Sunday, November 13, 2011

With Hitchcock, it's about transition, playing faster than opponent

Blues' veteran coach altered coaching style;
players have been receptive to changes

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock remembered the days of the high-flying Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and wanting to emulate them.

Who wouldn't? After all, when you have names like Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Kurri and Anderson racking up points and winning four Stanley Cups, they signified the recipe for success.
(Getty Images)
The Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk (22) has bought into what new coach Ken
Hitchcock is preaching to his players.

But as the game evolved away from the open ice, high-flying, high scoring affairs, players got bigger, they got smarter and coaches got more technical. The old-school coaches were forced to change.

Hitchcock, who took over the Blues three games ago after Davis Payne was fired and seen his team go 2-0-1 in those games, has seen a smooth transition in a week on the job.

"You get a reputation ... I came into the National Hockey League as a complete proponent of Edmonton Oiler hockey: 2-1-2, full-pinch, both zones, high octane, send the D," said the Edmonton, Alberta native Hitchcock. "... I played high-octane hockey. We set records in junior hockey, we set records in the (Western Hockey League) for scoring. I put the same program in Dallas and we got killed. We weren't quick enough. The defensemen bypassed you and I got killed, so I had to change."

The 59-year-old Hitchcock still likes to play with a high level of tempo, but now it comes with structure. The Blues' days of chipping the puck into the offensive zone, getting it behind the defensemen and chasing has been curbed to a certain extent. It's all about possession and more importantly, getting the opponent to play out of its element.

"To me, transition ... the whole game has to be played behind people," Hitchcock said. "It's not so much chipping it in, it's just making people turn. That's the whole focus of the game. If everybody's on that page, then you play faster. You don't slow down to make a play.

"The whole attitude is you're converging pucks, bodies and traffic at the net, so your whole game is towards the net. But in order to do it, you have to make people turn. We're trying to create an environment where we make them face their goalie as much as we can so that they can't defend facing up ice."

So far, the players have bought into the new wrinkles Hitchcock has thrown in. The information is coming gradually, and the players have processed it and executed it to near-perfection.

"I think that's been the biggest difference," defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo said. "He's not throwing much at us at all. He's stressing key points and really focusing on the little things. Just getting more of the guys to relax and play instead of think all the time. He's been really good at what he's been doing so far. Obviously a lot of us have been buying in."

Hitchcock said he didn't want to change too much until he got a good idea here of what's going on with his team. It's becoming pretty clear that he's gotten a good grasp thus far.

"We're trying to get two things: the tempo way up and then the transition part to be automatic in their thinking," Hitchcock said. "... If you look at all those good teams in the West here, they've all got great transitition both ways.
(Getty Images)
Blues winger T.J. Oshie (right) has caught fire since Hitchcock's arrival
with three points in three games and six in his last five.

"I'm just trying to get the buzz words to become automatic. So when I say a word, the players respond and say, 'OK, I know what you mean.' It's not so much a change in the way we play, it's changing the buzz words. The way I coach is just reinforce, reinforce ... every day. The way we play and the terms we use, I want them to be able to talk to each other about that."

In other words, Blues defensemen communicate getting pucks through the three zones with quickness and efficiency and for the forwards, stick-handle their way into the offensive zone while skaters off the puck get quickly into open spots. Once in the offensive zone, it's all about getting those pucks on goal.

"'Hitch' is allowing us to make those plays and be patient with the puck on the walls and try to create offense," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "If we have nothing, throw it at the net, but if we have some time, be patient and try to make a play.

"As you get more pucks to the net, teams get a little more scrambled. It just kind of confuses teams as far as sorting things out and allows us to see where it's going and gain puck possession off the rebounds and settle it down from there."

The Blues (8-7-1) will take today off and then host the Detroit Red Wings, one of those high-end Western Conference teams Hitchcock has been preaching that the Blues need to be like in terms of success, on Tuesday. In order to beat them, you have to become them.

"It makes sense," Colaiacovo said. "If you look at the top teams in the West and the way they play, they're creating their own chances, they're playing a high tempo game, they play fast. Those are the kinds of things that (Hitchcock's) stressing and the way he wants us to play. If we can continue playing like this the rest of the year, I actually wouldn't mind. It's changed our mentality, it's changed the type of team that we are. I think it's a good thing going forward.

These last three games have been pretty fun to play in. I'm not going to lie. There's been stretches where we've been so dominant that it's been pretty fun to watch and also pretty fun to be a part of. I'm liking it so far. It suits the game that I want to play. It's definitely something that we've got to continue to work on, and as you can see, it works."

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