Thursday, September 17, 2015

Q & A with Ken Hitchcock

The Blues' coach talks different approach to training camp, looking back or 
moving forward, coaching 3 on 3 overtime, chances PTO players make team

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock returns for his fifth season with the organization after signing a one-year extension in May.

Hitchcock has helped the Blues to regular season success (100-plus points in each of his three full seasons here; there was the 48-game lockout season too) but has only one playoff series victory in four years to show for those great seasons.

He talks about changing the way he approaches year No. 5, what his plans are as training camp opens Friday; what kind of style the Blues will implement; chances that Scott Gomez, Scottie Upshall and/or the remaining NHL veterans brought in on PTO's and one-year, two-way contracts have of making the team and a host of other questions looming:
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock

What's the thought of you not being on the ice at the start of camp?
I don't think that you can, with what we're going to do, with as much as we're going to scrimmage, I don't think you can evaluate close to the ice. It's hard. It's like coaching. By sitting in the stands, it's like looking at the game through video. I'm going to get a better read on players, on chemistry, on things that I need to get a read on moving forward. That's No. 1 for me. If we were just running practices, this would be different, but because we're scrimmaging, I need to be able to observe what we're doing. Every day gets themed, so whatever we worked on the first session, the scrimmage part of that will be put in place. We want to see some of that stuff in the scrimmage, the stuff that we work on the first 50 minutes when we're on the ice. I'd like to see it from a little higher up. Second part is, I've got lots of time during the second phase. I just think the first week of camp is an evaluation phase. I need to get a good read on some of the players that we're just learning about and things like that. I can do that from further up. I'm looking forward to it.

So are you going to have more scrimmages?
Yes. More scrimmages and more game-like situations; just more competition. We want to see ... there's some openings here and we want to see who can look like they've got a chance to take some of these spots because with the injury to Berglund and where we're at, there's some openings and I want to see who can take some of those jobs.

Are drills something more you've emphasized more in the past and you want to get to the scrimmaging aspect of things now more?
This is the first time we've had four complete practices in four complete days before we've played a game. This is pretty significant to have that many days of having nothing but practice before you play your first exhibition game, so there's an extended time to work on things. We spent the summer as a coaching staff, each guy had a specific area for us to get better in. Each guy had a study session on areas that we want to get better in so they provided video, they provided drills to back up the video, they provided practice sessions to back up the video. Why not let them run it? They did all the work during the summer. Each guy were all given specific tasks on elements of our game that we wanted to improve. We want to put those four major areas of improvement in place the first four days, one per day. Each coach was given that task to do it, so why not let them run the whole thing? And that's why we decided to go. The specific area of Day 1 is mine, Day 2 is Brad's, Day 3 is Ray's and Day 4 of Kirk, and each coach was given that element back in June, late June and he worked at it all summer; not only in getting video to back it up but getting drills and practice plans in place to put it in place for the season.

What are you working on?
Mine is just set the tempo. A lot of mine is just straight tempo, try to get the skating and execution as high as we can on the first day. It's not overly competitive, but it has a strong element of execution in it.

How much will coaching 3 on 3 as opposed to 4 on 4 be different?
Well 4 on 4 was, the more you played 4 on 4, your scoring chances happened in reverse of what you thought it was when we first went to 4 on 4. We thought, 'Put out your best four players and see where it goes,' but what happened was, it seemed like the players that were checking players ended up getting all the scoring chance whereas 3 on 3 is going to be a lot of flow, a lot of odd-man rushes, a lot of taking advantage of little errors. The more you practice 3 on 3, the better you're going to be. I'm curious to see ... we're going to spend a lot of time on it because it looks like it's going to be significant in the ending of games, so I want to know who's going to be good at it, but more important, I want to know how many players I can play, how much rest is a guy going to need before he can go back out there again, who looks like a player that can really take advantage of the situation, how much do you include your goalies. There's all kinds of stuff that's just kind of fun to experiment with and work with. ... Three on three is really a place for smart players, players that can really read situations. The players for me that are successful are really the ones that are smart players.

When you remove two guys off the ice as in a 4 on 4 situation, there's so much real estate on the ice ...
Yeah, but it's everything. When you change, how you change, where players come off the ice, what do you do with the goalie, where does he take advantage of situations, all kinds of stuff. It'll be fun to be able to hopefully end more games with competition.

