Arniel getting a raw deal in Columbus Print
Columns
Written by Frank Seravalli   
Wednesday, 09 November 2011 08:00

Ken Hitchcock has returned to coaching in St. Louis. Before that, he was spending time in Columbus biding his time until Scott Arniel became a coaching casualty. The obvious question is why was his presence hovering over Arniel and not being used in other useful ways.

Frank SeravelliBarret Jackman received a call from Blues management on Sunday night and did not blink.

Jackman, who has been in St. Louis for 10 seasons, had a feeling it was coming after his team limped out to a 6-7-0 start – this after being named a trendy preseason pick to make waves in the Stanley Cup playoffs under unproven coach Davis Payne.

Now, Ken Hitchcock will be Jackman's fifth coach in 10 seasons in the Gateway to the West. Amazingly, it is his fourth different coach in the last six years.

Talk about turnover.

Jackman has skated under two different owners, two general managers, five captains and now five coaches. It still doesn't make the process any easier – not with a coach like Hitchcock.

"It's tough," Jackman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "[Payne] is a young coach, but he really had a vision for what he wanted to do. We weren't living up to expectations. You always think things are going to get better over the next couple of days."

Hitchcock's hiring is a win-win for two teams, as the Blues needed to ask for permission from the Columbus Blue Jackets – as this was the last year remaining (at $1.3 million) on his three-year deal with Columbus, when he was fired in Feb. 2010 – in order to hire him.

I can say with absolute certainty that Columbus president Mike Priest meant well by bringing Hitchcock, who has spent parts of the last two seasons as a consultant to the team, along to practices and games this season.

And while Hitchcock's return to the NHL with a different franchise doesn't relieve any of the tension in Columbus on Scott Arniel's shoulders, where the Jackets' 2-11-0 start pales in comparison to the 12 points the Blues earned under Payne, it is appropriate to ask the question:

What the heck was Priest thinking?

Repeatedly, Priest and Jackets general manager Scott Howson have said publicly that they were not interested in making any personnel changes until Arniel could field a full roster with Jeff Carter (broken foot) and James Wisniewski (eight-game suspension) back on the ice.

But why did they decide to dangle Hitchcock, the predecessor, in front of Arniel in the stands at practice and in games?

Hitchcock is, after all, the only man who has been able to coach Columbus into the playoffs in the team's 12-year history.

Arniel, who inherited a team much in the same way Payne did in St. Louis as a rookie coach, was sweating on the hot seat from opening night in the season. The small-market Blue Jackets' payroll jumped from 19th in the league to fourth with Howson's green light from the McConnell family in the summer to finally build a winner.

Hitchcock's presence just turned up the heat, acting as fuel to the rumor on fire as Arniel's replacement. Hey, stranger things have happened. Divorced couples sometimes do re-marry.

The Blue Jackets, obviously looking to pinch pennies in any other way possible, were right to use Hitchcock's expertise. But they did it the wrong way.

Ken Hitchcock's presence in Columbus just turned up the heat on Scott Arniel, acting as fuel to the rumor on fire as Arniel's replacement.

You see, Hitchcock – with his Stanley Cup resume, experience, attitude and sheer girth – demands attention in a hockey rink.

Hitchcock, 59, should have been out on the road scouting opponents, looking for possible trade commodities and helping with advance game-planning. He had no business traveling with the team on road trips, riding on the team plane, or offering his two cents about the team's current assembly or functionality.

Alas, Priest asked and "Hitch" dutifully answered.

"He is a brilliant hockey mind," one former Hitchcock pupil in Columbus told Hockey Primetime this week, asking to remain nameless. "He may be one of the best coaches I've ever played for fundamentally – he studies the game and he knows how to win. But his entire demeanor changes around the rink. Once he steps onto the bench, he is a different man."

This former Hitchcock disciple said his staple is writing eight different points about that night's opponent on a white board before a game.

"They were always bang-on," the player said. "He knows what he is doing."

Now, out of Arniel's hair while he still has a job, Hitchcock inherits a speedy Blues team that is still right in the thick of the Western Conference. The Blues, clearly, wanted to make a change before they fell too far behind.

They just better win quickly.

"When you're winning, ‘Hitch' is great," the player said. "But when you're not, there is no more miserable person to be around. He piles it on, digging deeper every day. He can be in your face, berating players, saying ‘You suck' or ‘Are you stupid?' That's why players tire of him so easily."

Arniel likely tired of Hitchcock pretty quickly, too. Priest has said he wanted to be fair to give Arniel a crack with a full lineup. If he really wanted to be fair, Hitchcock would have been cooped up in a press box in California or Colorado to keep his distance.

Sometimes, pressure to succeed can be healthy. Not if you're getting a raw deal.

Frank Seravalli covers the Flyers for the Philadelphia Daily News. On Twitter: @DNFlyers

Last Updated on Wednesday, 09 November 2011 02:37