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Cullen: Hitchcock's move to St. Louis, weekend notes

Scott Cullen

11/7/2011 3:24:26 PM

The big hockey news of the weekend came in Sunday night, when the St. Louis Blues surprised by naming Ken Hitchcock as their new head coach, replacing Davis Payne as the Blues sit 14th in the Western Conference with a 6-7-0 record.

My initial reaction to the move was that Hitchcock has a strong defensive track record, so that his presence could help Jaroslav Halak, the Blues' struggling starting goaltender. Through seven games this season, Halak is 1-6 with a 3.35 goals against average and .856 save percentage; the save percentage ranking as worst among NHL goaltenders that have appeared in at least half a dozen games this season.

It turns out that the Blues have allowed just 26.2 shots against per game, second-fewest in the league, so maybe there isn't a massive defensive upgrade to be had and it might fall more on Halak to get his game back on track to help the Blues rather than vice versa.

The next thought, when it pertains to Hitchcock's history, is that he doesn't seem to have a great track record with younger players. This isn't, in any way, an indictment of his coaching, merely an observation that goes with the territory. It's not easy or even possible for coaches to be all things to all people and in Hitchcock's case, he's a veteran, defensive-minded coach who has had his greatest success with veteran teams.

That a win-now approach doesn't necessarily mesh with the development of young offensive forwards makes sense because they're not necessarily congruent goals.

With a little digging on www.hockeydb.com, here are the forwards, that were under the age of 25, that played at least 20 games in a season for Hitchcock in his previous NHL stops with Dallas, Philadelphia and Columbus (I've grouped them based on how one might generally perceive their "type", though not all were necessarily used in these roles when playing for Hitchcock):

SKILLED
Mike Richards
Rick Nash
Jeff Carter
Simon Gagne
Brenden Morrow
Patrick Sharp
Justin Williams
Jere Lehtinen
Jamie Langenbrunner
Curtis Glencross
Nikolay Zherdev
Jakub Voracek
Derick Brassard

CHECKERS
Todd Harvey
Gilbert Brule
Grant Marshall
Blake Sloan
Jon Sim
Alexander Svitov
Dan Fritsche
Branko Radivojevic

DEPTH/FRINGE
Jiri Novotny
Joakim Lindstrom
Roman Lyashenko
Mike Kennedy
Jamie Wright
Geoff Platt
Tyler Bouck
Michael Blunden
Pavel Brendl
Eric Chouinard

ENFORCERS
Ben Eager
Jared Boll
Derek Dorsett
Todd Fedoruk
Chris Murray

There are certainly some great players in that list, some of whom got their start under Hitchcock, but many of the young forwards that have played for Hitchcock have done so in checking or depth roles. This isn't unusual, since there are more depth roles available than spots among a team's top six forwards.

From that "skilled" group, Nash, Gagne, Lehtinen and Zherdev may be the ones that experienced their most success while playing for Hitchcock. Morrow, Richards and Carter played regularly, but were quite young. Williams and Sharp were more productive in Carolina and Chicago, respectively, while Glencross and Langenbrunner (who is in St. Louis now) were more productive later in their careers. Voracek and Brassard are still in the early years of their respective careers, so far providing mixed results.

Maybe the perception of Hitchcock's trouble with young players stems most from his days in Columbus, where, aside from Rick Nash, the first round brought results that fall well short of expectations. Since taking Nash first overall in 2002, the Blue Jackets selected the following players in the first round:

2003 - Nikolay Zherdev (4th overall)
2004 - Alexandre Picard (8th overall)
2005 - Gilbert Brule (6th overall)
2006 - Derick Brassard (6th overall)
2007 - Jakub Voracek (7th overall)
2008 - Nikita Filatov (6th overall)

Brule, Brassard and Filatov stand out as some that had some rough times under Hitchcock and while it's easy to say that they haven't amounted to much since, that can't tell the whole story. We can't possibly know what those players could have become if they had been in different circumstances in those crucial first years of their professional development.

There are myriad reasons why prospects don't turn into stars, so it can hardly be pinned solely on the coach when they don't develop into productive NHLers. Players have the greatest amount of responsibility with how their careers turn out, but there is some track record of a veteran coach that doesn't have a lot of patience for the defensive mistakes that are more common with younger, skilled forwards.

Taking over in St. Louis, Hitchcock joins a team that has seemingly been on the verge for a couple of years, but hasn't been able to build on their playoff appearance in 2008-2009, going through injuries and the inconsistency that comes as young players develop.

Perhaps the fortunate piece of timing, as it relates to Hitchcock joining the Blues at this point, is that St. Louis' forward core now has more players in and approaching their mid-20s, as opposed to where the roster was three years ago.

Those that remain that are still under 25 include Evgeny Grachev (21), Patrik Berglund (23), Chris Stewart (24) and injured winger David Perron (23), so they might be the ones to keep the closest eye on, to see how (or if) their ice time is affected by the new guy behind the bench.

Long-term, it will be fascinating to see how Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues' top prospect that is currently tearing up the KHL with 21 points in 20 games, fits into the plans, presumably beginning next season when he is expected to play in St. Louis.

Upon further review, I stand by my expectation that Hitchcock will likely improve the Blues defensive record, even if it comes as a result of Halak simply getting better, but it will also remain interesting to see how the Blues' young forwards adjust under Hitchcock.

With the first coaching change done, the season just got a little more interesting.

