who could both stand up to Hitch when needed, and to distribute the message as required.

With the shift in the room, there were some early successes, but also early failures, and the reactions were telling. When the team won a game 5-4, Hitch would look like a man who had bitten into a rancid lemon, displeased with the "loose" play even in a victory. If they got smacked 4-1, it was an effort problem, and his response was to crack down on the team in practice and game planning - particularly the younger players, who found their ice time decreased and their freedom with the puck restricted.

This set the stage for the next red flag, the handling of Nikita Filatov.  A promising offensive talent, Filatov was notable for scoring a hat trick in only his third NHL game, and delivering a near point-per-game performance for the Syracuse Crunch in the same season. Called up for the team's playoff run, however, Filatov never saw the ice after mid-March, and witnessed the team's brief playoff run from the press box.

The following season, Filatov expected to find his way into a greater offensive role with the team, but after some early games where he had 8-10 minutes a night, his ice time was slashed again and again as Hitchcock attempted to "tighten up" the Jackets' play on the ice, sometimes seeing less than three minutes a game - if he wasn't scratched outright.

By November, Filatov had grown so frustrated that he would eventually request to return to Russia to play instead, the first major indication of the increasing friction in the room.

The next trouble sign would be in how Hitch handled players acquired by Scott Howson in an attempt to right the ship when the Jackets went into a slump through much of December. Acquiring Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina for Jason Chimera in an attempt to shake up the room (and perhaps in hopes that Clark would take Peca's role as a "spokesman"  for Hitch as another veteran voice in the room), the move failed in no small part because Hitch minimized Clark's playing time, while simply benching Jurcina for much of the season after the trade, despite his solid play for Washington, claiming that the defender didn't play the "right" style of defense because he was too aggressive and wanted to jump into the rush.

On the ice, that same concept of the "right" style was becoming an open book to opponents - particularly with the realization that sharp attacks into the zone or pure "speed" rushes could easily outmaneuver slower defenders like Commodore and Hejda. Unlike '08-09, Steve Mason was similarly becoming a known quantity, and with the defense unable to disrupt or disperse attackers, shooters were all too often able to pick their shots.

The Jackets were frequently in a position where they needed offensive track meets to keep themselves in games, and the incompatibilities of that need and the basic Hitchcock philosophy were simply too great to reconcile.

This incompatibility of system vs. players, and the unwillingness or inability to adapt to his GM's personnel moves, triggered the cascade that lead to Hitchcock's dismissal shortly before the Olympics, and the appointment of Claude Noel in his place.

Aftermath:

In the wake of his firing, Hitch took a year off, essentially. Aside from being one of the assistant coaches as part of Team Canada's gold medal run in Vancouver, he did not seek another job immediately. He did some scouting and development work for the Jackets, but by all reports he mostly spent last season getting back in touch with himself, working out, losing some weight, and fighting crime.

In May, Hitchcock was asked to take the reins for Team Canada at the World Championships, and offered one hell of an olive branch to his replacement, Scott Arniel, by bringing him on board as an assistant.

It's difficult to judge how Hitch would do in the NHL once again based on the performance of what is, essentially, an all star team, but for better or worse, it's what we have to judge him by.

It's clear the focus on defensive positioning and shot blocking is still there - in the 7 games Canada played, they only allowed 30 or more shots on goal twice.  Hitch would rather see 500 pucks in the corners than one hit the goalie.

The offense, on the other hand, is a bit more of an open question. Aside from lighting up France 9-1 in one of the early matches, even when Canada dominated their opponents by more than 2-1 on the shot clock, their offensive output was three, perhaps four goals at best, and in the bulk of the games you saw three primary "drivers" for scoring - Rick Nash, John Tavares, and Jason Spezza.  Outside of contributions from Brent Burns, offense from the blue line was neglible, and the third and fourth lines were virtual non-presences.

All in all, it seems like a case of "partial" adjustment, but there are still a lot of indications that Hitch would prefer a team that can lock down their opponents rather than driving the scoring themselves.

With that said, is it possible for Hitch to still be successful in the NHL, based on what we're seeing?

Oddly enough, I think the answer is yes, but it's going to take some very specific circumstances.

  • It has to be a team willing to buy in to his defensive scheme.
  • The team requires veteran leadership that Hitch can rely on in pressure situations, and who can "filter" the message down to younger players as needed.
  • The team should ideally be comprised of "work ethic" players more than players used to relying on / executing based on skill alone.
  • The GM has to be on the same page for the purpose of any offseason moves. Hitch is a bricklayer, not a violinist. Give him guys in that solid "lunchpail" mode, or you'll simply generate friction as Hitch attempts to pound them into a system they do not fit.
  • The top six needs at least one, if not more, scoring talents who can carry a low scoring game.

If you're looking at Ken Hitchcock from the prespective of the Minnesota Wild, I can see potential for this to work. The biggest question I see in the locker room of the Wild for Hitch would be the leadership corps. In pressure situations, he's going to lean hard on his veterans, and they have to be able to shoulder the load. If he can get that, you've got a team with the rest of the building blocks for success in "Hitch Hockey" ready and waiting...

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