Now that Ken Hitchcock has been fired as head coach of the Jackets, there are some interesting questions that spring to mind:
1) Does this mean that Nikita Filatov will be a Blue Jacket next year?
I'm inclined to think that Nik's biggest issue was with the coach- not the city, not his teammates, not anything else. He's a high-end offensive player, who is used to having the puck on his stick more often than not. He wasn't getting that from Hitch because the head coach simply didn't trust him. With a player with Nik's ability, you almost have to roll through the punches and let him figure things out on his own. The defensive side of his game will come, in time. He started off his KHL career on fire, but has since cooled, and he had a subpar World Junior tournament (but then again the entire Russian squad did as well) That said, I think Nik will make the trek back over and compete for a spot. He won't be handed anything, but I'm thinking a team like the Jackets could use his high-end skill.
2) Will Claude Noel remain as the team's head coach next season?
Of course the remainder of this season will tell the tale, but this is from Aaron Portzline at the Columbus Dispatch:
Of course Porty is referring to Mike Priest, the Jackets president. There's no way of knowing at this point if he would be available to the Jackets, but he would make a terrific coach. He was named head coach of the Portland Pirates in the summer of 2005. He won the Louis Pieri Award as top coach after his first season behind the bench. In the summer of 2008, the Pirates changed affiliations from Anaheim to Buffalo, and Dineen remained head coach.
He played a little over two seasons with the Jackets, and was a fan favourite. He retired after the first four games of the season in 2002. He is familiar with the city, and its fans. The assistant coach under Dineen in Portland is former NHL defenseman Eric Weinrich. It would be interesting to see if Dineen was hired if he would bring Weinrich along with him. That would likely mean the end of Gord Murphy as assistant coach, and it would allow Weinrich to be responsible for the defense, a job Murphy has had since his arrival.
If hired, he would follow in the footsteps of recent AHL to NHL hires such as Bruce Boudreau, John Anderson and Dan Bylsma.
I'd also like to mention Tyler Wright. He's currently the Jackets' Development coach, working with prospects and young players throughout the organization. I'm not thinking about him in terms of the head coaching job with Columbus, rather the head coaching job in Syracuse (or whichever team Columbus affiliates with). Having Dineen and Wright (former Jacket teammates and two of the most popular players in team history) as the head bench bosses in the organization would not only be a treat for the fans, but these men bring a fantastic pedigree and have the ability to turn the organization's fortunes around from top to bottom.
3) Will the younger players like Brassard, Voracek and Mason flourish with Hitch out of the picture?
It's of course too soon to know, but at this point speculation is fair game. I'm thinking that these three players will finish the season strong, mainly because they are able to clear their heads and focus on just playing. Hitch was demanding, there's no hiding that fact. The issue with this team however, is that younger players aren't always able to handle everything a demanding coach like Hitch throws their way. I'm thinking Noel knows and understands this, and will open things up and let the kids be creative. Not so much in Mason's case, but I'm sure Mase will be playing with a lot less fear now.
To be fair to Hitch, Jake hasn't moved from his second line right wing position all year, so he was being given opportunities. Brass has been shuffled around however, but has played very well recently and was rewarded with second line center duty. The biggest change for these guys though will be a lighter workload, fewer details to focus on during a game. They will of course still have responsibilities on both sides of the puck, but they won't be going through a mental checklist while on the ice.
4) Will GM Scott Howson change his philosophy in terms of how this team is built?
Howson has mentioned in the past that he relied on Hitch heavily to determine which kind of players he should go after via trade or free agency. Their combined goal was to gather similar players and establish an identity. Last season, it appeared that they succeeded, as the Jackets were known as a gritty club with timely scoring, led by a superstar in Rick Nash. This season however, there was no identity whatsoever.
With Hitch gone, I wonder if Howson will rely on his incoming coach as much when building the team. I'm inclined to think that Howson will change his tune and will build a squad, and let the coach adapt. That said, much of the core of this team is already in place. The forwards are actually a strong group, the Jackets are near the league lead in terms of teams with the most 15 goal-scorers. They have good checking forwards (including arguably the best pure checking pivot in the NHL in Samuel Pahlsson) and there is hope on the horizon with Nikita Filatov, Matt Calvert and Maksim Mayorov.
The issue is on the blueline. It's a plodding group, and outside of Anton Stralman and Kris Russell, offense is rare, at best. Fedor Tyutin is having an off-year, but I'm thinking he could be a guy who could benefit from a coaching change. Mike Commodore's contract prevents the team from moving him, but you'd have to think that changes are on the way for the Jackets blueline. Hejda, Methot, Klesla, Roy, Jurcina and even Tyutin could see a change of address before next season.
There are a few free agent options out there, personally I'd like to see players such as Marek Zidlicky and Dan Hamhuis brought in. Maybe even Pavel Kubina. There's always the trade route, with Tomas Kaberle at the head of that class.
At the end of the day, it's sad to see Hitch go. He did wonderful things for this franchise, but at the same time it could be a blessing in disguise. The young players could flourish, a new coach can breathe new life into the team, and GM Scott Howson can reevaluate his approach now that he has more control.