A Most Curious Switcheroo
Maybe the rumours were dead wrong all along. Maybe there was no chance Ken Hitchcock and his 533 wins were going to get a second shot at coaching the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Or maybe the buckets of money they're losing in Columbus with hockey's worst team meant the chance to shave more than $1 million off the payroll was just too juicy to resist.
See, anyway you cut it, it's odd in many ways that the Jackets, clearly uncertain how to turn this disastrous and pivotal season around, would give a divisional rival, the St. Louis Blues, permission to talk to and then hire Hitchcock. If Columbus is to turn around this season and make the playoffs, the Blues are clearly one of the teams they'll have to leapfrog, yet, at least in theory, they've now aided St. Louis.
Hitchcock, fired in 2010 by Columbus, had one more year and $1.33 million left on his deal. He'd been working as a consultant and had been around the Jackets' games and practices, fuelling speculation he would soon replace Scott Arniel as head coach. A 9-2 loss to Philly on Saturday night made that change seem inevitable.
But on Sunday, the Blues, soon to have new ownership with Matthew Hulsizer (I know, I know, we've heard this from this dude before) called and asked to talk to Hitchcock. With Doug Armstrong, a former Hitchcock colleague in Dallas, running the show with the Blues, it was a connection that made sense.
And Columbus GM Scott Howson said yes to the St. Louis request. This will, of course, be painted by Howson as not wanting to block Hitchcock's ability to coach in the league again.
But wouldn't Howson want to keep all his options open until he sensed a turnaround was in the cards? After all, if this is another disastrous week in Ohio, who's out there for Howson to turn to next? Pat Quinn? Jacques Lemaire? Marc Crawford?
The Blues begin a five-game homestand this week, and the Maple Leafs will be one of the first teams in with a Thursday game in Missouri. That's either good or bad; sometimes coaches give a new team an immediate adrenalin surge, and sometimes the problems are so deep it takes a few weeks to get the personnel and systems straightened out.
The Blues, who are now on to their fourth coach in six years after dumping Davis Payne after only 22 months, are similar to Columbus in many ways. Both boast a great deal of promising young talent, and both have had their seasons undermined by dreadful performances from their ace goaltender.
In Columbus, Steve Mason was raked by the Leafs last week and has a .869 save percentage. In St. Louis, Jaroslav Halak is 1.6 with an even worse .856 save percentage. If not for the excellent play of ex-Senator Brian Elliott (5-1, .941) the Blues would be in even bigger trouble.
Payne is the first head coach fired this season in the NHL. Montreal did release assistant coach Perry Pearn last week.