COLUMBUS, Ohio – After an ugly 5-1 loss at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday evening, the Columbus Blue Jackets and general manager Scott Howson decided to cut loose Ken Hitchcock from his coaching duties.
Hitchcock will be replaced by Claude Noel on an interim basis. Howson said that Noel will finish the season as coach and Hitchcock’s replacement will not be named until after the season. Hitchcock was notified by Howson shortly after their 2 p.m. practice on Wednesday. Players were notified just minutes before the announcement was made official.
Howson decided to make the move despite saying Hitchcock’s job was safe nearly a month ago.
“We’re all responsible for the performance of this team this season; management, players, and coaches,” Howson said. “This decision has been made in the best long term interest of our hockey team. It has become clear that despite the efforts of Hitch, the coaches, and the players to find a solution, it wasn’t working.”
Howson said he began considering eliminating Hitchcock as early as Christmas but thought Hitchock deserved a chance to right the ship.
“(Hitchcock) came to an organization in disarray, and he is leaving it in much better shape,” Howson said. “He brought structure, stability, and legitimacy to our franchise. He played a huge role in getting us to our playoff berth last season and we have all learned a great deal from him”
But something was different this year from last year’s playoff run. As great as he played last year to lead the team to the playoffs, goaltender Steve Mason has fallen off from last year’s pace. At times, it appeared that the players were frustrated by Hitchcock’s tight checking style of play. That was most evident in November when star prospect Nikita Filatov left the team to play in Russia.
“They certainly responded to his style of play last year,” Howson said. “I think it became clear that the message was not being responded to by the performance of the team. We just lost some of our identity, some of our passion, some of our hard work, and we certainly weren’t checking like the way we hoped we would check. It just wasn’t working.”
Noel joined the squad as an assistant in the summer of 2007 and was in the middle of his third season with the Blue Jackets. Before joining the Blue Jackets, he was the head coach of the AHL Milwaukee Admirals where he led the team to two Calder Cup Championship finals in four seasons. His Admirals won the Calder Cup in 2004.
“This is not what I had in mind,” Noel said about becoming an NHL coach. “This is not the method I had in mind. I was looking forward when I left the American League to get an opportunity to sit and one day be head coach. I knew I was very fortunate when I got a call from both Hitch and Scott Howson that they were looking to add me to their staff (in 2007).”
Noel said that he respects Htichcock and his aggressive style but that every coach has their own style and he will work with young players to make sure they understand the game. Noel did not have a chance to speak to Hitchcock before he left but Noel would reach out to talk to him.
“At the end of the day, you have be able to sell your product to the players, and they got to be able to buy it,” Noel said. “I think Ken made it very clear what he wanted and he had different way of getting his messages.”
What became more clear as the season passed was that the players and coaches were not on the same page. Hitchcock commented numerous times on players’ inability to put full effort for an entire 60 minutes. Hitchcock’s tenure with the Blue Jackets closes with an 125-123-36 record.
Noel’s starts his NHL career against the Dallas Stars Thursday evening.