So what happens to Ken Hitchcock, one of the National Hockey League’s premier coaches, now that his days in St. Louis have come to an end?
We reached out to Hitchcock, but he’s not ready to speak publicly. Or privately, for that matter, outside of a few texts.
But I’ve known Hitch for 25 years, and despite the prevailing winds when Mike Yeo was brought in as an associate coach this season, I never was convinced that this would be Hitchcock’s final NHL coaching job. I would bet there is at least one more gig for the 65-year-old, for two simple reasons: He will be in high demand, and hockey is part of Hitchcock’s DNA.
I don’t think he could retire, and I am pretty sure he won’t until his mind or body simply can’t take the grind anymore. This is what he told me back in October, typically wearing a Blues hoodie and leaning up against the wall in the bowels of a hockey arena:
“Until I literally can’t talk anymore, I want to be connected to a team. The best feeling in the world is being connected to a team. I’ve been lucky enough to have that since the ‘70s, and I don’t ever want to lose that feeling.
“I want to have a stake in the game, in whatever venue that you choose.”
One day that could be in a consulting role with Hockey Canada, or some other 10-days-a-month gig. But not yet.
So, where does Hitchcock end up?
Well, here’s a fact about every veteran coach who has already won a Stanley Cup, doesn’t need the money, and is in it for the challenge: It’s all about who they’re working for.
So you can cross the unstable teams off the list, where the general manager could change any day, or ownership wants to walk into the coach’s office and talk about the lines every day. So, I’d strike the Islanders and Colorado off the list.
At this stage of his career, Hitchcock is a finisher. Sure, he never got the Blues to the Cup, but since he took over as head coach of the Blues on Nov. 8, 2011, St. Louis is tied with Pittsburgh for an NHL-high 537 points in that time. (Source: Sportsnet Stats.)
He’s a guy that would fit in Winnipeg, should the Jets move on from Paul Maurice. The Jets are close, and perhaps need a new perspective (and some goaltending) to make the next step.
But the place I think Hitchcock would best fit is Dallas.
It would be a crime if head coach Lindy Ruff took the fall for a team that has messed up its goaltending as badly as Dallas has, but owner Tom Gaglardi — who owns Hitchcock’s old junior team, the Kamloops Blazers — is a big Hitchcock fan, and GM Jim Nill is a stable hand (and one of the best GMs in the game).
A favourite in the Central for many, the Stars are in serious peril of missing the playoffs this season. If that happens, with Hitchcock sitting at home unemployed, that’s a match for me. Remember, Hitchcock — who has 781 career wins, one behind Islanders legend Al Arbour for third place in all-time coaching victories — coached the Stars to their only Stanley Cup in 1999.
There is still plenty of goodwill for the big man in Texas.
Who Ya Gonna Lose?
Should mention that capfriendly.com has an awesome expansion draft tool where you can figure out your favourite team’s protected list. It’s a fun exercise, and lets the fan inside a bit on some of the decisions that NHL general managers are wrestling with daily.
Personally, I think that roster shaping specific to the June 18-20 expansion draft will mostly take place in the five or six days between the end of the Stanley Cup final and the June 17th deadline for clubs to submit their protected lists. I don’t see the March 1 trade deadline being heavily affected by the expansion draft dynamic, and neither did a former GM I asked about it last week.
“Teams all know they’re going to lose one player,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is overly concerned at this point.”
Pride of Aneroid
A shout-out to perhaps hockey’s quietest superstar, Patrick Marleau, who rifled home his 500th goal Thursday night in a 4-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks. Marleau is one of those players whose profile has suffered for spending his entire 1,463 game NHL career out West with San Jose, not to mention his quiet personality.
If he had been drafted by Toronto, Montreal, Philly, New York or Boston, the conversation around his stature inside would be different.
As my dad used to say, this guy is all hockey player: six-foot-two, an incredibly smooth stride that always made him move way faster than it looked like he should be able to go, can score from a distance, but has the tools to get inside and score from the crease. Neither a shoot-first nor pass-first centreman, as his totals (500-564-1064) would attest.
The other issue that contributes to his low profile? Marleau might be the worst quote in the Western Conference. It’s not a smarts thing — he is bright and well spoken. It’s a humble thing. He never liked talking about himself.
The product of Aneroid, Sask.— where the 2006 census counted 45 residents — was twice a member of Team Canada, at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. He is one of the quiet greats of his generation.
Minny No Longer Skinny
OK, raise your hand if you had the Minnesota Wild as the best team in the Western Conference on Feb. 4?
Yeah, me neither.
But we forget, three seasons ago the Wild had 98 points, and 100 two seasons back. Last season they were on their way to 100-plus when the bottom fell out at the midway point, resulting in Mike Yeo being fired as head coach and Bruce Boudreau being hired.
All Boudreau has ever done is pile up regular season points wherever he’s been (Washington, Anaheim), and with Devan Dubnyk in the pipes, Boudreau may just be on the verge of improving his playoff record as well.
“I’ll tell ya,” he began, “any good coach has a good goalie. Everyone talks about not doing a good job coaching? You can always look at the goalies who are struggling.”
See: Hitchcock, Ken.
The biggest difference in Minny is obvious: scoring. They had been a boring, defence-first team all the way back to the days when Jacques Lemaire was head coach. Personally, I cringed when the Wild came to town. They were that dull.
Now, the puck still stays out of the Wild net, but Minnesota is the highest scoring Western team (fourth in the NHL) at 3.28 goals per game.
They score more than Washington, and give up less per game (2.28, third in the NHL) than typically stingy clubs like Los Angeles and Nashville. What has Boudreau done in Minny?
“I don’t know,” he stumbled. “I just am myself, and… frig, I don’t know.”
The word is that Boudreau makes players feel good about themselves. “Yeah, because they look at me,” said the short, balding, paunchy coach. “They’ve got to feel good about themselves.”
A not-so-hidden gem in Minny is early Frank J. Selke Trophy favourite Mikko Koivu. He’s having a far better campaign than either Anze Kopitar or Jonathan Toews, two annual Western Conference Selke faves, so far.
“Who’s got better numbers as a defensive forward?” said Boudreau, who is far more comfortable talking up his players than talking up himself. “He plays against every top line. He’s (plus-26). He’s got (36) points. There is nobody in the league who has better numbers for what you’re asking him to do.
“He kills every penalty, takes every big faceoff… Everything a defensive forward is supposed to do, Mikko does.”
Sorry Leafs fans, but as a defensive forward Nazem Kadri can barely carry Koivu’s hockey bag. On faceoffs alone Koivu is at 54.8 per cent to Kadri’s 45.8 per cent, while the Finn is a plus-26 to Kadri’s minus-6.