THANKS COACH!
Capitals rookie LW Cody Eakin put up a couple of points Friday night (after I touted him in Friday's Fantasy Hockey Update!), while playing just 8:45 at Carolina, and was a healthy scratch for Saturday night's loss to the Islanders. Sure, the Capitals have a numbers issue up front, particularly with Eakin on the roster, but it's not exactly common for a player to find himself as a healthy scratch following a two-point night. See what the Capitals do to get rid of the logjam.

BACK IN THE GAME
For all the talk of Capitals LW Alexander Ovechkin's slow start to the season, it's worth noting that C Nicklas Backstrom leads the league with 13 assists in 12 games. Backstrom had a career-low 65 points last season, but seems to be back on track this year with 18 points in the first 12 games.

BIG OPPORTUNITY
Skating with Backstrom and Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer is getting a good chance to produce offensively and it's starting to come around, with six points and a plus-3 rating in the last seven games.

FREE MASON
Blue Jackets G Steve Mason got lit up for seven of Philadelphia's nine goals Saturday night, the seventh time in 13 games this season that he's allowed at least four goals. With a 3.70 goals against average and .869 save percentage, it's clear that the Blue Jackets need someone else between the pipes if they are going to change their fortunes, but injuries have hit their depth at the position, with both Mark Dekanich and Curtis Sanford getting hurt.

22-year-old Allen York has appeared in four games for the Blue Jackets, but he has a grand total of six AHL games to his credit since leaving RPI. Dekanich, a 25-year-old who has been impressive in the AHL, could be due for a good long look between the pipes in Columbus soon, as he's nearly recovered from a high ankle sprain and is scheduled to make some minor league starts to get back in game condition.

SABRE DANCE
Still looking for a good place to put free agent signee Ville Leino, the Sabres have moved Leino to the wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford and the last three games have been Leino's highest ice time for the season.

ENROTH
The Buffalo Sabres raised a few eyebrows by giving Jhonas Enroth back-to-back starts on Friday and Saturday, but Enroth rewarded the confidence with back-to-back wins. He's now 4-0 with a 1.41 goals against average and .952 save percentage in five appearances this season.

STREAKING STAMKOS
After a hat trick at Chicago on Friday and two more points on Sunday against Florida, Lightning C Steven Stamkos now leads the league with 10 goals in 14 games.

ABOUT TIME
After limiting Matt Duchene's ice time early in the season, the Avalanche put him on left wing on a line with Paul Stastny and Milan Hejduk and were immediately rewarded, as Duchene scored his first career hat trick with an assist on Friday and added another assist on Sunday. Duchene's highest ice time of the season (average 20:22) has been in the last two games.

RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL
With injuries to Travis Zajac and Jacob Josefson, New Jersey gave C Adam Henrique a chance, centering Zach Parise's line and Henrique responded with two goals Saturday, following up his two-point night on Thursday.

FOWL PLAY
Anaheim D Cam Fowler took a minus-4 at Detroit on Saturday, primarily facing Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula (per www.timeonice.com). Fowler's getting monster ice time (25:36) this season, but is minus-6 in 14 games after going minus-25 as a rookie last year. 

SMASH AND GRAB
After his spectacular rookie season, Michael Grabner had been getting more ice time with the Islanders, but hasn't been productive, managing three goals and just 17 shots in 11 games. The lack of production may be starting to catch up with Grabner too. He's played under 14:30 in each of the last two games, his lowest single-game ice time totals this season.

SHORT AND SWEET
Boston RW Tyler Seguin tallied a hat trick in Toronto Saturday, and did it in just 13:29 of ice time. Since the start of last season, there have been eight players with hat tricks in games in which they played less than Seguin and two of them are Bruins (Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron).

PRETTY FLY
Flyers rookie D Erik Gustafsson played a season-high 23:00 against Columbus on Saturday, registering a plus-6 rating while paired with Matt Carle.

WELCOME BACK, SORT OF
Rangers LW Sean Avery cleared re-entry waivers and played a couple of games for the Rangers, but saw a grand total of 10:07 of ice time in those two games. He's back in the NHL, but hardly noticeable at this point and as long as the Rangers keep winning, there won't be a lot of motivation to increase Avery's role. Right now, he's just behind journeyman Andre Deveaux when it comes to ice time.

MCBAIN
Victimized the most by the Capitals on Friday night was Carolina D Jamie McBain, who took a minus-4 for the evening despite being kept away from Washington's top line (according to www.timeonice.com).

THE HARD WAY
Minnesota G Josh Harding missed all of last season with a knee injury and has bounced back in fine form this year, allowing a total of six goals against in five games. It's too soon to suggest that Harding has taken over from starter Niklas Backstrom, but the gap between starter and backup gets tighter when the backup has been exceptionally strong.

LIGHT MY WAY
Generally a spare part getting third pair minutes in Tampa Bay this season, Matt Gilroy has been paired with Eric Brewer and logged a career-high 25:05 against Florida on Sunday. Veterans Brett Clark and Pavel Kubina, on the other hand, both played fewer than 16 minutes. Victor Hedman, who is Tampa Bay's minute-eater on defence, also missed Sunday's game with an upper body injury.

KULIKOV
When he was drafted, Panthers D Dmitry Kulikov was considered an offensive defenceman, but it's taken some time for that production to manifest itself in the NHL. With seven points in his last seven games, giving him nine points in 13 games, Kulikov appears to be breaking through in his third NHL season. With the Panthers not presenting a significant plus-minus risk thus far, Kulikov's potential makes him plenty appealing.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.