Cross Checks: Davis Payne
We recall a chat we had with Ken Hitchcock during training camp.
Hitchcock said it was the time of year when an out-of-work coach feels it most. Those days and weeks in September and early October are when a team is being formed and an identity being forged. Those are days a coach, especially a veteran like Hitchcock, lives for.
At the time, we were talking about the top-end coaches that were looking for work. There was Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup in Dallas in 1999 and was at loose ends since being fired by Columbus during the 2009-10 season; Bob Hartley, who won a Cup in Colorado two years later and was in Switzerland after failing to land an NHL job since being fired by in 2008; Craig MacTavish, who led Edmonton to the 2006 Cup finals but ended up taking an AHL job in Chicago, and Michel Therrien, who had taken Pittsburgh to the Cup finals in 2008 and was currently scouting for Minnesota.
We asked Hitchcock whether he thought the coaching pendulum had swung away from established NHL coaches and to younger, more cerebral or cutting-edge bench bosses; coaches like Guy Boucher in Tampa, Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, Mike Yeo in Minnesota or Davis Payne in St. Louis.
Hitchcock wasn't necessarily prepared to buy that theory, but he did say that experience takes on a different value or has more cachet depending on the team and the time of year. In the offseason, a team may be more willing to take a chance on someone with less traditional experience. When a team has the league's worst power play and a 27th-ranked penalty-killing unit just a month into a season, the kind of experience Hitchcock brings looks mighty attractive.
Hitchcock's point hit home late Sunday night when he was named Payne's replacement in St. Louis after the Blues' 6-7-0 start.
The Blues entered this season with ownership in a state of flux, a fan base that had rekindled its strong relationship with the team and a group of young players and veterans that promised something exciting. St. Louis' injury-filled roster missed the playoffs last season, but this season was expected to bring something more, something better.
But this season has shown only a glimmer of those expectations being met. The Blues began the season 2-4-0, won three in a row and then lost three of their past four games before GM Doug Armstrong decided to pull the pin on Payne. (Armstrong knows Hitchcock well from his time in Dallas and working with Hockey Canada at the international level.)
The Blues, blessed with a strong core of young players on the blue line and up front and veterans like Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, still somehow managed to produce a power-play efficiency of less than 10 percent.
Were the Blues a terrible team up to this point? No. They were certainly better than the team that still held Hitchcock under contract up until Sunday, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Blue Jackets are a league-worst 2-11-1 and were pounded 9-2 by Philadelphia on Saturday. Coach Scott Arniel is not expected to last the week and GM Scott Howson could be close behind. The widely held belief was the Blue Jackets would ask Hitchcock, the only coach to guide Columbus into the playoffs, to return to the bench. But sources familiar with the situation in Columbus told ESPN.com that Hitchcock wasn't interested in the job, so the team agreed to let Hitchcock out of his contract and take the job with the Blues.
Columbus remains in a state of organizational chaos, but the Blues are in an entirely different place.
They are a team that reminds us of the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2008-09. Just a week into that season, ownership decided coach Denis Savard wasn't going to cut it and there was something missing with a team that was just about to blossom.
With significant input from president John McDonough, GM Dale Tallon fired the Chicago fan favorite four games into the season and hired veteran Joel Quenneville, who, like Hitchcock, was still out of work after being dispatched by the Avs. Quenneville took the young Blackhawks to the Western Conference finals in 2009 and then guided them to their first Stanley Cup win since 1962 in 2010.
The Blues have never won a Cup, and it would be a stretch to suggest Hitchcock can take them to the Promised Land this season. But he's the kind of coach that brings instant credibility to a room that knows little about winning. The Blues have made the playoffs just once since the 2004-05 lockout (they were swept by Vancouver) and have not own a postseason series since 2002.
Hitchcock, who has been around the block a time or two since his first year as a major junior coach in Kamloops back in 1984, has the battle scars to go with the coaching acumen to introduce a different culture. He won a Cup with Dallas, led them back to the Cup finals the following season in 2000 and took Philadelphia to Game 7 of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals. He was part of Pat Quinn's coaching staff when Canada won gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and was part of Mike Babcock's staff when Canada won gold again in Vancouver in 2010.
He may not have achieved the kind of success that was hoped for in Columbus, but that team didn't have anything close to the talent the Blues have assembled.
In short, Hitchcock has been there. He can talk the talk as well as any coach in the game, and he can walk the walk. The Blues had hoped Payne would take the franchise forward, just as contemporaries Boucher and Bylsma have grown and won without the benefit of NHL coaching experience, but it was not to be.
And the fact Armstrong turned to the veteran Hitchcock, and not another fresh-faced coaching prospect, suggests the coaching pendulum may swing more quickly in some instances than in others.