Top Shelf: Hitch’s last stand

Philadelphia, PA ( – It may take some time before the St.
Louis Blues actually announce their coaching plans for next season, but there
isn’t anything to think about.

Although Ken Hitchcock’s players are telling the media they would like to see
the head coach back behind the bench next season, in reality they know what
has to be done.

For a third straight spring, the Blues followed up a strong regular season
with a first-round playoff exit. They have faced tough matchups in each loss
— Los Angeles in 2013, Chicago in 2014 and Minnesota this season — but there
is no excuse for a team with so much talent to fail at achieving the most
basic of playoff goals.

The Wild jumped on St. Louis early in games and the Blues were too often unable
to answer back. After six games, Minnesota skated on to the next round to face
Chicago, while the Blues once again are left to ponder how things went right so
often during the regular season only to go sour as soon as the playoffs begin.

In all likelihood, there are probably numerous reasons why this keeps
happening to the Blues and some of them have nothing to do with coaching. The
simplest fix, however, is to give this talented but flawed club a new coach
with a different perspective. The NHL’s ongoing coaching carousel expects to
offer many options for teams looking to go in a new direction during the
offseason, so St. Louis will have plenty of choices.

As for the players, they aren’t going to come right out and throw Hitchcock
under the bus, but they know as well as anybody that it’s time for a change.
Taken at face value, the players offered endorsements of their coach, but it’s
not difficult to read between the lines and realize even they know continuing
on the same path is not an option.

“Absolutely,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk when asked if he would like to
see the head coach back next year. “(Hitchcock) has been the reason why we’ve
been here for four years. He’s hard on us, but he does it because he knows the
right way and how to get to this position.”

Shattenkirk’s acknowledgement that Hitchcock “is hard on us” is a telling
statement. In past stops at Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus, the coach has
been saddled with the reputation as a no-nonsense guy who gets results early
on before his act wears a little thin.

There is no doubt Hitch’s players respect him, but St. Louis is a young team
and the majority of players on its roster were still in grade school when the
coach led the Stars to a Stanley Cup title in 2009. At 63, it seems like
Hitchcock is having a tough time connecting with his players and getting them
on board with his vision of how a hockey team should play.

“I think this is kind of always the same thing,” said forward T.J. Oshie.
“Once we get to this time of year, there’s a strict game plan, and when we
don’t follow that game plan as a whole, it doesn’t work.”

Oshie and his teammates are not blaming Hitchcock for their playoff
disappointments. Some of them, like captain David Backes and goaltender Jake
Allen, who surrendered more than a few soft goals in the series, are putting
the responsibility directly on the guys donning Blues sweaters. Of course,
that’s where the blame always belongs when things don’t go right on the ice,
but there is no question St. Louis is in need of a change.

“Not enough,” Backes lamented after a 4-1 loss to the Wild in Game 6. “It’s
myself, it’s everybody in this room. Together as a group, we didn’t bring
enough. Now we’ve got to answer way too many questions.”

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong isn’t going to tear down his roster and
start from scratch. St. Louis boasts a stable of players who are just entering
the primes of their careers. Guys like Oshie, Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz and
Vladimir Tarasenko have too much promise to give up on any of them yet.

Hitchcock, on the other hand, is the oldest head coach in the league. He
should be commended for ushering the Blues out of a rebuilding phase and
turning them into a perennial playoff team, but it’s time for somebody else to
take a turn at getting the club to the next level. Hitch knows it, the GM
knows it and so do the players. All that’s left is to make it official and
begin the search for a replacement.

“I would assume (changes will be made),” Shattenkirk said. “(Armstrong is) not
a guy who’s going to sit back and let this happen year after year.”