Ken Hitchcock has resurfaced in Dallas, and his Stars could quickly become a real threat to the Blues in the Central Division.
As had been widely reported on Wednesday, the Dallas Stars announced on Thursday that Ken Hitchcock will be their new head coach. The 65-year-old coach was the St. Louis Blues’ coach until February 1, as he was fired after roughly five-and-a-half seasons in St. Louis. While Hitchcock coached the Blues to a rather mediocre 24-21-5 record this season, he’s one of the most accomplished coaches in franchise history. Hitchcock is second all-time among Blues coaches in both regular-season games coached (413) wins (248), and he also collected the third-most playoff games (47) and wins (20).
Obviously, Hitchcock is most well-known for his previous stint in Dallas, where he won a Stanley Cup during the 1998-99 season and took the Stars back to the Stanley Cup Finals during the 1999-2000 season. Hitchcock took the Stars to the playoffs during five of his six full seasons, but he was fired during the ’01-’02 season.
The Stars failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2016-17, going 34-37-11 just one season after they won the Central Division title with a 50-23-9 record. While Lindy Ruff, who was dismissed earlier this month by the Stars, is a very talented coach and shouldn’t be slighted, the reality is that the Stars are immediately a divisional threat to the Blues once again now that Hitchcock has taken over as their coach.
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It’d be fair to argue that Hitchcock’s diminishing success in St. Louis this season was at least partially due to the fact that he lost two important assistant coaches, was forced to endure an awkward arrangement under which it’d already been announced that Mike Yeo would take over for him following the ’16-’17 season, and likely just fell upon deaf ears to a certain degree after five years on the job.
It’s also very noticeable that Hitchcock’s demise coincided with front office decisions to 1) begin assembling a smaller, quicker, more finesse group of forwards and 2) to commit to one full-time goaltender, rather than utilizing a two-man rotation.
Hitchcock’s style, however antiquated some may believe it to be, it built around checking, north-south puck movement, and a “200-foot game” from his forwards. And whether it was the multiple platoon arrangements (Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak, then Elliott and Jake Allen) that he had in St. Louis or the rotation of Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche that he used in Philadelphia, Hitchcock has often relied on goalie duos to achieve success.
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Whereas Hitchcock had arguably his three most physical forwards–David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Steve Ott–taken away from him last offseason and replaced by smaller, quicker players like David Perron and Nail Yakupov, he’ll have a multitude of forwards who are much better fits for his style in Dallas.
The Stars’ two best players (and arguably the two most talented forwards in the Central Division), Jamie Benn (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and Tyler Seguin (6-foot-1, 200 pounds), are both sturdy players who are capable of playing a 200-foot game. Beyond those two, the Stars have a pair of young, emerging scorers in Radek Faksa (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) and Brett Ritchie (6-foot-3, 215 pounds), as well as aging but effective complementary piece Jason Spezza (6-foot-3, 210 pounds). The Stars may also opt to bring back former Blues forward Adam Cracknell, who had a breakout season in 2016-17, scoring 10 goals while adding six assists over a career-high 69 games.
St. Louis Blues
While the Stars don’t have any established stars on the blueline, Hitchcock’s got all the assets at his disposal to develop the same type of sturdy, disciplined defensive corps as he had in St. Louis. Beyond the Stars’ top defenseman, 6-foot-2, 180-pound John Klingberg, and 34-year-old Dan Hamhuis, who will be entering the final year of his contract in 2017-18, all of Dallas’s defensemen are at least 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. Many of those guys are young players who haven’t reached their full potential, but if Hitchcock can develop one or two of them into a Joel Edmundson or Colton Parayko-type player, it will be a success.
Finally, while Hitchcock may have different goaltenders at his disposal in 2017-18 than the guys that the Stars have used for the past two seasons, he’ll almost certainly have the ability to utilize a multi-goalie approach if he so desires. While Antii Niemi ($4.5M) and Kari Lehtonen ($5M) are both under contract through next season, their deals are now close enough to expiration that the Stars may be able to move or eat at least one of their contracts this offseason. Elliott, Ben Bishop, Peter Budaj, and Mike Condon are all upcoming free agent goalies that could potentially be good fits in Dallas, and they could always go the free agent route, too.
Ultimately, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to remain the most threatening organization in the Central Division, and it’ll be that way until Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews get old enough that they hurt the Blackhawks’ lineup more than they help it. But with Hitchcock back in Dallas, the Blues will likely face much stiffer divisional competition than they had to endure during the 2016-17 season.