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Eric Duhatschek

A coaching death watch begins Add to ...

The problem, when a coaching death watch begins, is that they often become self-fulfilling. The players start to hear rumblings about a possible change and it creeps into their collective psyche. They wonder about its implications, good and bad, for them as individuals. They stop playing on instinct; hesitation sets in.

Pretty soon, everybody is standing around, waiting for the other shoe to drop - and the frustrated general manager is there, watching the whole thing unfold, ready to tear out his hair because he doesn't want to make a coaching change, but knows he may have to.

That, in a nutshell, is pretty much where the Columbus Blue Jackets stand at this moment, on the heels of a 7-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday night, the first of three games in Western Canada that continues Thursday night in Edmonton. Edmonton is where Blue Jackets' general manager Scott Howson cut his managerial teeth; Edmonton is where Ken Hitchcock received his start in coaching. And if Edmonton is where Hitchcock loses his job, thanks to a three-wins-in-24-games swoon that has knocked the Blue Jackets out of playoff contention in the Western Conference, well, that would be unfortunate for the long-term growth of the organization.

Everybody knows that when you hire a demanding coach such as Hitchcock, you get player pushback at different times. That's a given; it comes with the territory. Growth occurs when that pushback becomes push-through - when a team takes a step to the next level, which is where the Blue Jackets looked to be after making the playoffs for the first time in history last season - and getting off to a franchise-best 5-1 start in October.

Then the bottom fell out, and it fell out largely because goaltender Steve Mason - the reigning Calder Trophy winner, a player that recorded a league-leading 10 shutouts last season - completely lost his confidence. This is classic second-year stuff, a swoon that afflicted Cam Ward, Marc-Andre Fleury and Carey Price, just to name three goalies in the post-lockout NHL that also had a difficult time providing the consistent night-in and night-out goaltending that any playoff contender requires.

The temptation is almost always to blame the goaltender when something goes awry. Next to the coach, they are the easiest, most obvious targets. But this time, it really is about the goaltending. If Mason was playing anywhere near the level he was a year ago, the Blue Jackets would not be in this mess.

For proof, consider the latest disaster against the Canucks. The Blue Jackets took a 2-0 lead a little more than seven minutes into the game. A two-goal lead is usually money in the bank for any Hitchcock-coached team. Historically, they are adept at closing out a game in which they jump out in front.

Instead, Mason gave up two goals in a 24-second span and in a little more than a minute, the Canucks had tied the game up. Mason eventually surrendered six goals on 17 shots before getting the hook in favour of Mathieu Garon, who mopped up. By then, it was too late.

The Blue Jackets dropped their 20th game in regulation, one of only five teams to do so. They are 14 points out of the final playoff spot, held down by the Los Angeles Kings, and 14th overall in the West, leading only the Oilers. Moreover, two of the teams they need to overtake - the Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars - are themselves outside of the playoff picture, but poised, for different reasons, to make a move in the second half.

So the Blue Jackets' season is effectively done, a grim development in a market where attendance is flagging and the need to build on last year's improvements was acute.

You get the sense that Howson - who joined the team in Edmonton Tuesday after taking in the world junior championships in Saskatoon - doesn't want to fire Hitchcock; that he knows he has one of the most accomplished coaches of his generation on staff; and that in time, things will eventually turn around. However, Howson also knows that time is running out and he needs to do something, anything, to turn the tide.

For that, he could rely on a historical precedent that Scotty Bowman established under eerily similar circumstances a quarter of a century ago, when he was running the Buffalo Sabres. In 1984, Bowman's young goaltender, Tom Barrasso, won the Calder, same as Mason. Early in the 1984-85 season, Barrasso couldn't stop the puck - or not enough of them anyway.

So Bowman sent him to the team's minor-league affiliate in Rochester for a refresher course - and a break from the pressure of trying to win in the NHL. It worked too. Out of the spotlight, Barrasso eventually regained his confidence and form. Years later, he went on to backstop two Pittsburgh Penguins' teams to Stanley Cup championships, one with Bowman behind the bench.

For Columbus, the easy out here is to dismiss the coach. The more practical path may be to identify the problem for what it is - a young goaltender, suddenly looking dazed and confused - that needs help to get his career back on track.

So why not prescribe some remedial work on the farm? At this stage of a season gone sour, what do the Blue Jackets have to lose?

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

 

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