Tuesday, April 01, 2008

2008 World Championships - Ken Hitchcock Named Head Coach

With the beginning of the NHL playoffs fast approaching, another lower profile tournament is also beginning, and for the first time since its inception, it’s being hosted by Canada.

Yes, it’s time once again to begin prepare for Team Canada’s chance to defend the Gold Medal at the upcoming World Hockey Championships, being jointly hosted by Quebec City and Halifax.

Being a short tournament, the coaching key is getting players to buy into a system and run it efficiently in only a handful of games, a task that is suited to some coaches more than others. He also has to be a coach that is used to mentoring young players, as veterans tend to avoid this tournament. I think getting a veteran coach that has had past success (whether in the NHL or internationally) allows for instant credibility in the dressing room and therefore the best chance of success.

I think a good predictor for coach for Team Canada is ‘don’t mess with success.’ When Pat Quinn won in 2002, they brought him back for 2004. When he won in 2004, they brought him back in 2006 where he lost. He will not be back for 2010 Olympics, although he has served a number of less significant roles for Team Canada, coaching Canada’s Spengler Cup effort a year and a half ago and is now coaching Team Canada U-18.

The fact that Andy Murray was not named head coach says to me that he turned the role down. In my opinon he was Team Canada’s first option due to his past success, and I think he has to at least be considered for a position in 2010; make no mistake, Canada is taking the roles in these World Championships as auditions for that 2010 team.

That said, I think Hitchcock has a pretty impressive resume himself. Taken from Team Canada’s official website:

The Edmonton, AB native served as an associate coach at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, and in the same role at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, winning the championship, the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, winning the gold medal, and the 2002 IIHF World Championship. He was also an assistant coach with Canada’s gold medal-winning National Junior Team at the 1988 IIHF World Junior Championship.

Maybe one thing that Hitchcock has over Murray is his Stanley Cup win with the Dallas Stars in 1999.

My one concern about Hitchcock is whether he’ll be able to work with a really young team, as historically he seems to be a coach that favours older more experienced players. The other question surrounding Hitchcock revolves around offence generation. It’s hard enough to score goals without having to deal with a short time to develop chemistry and a coach that doesn’t focus on scoring. One famous from Andy Strickland at hockeybuzz.com:

One day during the 1999-00 season when Hull, Jere Lehtinen and Modano were playing on a line together. The coach at the time, Ken Hitchcock, kept saying at practice how scoring wasn't important. During the next drill, a two-on-one drill, Brett dumped the puck in the corner and skated out of the zone. Hitch went crazy and asked him what his problem was. Modano remembered Brett saying, "I thought you said scoring goals isn't important." Hitch proceeded to kick the entire line off the ice. Brett and Modano were getting showered and dressed and were ready to leave when the rest of the team came off the ice. Meanwhile, Jere was still sitting in his stall in full gear, skates laced, not knowing what to do because he had never been kicked out of practice before. (Hockeybuzz)

That said, Hull has also remarked that Hitchcock was one of his favorite coaches. (from Wikipedia) Winning always makes forgiving a lot easier.

Now, I believe most years Team Canada selects a couple NHL head coaches to help with Team Canada. Last year it was Andy Murray and Gerald Gallant, in 2004 Joel Quennville was head coach but has hospitalized just before the tournament began. Associate coach Mike Babcock stepped up (while Tom Renney remained the assistant) and won the Gold. So I think we can safely guess that at least one more NHL head coach will be named to help guide this team.

Here are the candidates as I see it:

Wayne Gretzky

Why he’s likely to be named: Gretzky has found a way to be involved with Team Canada so much in his career it’s hard to believe he’s not going to try be involved in a coach at any point in time. MacT remarked about the Oilers 06’ run that having a great goalie will make you look like a great coach, and since the Coyotes acquired Bryzgalov the Coyotes have been very respectable. He doesn’t have a lot to work with in terms of defence either, so I think competing for a playoff spot with this young team will give him at least some credibility. His name should provide the rest. Plus I have a conspiracy theory that Gretzky is being groomed by Team Canada to have a coaching position in 2010.

Why he’s unlikely to be named: Well, his record, despite his improvements this year, Gretz doesn’t have a stellar history as a coach. Plus he has absolutely no experience coaching on the international level, even if he has lots of experience playing at the international level.

Denis Savard

Why he’s likely to be named: Savard is only in his second season as an NHL coach, he hasn’t seen a lot of success, but he’s in a position similar to Gretzky: a lot of young players, and not bad mileage.

Why he’s unlikely to be named: Savard isn’t exactly what I would call a team Canada golden boy like Gretzky or Murray. His inexperience will hurt his chances, and he’s probably the least likely of my shortlist to get a call.

Ted Nolan

Why he’s likely to be named: Ted isn’t exactly known for being a systems coach but I think he’s been successful at the junior level and at the NHL level on a number of levels. I think given his junior history he’s shown he’s good with younger players and I think he’d get really good mileage out of what he’s given in a tournament like this.

Why he’s unlikely to be named: Another guy with not a lot of experience in the international game, and generally hasn’t been called upon by team Canada in any capacity.

Craig MacTavish

Why he’s likely to be named: MacT kind of reminds me of Hitchcock in that he doesn’t strike me as an offence first type of guy. He has had a few roles for Team Canada, most recently at the 2005 Worlds where he associate coached the lockout dream team to a silver medal (with Tom Renney and Marc Habscheid). I’ve always felt that MacT is a good mentoring coach and his attention to details (such as faceoffs and shot blocking) make me feel as if he’d be a good fit.

Why he’s unlikely to be named: First and foremost I think his biggest issue will be his lack of high end success. I think he’s done pretty well given the players he usually has, and the one year he got a great team he took it very very far, but without a Stanley Cup or a Gold medal he’ll be in tough.

Alain Vigneault

Why he’s likely to be named: Another defensive first coach, although it’s potentially more out of necessity than choice. Either way, I believe he’d be a sober second thought guy for Hitchcock, and stylistically I think they mesh. It’s also hard to ignore a two time nominee and one time winner of the Jack Adams trophy. According to the Canucks official website, he was assistant in the World Juniors in 1989 and 1991, winning the Gold in 1991.

Why he’s unlikely to be named: I think lack of true NHL success will hurt him; he hasn’t won a cup, if he’s asked to go it means he won’t have made the playoffs this year. He’s got a great goalie, is his strength his coaching or his goaltending?


Chris! said...

Great post. I gotta say Craig MacTavish and Alain Vigneault sound like the best fits. But Gretzky will almost certainly get a spot.

therealdeal said...

Hey thanks chris.

You know, despite the fact he'll most likely get canned this summer, I'm am remiss to not mention Paul Maurice. His luck with the Leafs has been sub par but look at his stable.

Still though, not really any Team Canada history I can find, probably the least likely guy out of the group I posted.