Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why start the Ken Hitchcock Firing Pool?

It may seem that last night's opening of the Ken Hitchcock Firing Pool was a bit of a rash move by yours truly.  As you can read from my past posts, I have been displeased with the performance of the Columbus Blue Jackets (and its head coach).  I've always stopped short of calling for Hitch's removal, though.

To a degree (mostly heart and not mind, if you follow me), I'm still not there.  At the same time, I think Hitch's firing is an inevitability for a few reasons - probably more than I'll catalog, but I'll hit the high points.

First, the team has emerged from a historically bad losing streak only to become a weak .500 club.  By weak, I refer to an poster on the Puck Rakers comments (yes, I read them), "Big E":
Wow...when we lose, we just look sooooo bad. But when we win, it seems like we're hanging on for dear life against a team that should be kicking our asses. When was the last time we won a game by 3 or 4 goals? Blowout losses and lucky wins - not a good combo.
Nope, not at all.  And Big E is absolutely right.  We're getting crushed when we lose, and we're the kardiac kids when we win.  Barely any upside to our performance since mid-October.

Next, the youth movement.  Let's be gentle: It's not going well.  Derick Brassard, Jake Voracek and Steve Mason all are struggling to different degrees and have not engendered the coach's trust.  Kris Russell, who had a head start on those three in his development, is only now becoming dangerous as the puck-moving defenseman he was slotted to become.  To Hitch's credit, he kept the kids on the ice last night against Colorado even after their mistakes...but I think that's too little, too late.

And we won't even start talking about Nikita Filatov, although I consider him a unique case that only the most deft of coaches could navigate.  Certainly not a general like Hitch.

Next, I think the emergency, midseason trade of Jason Chimera for Chris Clark and Milan Jurcina, which was supposed to get Hitch the veteran leadership and defensive backstop he needed, has been a failure.  By saying that, I mean that the statistical production has not improved, and it's a real stretch to say that Clark and Jurcina helped stop the bleeding of the losing streak.  To back up my premise, let's look at the stats (courtesy of ESPN.com) for each player this season (note that the "old" team is on top and "new" team is on bottom for each player):


JASON CHIMERA:
Games Played Goals Assists Points +/- PIM Shots on goal Avg. Time on Ice
CBJ 39 8 9 17 -7 47 92 14:47
WAS 17 3 6 9 5 28 31 12:11
CHRIS CLARK:
Games Played Goals Assists Points +/- PIM Shots on goal Avg. Time on Ice
WAS 38 4 11 15 -4 27 59 11:39
CBJ 18 2 1 3 -4 10 28 12:30
MILAN JURCINA:
Games Played Goals Assists Points +/- PIM Shots on goal Avg. Time on Ice
WAS 27 0 4 4 0 14 32 17:26
CBJ 12 0 1 1 1 6 11 18:12

So Chimmer's minutes have dropped a little, and he's scoring at the same pace...but look at that improvement in the plus/minus!  Sure, it's a reflection on the team around him, but he's clearly contributing in Washington.

Clark's point production has dropped like a rock since coming to Columbus even though his minutes have improved slightly.  We can only hope that he's offering something - anything - to get the locker room's collective psyche going in the right direction.  If I was a legit CBJ journalist, I'd be spending a lot of time with him right now to draw out comparisons to the environment in Washington, develop ideas as to what  it will take to have the team turn around, etc.  But I'm not. 

Jurcina can't get on the ice (see the maddening "Pine Time" section of this article), but he gets the minutes when he does and actually improved his plus/minus when allowed to play.  Kris Russell also looked much sharper with Jurcina as a linemate - the hulking Jurcina playing sidekick to the waterbug that is Russell.  That won't show in the stats barring deeper investigation, but it's worth noting because Hitch isn't allowing that pairing to gel.  

Does the fact that Jurcina, despite his rocket shot and massive frame, automatically qualify for the little kids table as he only has 4 years in the league?  And does Clark's 9 years get him an Official Kristian Huselius "Get Out of Jail, Free" card even though he is having a harder time finding the net while shooting at the same pace as in Washington?  If I was Scott Howson, why try bringing in reinforcements when they 1) underperform against their past output or 2) can't get onto the ice?  (Especially after the way that Nikita Filatov was literally run out of town...)

Lastly, there's the lack of fire in the team.  Especially at the first sign of adversity, this team retreats into their shell.  Their quiet, emotionless shell.  This lack of "compete" (to borrow a Hitch-ism) is perhaps the most damning.  It's incumbent on a coach to, among other things, motivate their team to fight.  When they stop fighting, they've given up.  And, in professional sports, the point where a team gives up is the point where the coach is shown the door.  

I think it's fair to say that any rational actor would combine all of these factors, and those not listed, and determine that Ken Hitchcock has run his course in Columbus.  So it should be a matter of time before he is removed as head coach. It's a bit of a shame as I really enjoy Hitch's spirit when things aren't totally in the tank like they are now.  

Enter your predictions in the pool, folks.  And feel free to add any additional factors in the comments.

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