Coach Ken Hitchcock, left, runs his first practice after taking over the… (Jeff Roberson / Associated…)
Bruce Boudreau was hired to coach the Ducks on Nov. 30, two days after he had been fired by the Washington Capitals. He wasn't last on the seniority list for long.
"I think I'm about the fourth-newest coach," he said. "That's scary."
Six coaches have been fired this season and one other — Scott Arniel of 30th-ranked Columbus — might not last much past the holidays. The first casualty was St. Louis' Davis Payne on Nov. 6; he was followed by Boudreau and Carolina's Paul Maurice on Nov. 28, the Ducks' Randy Carlyle on Nov. 30, Montreal's Jacques Martin on Dec. 17 and the Kings' Terry Murray on Dec. 20.
Although it's too early to fully assess the changes, only the Blues' switch from Payne to Ken Hitchcock has clearly had a positive impact.
Through the Christmas break Carolina was 3-6-2 under Kirk Muller, the Capitals were 5-5-1 under Dale Hunter, the Ducks were 2-6-2 under Boudreau, the Canadiens were 0-4-0 for Randy Cunneyworth, and the Kings were 2-2 under interim coach John Stevens, 1-0-1 under Darryl Sutter and still unable to crack the mighty two-goal barrier.
The Blues' turnaround has been dramatic, taking them from 13th in the West to fourth while Hitchcock guided them to a 14-3-4 record in his first 21 games. They were foundering under Payne, who succeeded Andy Murray during the 2009-10 season but didn't get the team to the playoffs, and management thought it had invested too much to let things continue to slide.
"We sort of put a few more chips on the table," Doug Armstrong, the Blues' executive vice president and general manager, said in a phone conversation. "What we needed in our organization at that time was an experienced coach. Our players were defining who we were going to be moving forward. Davis was a young coach. We wanted a coach who could find out what our maximum was.
"From a business standpoint, a number of our players are entering their third contract, the money contract, and we have to know what they can do. It was more what Ken was than what Davis wasn't."
Some of the Blues' resurgence is due to their superb goaltending, led by Brian Elliott's league-leading 1.55 goals-against average and top-three .943 save percentage. Armstrong said he considers that a result of total team improvements made by Hitchcock, who won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999 and is on his fourth coaching stop.
"It's not only the number of shots; it's the quality," said Armstrong, whose team was averaging a league-low 26.1 shots against per game. "Our system is beneficial for that."
Making the move early — the Blues were 6-7-0 — was smart. The team wasn't far off the pace and Hitchcock has had time to introduce new ideas in practices. He also had a jump start from his previous work for Columbus, one of St. Louis' Central division rivals.
"And he's a student of the NHL game as a coach," Armstrong said. "He's not the kind of personality who likes to do TV. He wants to be hands-on. He might not know the players but he knows their character traits. You have to know the nuances of the personalities of the players."
Boudreau knew little about the Ducks before he joined them. Without a training camp or summer camp to test aspects of his system and become familiar with players' personalities, he has had to learn what he can during infrequent practices squeezed into a hectic schedule.
"For example, take Matt Beleskey," he said of the team's young winger. "I don't know if he's a guy that I can just get right down his throat right off the bat or he's a guy that needs a little stroking when he hasn't had the success he's had in the past. So I've got to watch and sort of analyze for a few games to be able to make my own read on those things."
It's difficult to take the time to get that insight when you're trying to salvage a season.
"We've tried to implement little things," Boudreau said, "and the other thing you try to do when teams are losing is you try to give them hope. In the practices we've had we've tried to change a little bit. Every coach will come in and say he's making a change in the culture, but are you trying to say the culture of the other coach that was previously there was bad? He was a Stanley Cup champion coach, a hell of a coach.
"Sometimes you're used to having so much success and then you don't have the success, you're really down and negative all the time and then the players get negative and you need somebody to come in and loosen them a little bit.
"On the other hand, in L.A. maybe you had an unemotional guy and now you've got an emotional guy. Maybe the message is the same but perhaps a different delivery."
But with the same mission: to deliver results.