Ken Hitchcock is back in the NHL as a head coach, just seven months after retiring. Hitchcock was behind Dallas’ bench just last season, leading them to a 42-32-8 record and missing the playoffs.
“I have contemplated this since our last game, and I came to the conclusion that now is the right time to step away and let the younger generation of coaches take over,” Hitchcock said after stepping down on April 13.
It’s unlikely that Hitchcock is a long-term solution behind Edmonton’s bench. He will turn 67 next month and is third in coaching wins all-time with 823, just 67 wins behind the unemployed Joel Quenneville. But if this hire is just to fill the position for the rest of this season and try to salvage a playoff push, why not just promote assistant Glen Gulutzan to the head job? He is coming off two seasons as the head coach in Calgary.
“Because Glen Gulutzan doesn’t give the fan base enough to say that this is a significant change,” Nick Kypreos suggested on Hockey Central at Noon. “It doesn’t have the bite or the effect that Ken Hitchcock has. And yet, it’s not a long-term commitment. You don’t stamp an interim on Ken Hitchcock, but he is. It’s a real short-term basis, you may as well have said interim.”
Hitchcock’s job is to turn this year’s team around and give the Oilers’ front office (or those above them) a chance to figure out other considerations at a later date. Given this, GM Peter Chiarelli can’t be safe considering a new coach could come in to guide next year’s team, but he expects Hitchcock to give the Oilers a jolt.
“He’s a very good tactician. He knows how to inject system structure execution in a short period of time,” Chiarelli told the media. “He can instil something in short order and execute it and direct it.
“He’s going to be here for the year and then we’ll evaluate at the end of the year.”
“I think you’re going to see more of that [defensive] structure,” the GM continued. “But we talked about the forecheck being aggressive.”
Looking back at Hitchcock’s other NHL stops, we can draw attention to the immediate impacts he’s had along the way.
1995-96 Dallas Stars: 15-23-5
Hitchcock’s first head coaching job at the NHL level followed three years of him guiding the Kalamazoo/Michigan Wings, Dallas’ IHL affiliate at the time. In the mid-to-late-’80s, Hitchcock coached the WHL’s Kamloops Blazers.
In 1995-96, Hitchcock replaced Bob Gainey — who stayed as the team’s GM — on the bench in January and though Dallas went 15-23-5 down the stretch with Hitchcock and missed the playoffs, they elevated to contender status the very next season. In his first full season with the Stars, Dallas finished first in their division, second in the conference, but were upset in Round 1 by the Edmonton Oilers. Two years later, Dallas won a Cup.
The biggest change Hitchcock brought to Dallas was, of course, how much better they got on defence. In 1995-96 the Stars were middle of the pack in shots against per game, but became the second-best team in this stat in 1996-97, behind only the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.
2002-03 Philadelphia Flyers: 45-20-13
Fifty games into the 2001-02 season — and just three years after winning the Stanley Cup — Hitchcock was dismissed by Dallas following a 23-17-6-4 start. He didn’t join another team until Philadelphia came calling and hired him in May.
Here, Hitchcock was walking into a pretty good situation. The Flyers had won their division in 2001-02, but had suffered two straight first round exits in the playoffs, winning a total of just three games. This was actually Hitchcock’s second tour of duty with the Flyers, as he served in an assistant’s role from 1990 to 1993.
The biggest noticeable change right away under Hitchcock was, you guessed it, on the defensive side of the puck. The season before he arrived the Flyers allowed 26.1 shots against per game on average, which was 12th-best in the league, but under Hitchcock they became the second-stingiest defensive team, allowing just 24.6 shots against per game. Only the trap-happy Devils fared better.
This came at the expense of some offence, though. Again prior to Hitchcock the Flyers had the eighth-best offence in the league scoring at a 2.85 rate per game, but that fell to 2.57 under Hitchcock as Philadelphia’s offence dipped to 17th in the NHL. But the results were undeniably positive — although the Flyers finished second in their division, they won three more games than the previous season and reached the second round of the playoffs, falling to Ottawa for the second year in a row.