What are you looking for from players like Gomez, Upshall, etc?
I look at it, anybody that played in the National Hockey League last year, if they're coming into tryout, whether they're a tryout player, professional tryout player or a player like Harrold or like Benoit who happened to sign a two-way deal, out of respect for those players, we want to give them every chance to make the hockey club. That's what we're going to do. They're going to have to earn along the way, but we're going to give them every opportunity ... we're going to treat them like they're signed players. We're going to treat them like they come in, they make the team, we find a way to make room for them. ... We want to give them a fair shake every day, first by who we play them with, secondly by how many games we play them and if they continue to play well, then we continue to move them up the ladder.

Has your thought process changed regarding your center position depending on when you get Lentera back and what happens when Berglund returns?
Lehtera's going to be back in plenty of time to play hockey for the regular season, so I'm not concerned about that at all. There's 25 players who are going to miss the first few days of training camp; he's just one of them. Berglund's surgery, because of when it happened, it's never good, but because it happened before training camp, before the regular season, we've already gone into adjustment phase. We know who is going to fight for that spot. It meant we moved a guy like Fabbri from the center ice position over to the wall because that's where an opening is. We moved Jaskin over there, we moved Rattie over there. We know now where the competition's at. That's why Upshall is here. The players that come from that competition, it's in place now and we'll be ready for it. When Bergy comes back, it's like getting a free good player back. By it happening now, we've been able to adjust and we're ready for it.

How much time will Lehtera need conditioning-wise, etc?
He's doing fine. He'll be fine.

The way you're going to conduct camp, have you ever done anything like this?
I've never stepped back off the ice because quite frankly, it's always been two practices and play a game, so having four days is different for me. I was looking back on it; it's been five years since I've had this many days in a row before playing a game. I haven't stepped off the ice, but I haven't scrimmaged as much either. Even when we were scrimmaging, I was still behind the bench standing there with my skates on watching the scrimmage but not getting a great evaluation. This way, I get four days of really good evaluation. I get to evaluate the things that the coaches have worked on and to me, it's good to have a different voice. These are experienced coaches and I think it's good for the players and good for them, to give them an opportunity to run their own practice. We're all going to have an input on the practice, we've all had input on the practice on what we want to see, but this gives them an opportunity to run their drills that are specific to the areas of improvement. You'll be able to see in the drills what areas we're focused on and that on a daily basis.

So is this more dictated by the schedule rather than the way last season ended or changes made to personnel?
It's dictated by the schedule, but it's dictated by us getting better. When you don't reach your goal, everybody's got to get better. So this is our first chance to get better. This is for us coaches. We're first out of the box. We were the guys that were here in August. The players are doing their thing. They're training and everything, but we're first out of the box; we're the ones running the drill. This gives us an opportunity to get better. And by getting really specific on areas of improvement and really focused on that, the first obligation is, 'What do we need to do to get better?' We drew up specific area of our game; this needs to get better, and then we really drilled down deep on that stuff. But it's all with the aspect of, 'What do we need to do to get better before we even ask anything of the players?' Before we ask and demand of the players, we need to look in the mirror ourselves. What elements of our game are we responsible for that need to get better? That's what we've done and we want to put it in place in training camp.

Do you want the players coming into camp this year with a chip on their shoulder after last season's playoffs or turn the page and focus on task at hand because of the difficulty of getting points?
My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good. If you learn from the past, that's when you do yourself a whole bunch of good. We want to learn from what happened, which is why we're doing the things we've done in training camp. We've learned and we want to put it in place, but we want to focus on Game 1 and Game 1 of a very important season. But it's like learn, and now move on. And the moving on means getting better and not running and hiding. I've said this before: we own both records. We own the record in the regular season and we own the record in the playoffs, so let's learn from it; lets use it to get better. But to me, any of the debris you carry from last year, once you've sorted through the mess and learn from it, now you need to move on. If you carry that with you, it's just wasted energy. It's nothing but wasted energy. It does nothing to help you perform at a higher level. Nothing. We've done our learning. Now we want to put it in place to get better, so to me, the 18th of September is the start of getting better. I really like where our players are at right now. This is just general conversations, guys hanging around, but I really like where we're at. I really like the camaraderie, the focus, the energy, just every aspect of where we're at right now. I really like it right now. You don't want to get too excited, but I think this is going to come out on the conditioning tests, I think this is going to come out on the fitness tests, which is step 1, but I'm really impressed with the fun and the energy that the players are moving around with. It's fun to see.

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