NHL

Are young Blue Jackets still listening to their coach?

FOX Sports Rob Oller, The Columbus Dispatch
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Ken Hitchcock is an explainer, so when the Blue Jackets coach tackles a subject, it stays down.

Guy likes to talk.

A Civil War buff, Hitch needs 10 minutes to describe how Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in two. But the Jackets' Great Orator is not verbose so much as he is detailed. When painting the picture he is Rembrandt, not Pollock.

A compilation of Hitchcock's spoken thoughts and explanations keep rattling in my brain as the Blue Jackets struggle to tip the ice their way. They have lost 12 of their past 14 games (2-8-4), showing a listless lack of jump in the process.

The calls are coming fast and furious from a weathered fan base. Some want the Jackets to remove the captain tag from Rick Nash and/or sit slumping sophomore goaltender Steve Mason. More drastic, there is growing sentiment to dump Hitch.

Of that last option, general manager Scott Howson has made it clear the solution is with the players "in our (dressing) room," not with cleaning out the coach's office. But if the downward spiral continues through the end of the year, say the Jackets lose seven of their next eight, then harder questions must be asked.

Now, however, those questions are mere curiosities as I sift Hitch's standard sayings, looking for what might explain the energy lapse.

And I found something.

The Blue Jackets — average age 26 years, 4 months — are the youngest team in the NHL, which can be problematic as it relates to their coach.

It is untrue that Hitchcock always goes on harangues against young players. He actually enjoys how young players generally do not let yesterday's negatives affect today's possibilities.

"They don't carry much. The next day, just away they go," he once told me.

But Hitchcock also knows that young players don't understand or necessarily appreciate the maturity needed to play against men 10 years their senior.

"You're getting an athlete who is emotionally not there," he said, explaining how today's younger players are more technically sound than 15 years ago but are fairly clueless in knowing how to dig in. "Kids now have no idea what it's like to compete against men, having never played professionally (in the American Hockey League)."

Hitchcock sees it as his job to educate these lads. So he explains. And explains. Unfortunately for him, the attention span of a 19-year-old twitters out at 140 characters.

So the issue with Hitchcock is not that he ignores young players, a reputation that he feels is undeserved, but that they ignore him.

Young talent especially tunes out when it thinks it knows it all. That occurs when the team is winning, which creates a stress point because Hitch's toughest teachings follow wins, when he talks of exposing the hard truths.

"It's an attitude of you win and you want to get better, rather than we won and 'Aren't we good?' What I want to do is help players win, and have them come back in the room the next day and ask, 'Where do we get better?' That's what great teams do."

The problem with such harping is it wears on young players who want to run free, who want to enjoy the wins instead of learn from them, which might explain why the Jackets (14-14-6) have stumbled after a 12-6-2 start.

Caught in the confluence of Hitchcock's constant conversations are veteran players who have heard it before. Then two things can happen when Hitchcock talks: The veterans make sure the young guys hear it because they know that even though the words are tiresome they also ring true. Or, the old dogs tell the pups that "there he goes again." And the message is lost.

Personally, I could listen to Hitch every day. But I don't have to. The players do. The next two weeks will be interesting to watch, to see if the Jackets are interested in listening.

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