Amodeo: Ken Hitchcock leading candidate for Jack Adams Award

Ken Hitchcock (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete, File)

While it’s difficult to give out awards with 20 or so games remaining in the 2011-2012 NHL regular season, the Jack Adams award for Coach of the Year seems to pretty much be a lock.

Pittsburgh Penguins’ Dan Bylsma and Claude Noel of the Winnipeg Jets have arguments as to why their names deserve mentioning, but the work Ken Hitchcock has done as the head coach of the St. Louis Blues should place him well ahead of the pack.

Going into the 2011-12 NHL season, the Blues were hoping to build on a 38-win season they had previously recorded – unfortunately the season didn’t start as well as the team had envisioned, going 6-7-0 in their first 13 games.

Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong had apparently seen enough, firing who was then the head coach, Davis Payne, after only 13 games – quickly replacing him with the Stanley Cup-winning veteran, Ken Hitchcock. This sparked the turnout that the Blues’ so desperately needed.

In their next ten games, they went 7-1-2, pushing them up the Western Conference standings. Since then, the team has been playing extremely well defensively, leading the league in goals against average. This is not only because of how well goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have been playing, but how well the team has been performing in front of their goalies, giving up a league low 26.2 shots against per game.

Compare this to last season, where the Blues had a goals against average of 2.78 and gave up 27.7 shots per game, and it’s clear Hitchcock has been able to inspire his team (as he’s well-known for doing) to step up defensively in order to win games.

Most importantly though, the Blues, which are not the strongest offensive team, still find ways to win despite being often outshot by opponents, currently boasting a .667 winning percentage when outshot.

Hitchcock is instilling the confidence and direction that his team needs in order to be able to pull out close games, which the Blues have done all year long, winning several one-goal games this season.

What’s even more imposing about Hitchcock is his seemly changed ways. He has been known throughout his coaching career to be somewhat stubborn, not willing to bend from his philosophies… That wasn’t the case when he arrived in St. Louis this year. He was quick to name Jaroslav Halak as his number one goaltender despite his early season struggles, but what has been even more impressive is Hitchcock’s willingness to bend from his dedication to Halak and play Brian Elliott regularly.

Elliott has had a great season, earning himself a spot at the All-Star game, all the while being atop of the major statistical categories with a winning record of 20-7-2, a 1.65 goals against average and a .937 save percentage. Hitchcock has been willing to let Elliott handle a fair amount of the work load in goal for the Blues, and that experience will certainly pay off come playoffs.

Another area Hitchcock has done well in throughout time in St. Louis is getting the best out of his players.

Priding themselves on being a hard-working, blue-collar team, it’s safe to say the Blues don’t quite have a roster lined with NHL All-Stars. That said, the physical and offensively gifted forwards such as T.J. Oshie and captain David Backes have had strong seasons under Hitchcock’s guidance.

While Oshie has already surpassed his goal, assist and point totals from last season, currently sitting second in team scoring (15-29-44), Backes leads the team in scoring and is poised for another 60-point season.

Hitchcock has also been able to get a lot out of rising star defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, who is also on pace to set new career highs in goals, assists and points, and Kevin Shattenkirk, who sit third and fourth in team scoring respectively.

Prior to getting injured, Alex Steen was playing extremely well under Hitchcock’s tutelage, posting 24 points in 36 games before suffering a concussion, to which he has not played a game since December 26.

The Blues success has also come without Andy McDonald as well, who has only played in 12 games this season, missing the majority of the year to a concussion. Having the presence of veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, who are each contributing not only on the ice with the team, but in leadership roles as well, has also been a key part of the Blues’ success.

Presently, the Blues sit first in a tight central division and second in the Western Conference with a record of 40-17-7 (34-10-7 since the arrival of Hitchcock) with 19 games remaining in the regular season. For the first time in 2008-09 (where the finished third in the central division with a record of 41-31-10) St. Louis has clinched a playoff spot.

Their success is largely due to the coaching that Ken Hitchcock has provided the Blues.

His ability to get the entire team to buy into his defensive-focused system, along with getting the most out of essentially all of his players, has been instrumental towards the success of the St. Louis Blues this season. In my opinion, Hitchcock should win his first (and well-deserved) Jack Adams Award for the 2011-12 season.

– Danny Amodeo, Contributing Writer
(@DannyP29)

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