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Is the heat on Hitchcock this season?

Is the heat on Hitchcock this season?

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St. Louis Blues v Carolina Hurricanes

St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock, during a preseason game Sept. 30. (Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com)

After three short-lived playoffs under Ken Hitchcock, the Blues will face increased pressure in 2014-15. And with this being the final season on the coach’s contract, some have speculated that the outcome of the year could determine whether it’s his last in St. Louis.

Bring on the heat, Hitchcock says.

“I really believe that pressure is a privilege,” Hitchcock said. “When people say you’ve got a good team and you should do well, it’s a privilege. I look at it, ‘If there isn’t pressure to play in the playoffs, this is really, really boring,’ and I think I would lose interest. I want that responsibility, so I look at it as a real opportunity and a real privilege.”

When the Blues and Hitchcock picked up the mutual option on his contract for this season May 7, less than two weeks after the club’s first-round playoff exit, it was a decision the coach with the seventh-most wins in NHL history strongly claimed belonged to him.

“I’m at the stage in my career where the decision to go one year at a time is mine — not anybody else’s — Ken Hitchcock’s,” said Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and is one victory short in St. Louis of registering at least 125 regular-season wins with four franchises (Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus and the Blues).

“The reason for that is, I’ve reached a stage in my career where I don’t want to cheat a franchise. The day I don’t want to learn and get better, the day I don’t want to go back and tweak, the day I just close the books and don’t work at it, I don’t want to be a coach.

“That decision to do it one year at a time is strictly mine. I’ve told (Blues general manager Doug Armstrong) that I appreciate what the organization has done for me. But when Doug says to (the media), ‘Hitch will coach as long as Hitch wants to coach’ ... well, Hitch wants to do it one year at a time.”

A year ago, Armstrong told the Post-Dispatch that Hitchcock would be behind the Blues’ bench as long as he desired, and when asked recently if that statement still held true, the GM stuck to his previous words.

“Yeah, as I’ve said, I look where we were before he got here, and I look where we are now,” said Armstrong, noting Hitchcock’s .673 points-percentage in the regular season and three consecutive trips to the postseason. “We’re light years ahead of where we were. A lot of it has to do with the maturity of the players. That was going to be natural, but I think they’re well-coached and they’re hungry.

“I think now there’s a less ‘feeling-out,’ or ‘getting-to-know’ period between him and the players. The new players come in and feed off the experience of the players that have been here. So he’s not having to sell as much as he probably had to sell his thoughts. Now, quite honestly, it’s basically up to the players to get the job done.”

To a man, the Blues players say that Hitchcock, who has had a reputation of wearing on teams in previous stops, is the coach they still want leading them.

“He’s probably at a genius level with his X’s and O’s,” captain David Backes said.

“He’s the most dedicated coach I’ve ever heard of,” alternate captain Alexander Steen said.

But after three cracks at the postseason, the Blues haven’t escaped the second round. So while Hitchcock might still be one of the game’s best, the bottom line is the club’s performance has yet to reflect it in the postseason. His playoff record was 66-50 before he arrived in St. Louis, where he is 8-13.

“I don’t hear it that often,” Armstrong said. “All I know is when Ken got here, we were hoping to make the playoffs and now we’re disappointed when we’re not winning in the playoffs. That’s what we want as an organization. I think you have to be honest that the work he’s done here has been very good.”

For his part, Hitchcock doesn’t take himself off the hook for the Blues’ playoff failures. While he won’t say it, the sense is that he wishes he would have turned to goalie Brian Elliott last season when Ryan Miller struggled. He also might have given his injured players less ice time, or not suited them up at all.

“Looking back on it, I probably should have dealt with people on how they were playing and what they were contributing, rather than what I thought we could get,” Hitchcock said. “I should have treated it from a ‘matter of fact’ standpoint rather than a ‘hopeful’ standpoint. And I will leave it at that.”

Now, Hitchcock is hopeful of another chance at the playoffs in 2014-15. Will it be his last? No one will know until it’s over.

“I don’t want to go at it long-term because I don’t want to feel like I’ve got to do it as a job,” said Hitchcock, who will turn 63 in December. “It’s never been a job for me; it’s been this passion that I’ve carried my whole life. I love the pressure, I love the feeling of being counted on and counting on other people. But I’m at a stage where I just want to go short-term.”

If that sounds a lot like former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, it’s not coincidence. La Russa and Hitchcock have chatted about the topic.

“We’ve talked a lot and he felt the same thing,” Hitchcock said. “I know I can do this thing for a long time, but I ... don’t want to have to do it for a long time ... there’s a big difference. That’s what Tony and I talked about. We talked a lot about when he thought it was over. I’m going to know when I don’t want to do it again. I’m certainly a long ways away from that now.”

Armstrong said of Hitchcock, “He’s been in this for a long time and he knows the commitment that’s needed to coach at this level. One thing that he’s not going to do, he’s not the type of personality that’s just going to coach to earn a paycheck. He coaches for a purpose, which is to make players better, to make the organization better and to win.

“When he feels that he doesn’t have the desire to do that, I have a job for him that’s going to keep him in the organization for many years. But right now, he still has the energy to come into work every day to put in the time that’s necessary to allow a team to succeed. After the year, we’ll assess it again, whether we win the Stanley Cup or not.”

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Jeremy Rutherford is the lead Blues beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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