Saturday, December 14, 2013

McKenna, Hitch, Storylines Within Storylines

Mike McKenna in Training Camp
Today General Manager Jarmo Kekalainen's contribution to the 2013-14 Columbus Blue Jackets comes to the fore.  After signing Curtis McElhinney to a one way contract, he surveyed the scene and was dissatisfied with goal tending depth.  So he went out and signed Mike McKenna and Jeremy Smith to be the tandem in AHL in Springfield.  With Bobrovsky and McElhinney on the shelf with injuries, McKenna and Smith need to carry the mail in a playoff chase (albiet early and in a sorta faltering, roller coaster way).  With the CBJ one point out of playoff position, each point at this juncture is key.

The Columbus Dispatch and the CBJ have reported a great deal about the intrigue of this story, how McKenna grew up in St. Louis, and his family's influence on hockey in St. Louis.  Good stuff, you should check it out.

Jeremy Smith in Training Camp
The other part of the tandem, Jeremy Smith has some local ties as well.  The CBJ Press release noted that Smith had backstopped the Cincinnati Cyclones to a Kelly Cup Championship in the ECHL.  It turns out that I got to see one of those playoff games when my son was at UC.  Smith has won in Ohio before, and we hope he keeps that up if he gets the call up here.

We've been here before.  In the disastrous 2011-12 season we had plan C in the goal in the form of Curtis 'The Sandman" Sanford, and plan D on the bench in the form of Allen York. And lo and behold, plan D, ends up in goal for eleven games that season.  The uncertainty at goal tender contributed to the tail spin that derailed the 2011-12 campaign early in the year.  McKenna and Smith have an opportunity to do better than that.  And I think that the team in front of them is playing much better.  So best of luck to these guys, and we will see what happens.

Because tonight the CBJ face a formidable opponent, Coach Ken Hitchcock's St. Louis Blues.  The Blues already have 20 wins in this season, and are playing at a very high level.  They will certainly be a big test for the young CBJ, and could well be the best team in the NHL this year.  You have treat these guys like you are playing Boston, and expect a 'heavy' game.  Yes, that a Hitchcock saying.  And yes, I am going to proceed to indulge myself by devoting the rest of this post to Hitch.  Oh, sorry, the Jack Adams Award winning, Coach Ken Hitchcock.

A few blog posts ago, I was typing about some historical issues related to Mike Commodore, and, as
Ken Hitchcock in Action on the CBJ Bench
happens sometimes, I let a bit of bitterness creep out about some of our team's historic lows.  So I posted this rant opinion in one of our blogs:
Howson totally bears the blame for this, as he never should have given up on Hitchcock in the first place.  And he is squarely responsible for the disastrous Arniel hiring, that set the franchise back 3 years (or more).

We ended up getting this really thoughtful comment from Bob K on my point:
I disagree completely with keeping Hitchcock. Hitch had lost the room and needed to go since he didn't want to change. He had is epiphany after he left and became a better coach again. 

There is something to what he is saying here.  It is true that Hitch reconsidered some aspects of his coaching style, which he felt allowed him to succeed in St. Louis, notwithstanding the fact that he had the full support of the GM.  As a third party opinion, I offer you a post done by Jeff Little (@OhioHockeydog), arguably one of the best writers on the local scene, from his post about life without Bobrovsky over on The Cannon:
The point is that most clubs cannot be expected to play consistently well when the focus is on being sure that the opposition does not score.  In a game where the bad bounce is a fact of life, that is a strategy that puts enormous pressure on the club in every game, and ramps up to critical levels when the pressure of a playoff race heats up.  While a roster of veteran players can sometimes handle it, a young club will frequently wilt under the strain -- as we have seen happen already this season.
This phenomenon was largely responsible for the demise of Ken Hitchcock in Columbus.  For the dean of the neutral zone trap, a two goal game was an offensive explosion.  It's no coincidence that Hitch had a fondness for veterans, and a healthy disdain of youth.  (After spending considerable time with the junior programs in Canada, he has since loosened his approach, with good results).  Over the long haul, there was a disconnect between Hitchcock's approach and the players Howson provided, and when it reached the point of near mutiny, Hitch was gone.
I have a lot of respect for Jeff's analytical ability, and I think he explains the dynamic very well.  With the disclaimer that I totally drank the Kool-Aid at the time, and envisioned a 'BlackHawks South' sweep to the playoffs in 2009-10.  So I blame Howson, with my 20-20 hindsight, for only paying lip service to not rushing youth.  He could have easily back filled the roster with veterans to match his coaches preference, and kept pressure on Brass and Jake to play in the minors.  For crying out loud, he gave Hitch Filatov to deal with!

So, since I subscribe to Jeff's assessment of the situation, and agree that Bob K is right as well, I pretty much have to acknowledge that Hitch's tenure here had run its course, and Howson should not be unduly blamed for the implosion.  Jeff's description of that unbelievable pressure does kind of answer one question for me though.  I always felt that Nash had left it all on the table in 2008-09, but that he did not have that in him to just turn around and do again the following year.  When you look at that through the lens that Jeff holds up, it is understandable.

Sometimes you have to step back to be able to move forward.  That's just life.  It turned out that way for Coach Hitchcock, and he was able to come into St. Louis being prepared to be an even better coach.  Bob K was absolutely right in that regard.

Good luck Coach Hitchcock, except on the nights when your team plays the CBJ.  Which thankfully for us is a mere two games!  Whew.

I'm looking forward to tonight's tilt.  It ought to be a good one.


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