In 2003-04 the Flyers reached the Eastern Conference final, their best finish under Hitchcock.
2006-07 Columbus Blue Jackets: 28-29-5
Just a month after the Flyers fired Hitchcock following a 1-6-1 start to their season, Columbus hired him with the idea his structure would help get the team to their first playoff appearance. Here he was hired on Nov. 22.
“He’s a winner. He’s a guy that pushes people to the limit. And we have a lot of guys that need to be pushed,” then-Columbus GM Doug MacLean said at the time.
This was the second season of the post-lockout era and the game had radically changed from the time Hitchcock got his first two NHL gigs. But Hitchcock’s primary impact on the lineup can again be seen in how much better the team defence got. In 2005-06 the Blue Jackets allowed 33.7 shots against per game, which ranked 28th in the NHL. In 2006-07, though, the Jackets surrendered just 28.6 shots against per game, making them a top 10 team in the statistic.
They remained the 28th-ranked offence year over year, but under Hitchcock Columbus scored nearly .3 fewer goals per game.
Columbus missed the playoffs for the first two years under Hitchcock, but finally broke through for the first time in his third season behind their bench. He didn’t even make it through the season after that before being fired once again.
2011-12 St. Louis Blues: 43-15-11
For the third time in his coaching career, Hitchcock was brought in as a mid-season replacement on a struggling team and for the second time in a row he was a November hire. The Blues started this season 6-7-0 after missing the playoffs in both of the previous two seasons so, again, Hitchcock was tasked with turning on a team that had greater expectations than what they had achieved.
“I think my job is to get the best players here to play their best and get everybody to follow that suit. I think I can do that,” Hitchcock said at the time. “I think I can provide the game plan and the structure and the discipline that allows the top players to set the direction here. I’ve had great success in working with top guys and getting them to play and I think there’s potential for a lot of players to be top guys here.”
The Blues were already one of the better defensive teams in the league when Hitchcock arrived, allowing 27.7 shots per game in 2010-11 and ranking second to the Devils in the stat. But Hitchcock still managed to find ways to improve the Blues here, and they finished with a league-low 26.6 shots against per game in his first year behind the bench.
The Blues averaged just 1.89 goals-against per game with Hitchcock behind the bench in 2011-12, which remains the lowest GAA (and only sub-2.00 rate) of the post-2004-05 lockout era.
Again it came at the expense of some offence, though. The Blues went from a top-10 scoring team in Davis Payne’s last year behind the bench to 21st with a 2.51 goals per game rate. Their power play also got about two percentage points worse, and they dipped from the 10th-best power play in 2010-11 to 20th in 2011-12.
But, again, the results were positive. St. Louis returned to the playoffs and won their first round since 2002. Hitchcock never missed the playoffs with St. Louis.
2017-18 Dallas Stars: 42-32-8
Two years removed from winning the Central Division with an all-out offence, the Stars were coming off a playoff miss and hired Hitchcock to add some more structure to their game and get them back on track.
“To me, Dallas Stars hockey is reckless energy with proper positional play, and I’ll bring that forward,” Hitchcock said when he was hired. “But I don’t ever want to lose that reckless energy that they had last year. When you played Dallas, you never felt that you were in control of anything.”
Dallas, somewhat surprisingly, was one of 12 teams to allow less than 30 shots a game (29.7) before Hitchcock was hired, but I bet you can guess the kind of impact he had on their team defence.
With offences continuing to rise around the league, 2017-18 was the first season since 1970-71 in which NHL teams averaged allowing 31.8 shots against per game. But Dallas was one of five to stay under 30 in Hitchcock’s return to the bench and ranked fourth-best in the NHL. His effect on offence here was actually negligible as the Stars dropped from the 16th-ranked offence to 18th.
But even with much better goaltending as Ben Bishop took over from the failed Kari Lehtonen-Antti Niemi project, Dallas finished just three points short of the playoffs and improved by 13 points year over year. Days after their season ended, Hitchcock retired.
Or so we thought.