The men behind the NHL bench are some of the most underrated in professional sports. Keeping track of the fitness, line combinations, and development of 23 players takes a lot of work, and many head coaches find themselves on their way out after a few short years. An elite few of men have figured out the secret formula, and have had successful NHL careers, just like the players they lead. Today we count down the best of the best, the top three active head coaches in the NHL.
- #3: Ken Hitchcock
Ken Hitchcock has single-handedly guided under-powered teams to successful seasons, and with a skilled St. Louis roster in front of him, he looks to return to the playoff success he experienced early in his career. In experience terms, the 61-year old Alberta native has been around the block, and then some. With a background that includes AAA Midget, the WHL, and the defunct IHL, Hitchcock paid his dues and refined his craft before getting his shot in the NHL.
That chance finally came in 1995, when he signed with the Dallas Stars. Hitchcock’s first season wasn’t successful, but the very next year he posted a 48-26-8 record, as the Stars headed to the playoffs as the first seed in the Central Division. A first-round exit came as a shock for the club, but in 1997-98 the Stars made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. The next season would prove to be the best yet. The Stars finished the 1998-99 regular season with a franchise-record 114 points, and won their third consecutive division title, this time in the Pacific. They kept the momentum and kept on going in the playoffs, winning the Stanley Cup in Game Six overtime against the Buffalo Sabres, off of Brett Hull‘s controversial goal. The Cup was the first for the Stars, and the first and only for Hitchcock. The Stars would return to the Finals the next season, but the title defense fell short as they were defeated by the New Jersey Devils in six games. Hitchcock would spend one more full season in Dallas, clinching their fifth consecutive division championship in the process. The Stars would lose in the second round, and Hitchcock would find himself out of a job just 5 months later.
The Philadelphia Flyers picked up Hitchcock for the start of the 2001-02 campaign, his second time in the organization after spending time with their IHL affiliate from 1990-1994. In three full seasons with the Flyers, Hitchcock qualified for the playoffs every year, adding an Atlantic division championship in 2003-04. A dismal start to the 2006-07 campaign would find him out on the streets once again, after only eight games.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were in need of some leadership, so Hitchcock began his third stint behind the bench just over a month later. After the Blue Jackets’ extremely poor play put them behind early in the year, Hitchcock righted the ship and the Blue Jackets just missed out on the playoffs, ending up one game below .500%. Hitchcock wouldn’t reach the playoffs the next season either, finishing just outside again, but staying in the hunt despite an underrated team. The third time turned out to be the charm, and the lowly Blue Jackets made the post-season for the first time in franchise history the next year. Although they were swept by the Red Wings, Hitchcock proved that he could work with what he had to create success. 2009-10 brought a challenging season, and after a shakeup throughout the organization, he was let go.
Hitchcock returned to NHL action with the St. Louis Blues in 2011-12. After 13 games, the Blues replaced Davis Payne with Hitchcock, and never looked back, narrowly missing out on the President’s Trophy on the way to a Central Division title. They were swept by another eventual champion, the L.A. Kings, in the second round. The 2013 shortened season would bring another successful year, as the Blues took second in the Central Division. They won the first two games in their Quarterfinal match-up with the Kings, but lost four straight, ending their season. The Blues look to rebound in a weaker, realigned division, with all the key pieces in place. With the experienced man behind the bench, they know they will have leadership throughout.
With the second most wins out of all active coaches, Hitchcock proves that he has the tools to take his teams far. With 10 playoff appearances in 11 full seasons, his veteran leadership has been an asset to teams for 15 years, and will continue to be in St. Louis for seasons to come.