Mac Engel

Return of Ken Hitchcock to Dallas Stars is ideal timing for both parties

The most disappointing team in the NHL has been put on notice that there are no off nights, mail-it-in shifts, or absentee defensive efforts.

The best coach in the history of the Dallas Stars is returning to the team he made a Stanley Cup winner with the intention of doing it again. Ken Hitchcock will be announced as the team’s new head coach at a news conference on Thursday morning at American Airlines Center.

Tyler Seguin, prepare for the hardest year of your life. You, too, John Klingberg.

Forget the terms of the contract. Hitch is a 65-year-old man who has plenty of money. This will be the final stop of his career.

Adjust your expectations because the team he inherits is not the roster he acquired when GM Bob Gainey hired him in 1995.

If Stars GM Jim Nill acquires the right pieces, Hitch can be the rare example of the guy who can go home again. Coaches returning to a previous stop rarely work, but this is an instance where it can succeed.

The players who deliberately tanked in order to get Hitchcock fired in January of 2002 have long since retired, and the ultimate short-term coach is the ideal man for what must be a long-term solution for the franchise he has saved before.

“His mind is as sharp as ever,” one high ranking St. Louis Blues executive told me on Wednesday. St. Louis was Hitch’s most recent stop. “He could go a few years if he takes care of himself.”

The nostalgia will wear off quickly because the franchise Hitch loves so much needs not to re-live the past but to create a better future. The Stars need him to make them relevant again in DFW. The only way this happens is if Hitch can do what his predecessor, Lindy Ruff, could not.

If the Stars are to break out of this prolonged existence of decreased interest and relevance, the only way back is if Hitch can get this team to defend.

That’s the way it was when he came here in the mid 90s when he hammered on Mike Modano to play both ends of the ice, and “to go to the hard areas.”

It would really help if Hitch could bring back a young Ed Belfour, but even without The Eagle there is no coach in the sport more committed to defending than Hitch.

Despite the best efforts and intentions of the league to infuse scoring, coaches again have figured a way to slow down the scorers.

“I think you see every year the team that wins the Stanley Cup pays attention to the defense the most,” All-Star forward Jamie Benn told me last week. “If you don’t do that, you are not going to win. We need to focus more on defense. The league has adapted to the things teams do to score goals. We have to find a way to be more defensively minded.”

Just last season the Dallas Stars led the league in offense, and used the scoring of Benn and Seguin to win the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. That team was eliminated in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals, by Hitchcock and the Blues.

That same plan blew up on the Stars’ this season as they again missed the playoffs and finished with a pathetic 79 points. That is the lowest point-total for a full schedule since the 1995-96 season (the same year Hitchcock was hired approximately half way through the season.)

While roster-wise this is not a perfect team for Hitch — the defensemen need upgrades and the goalie situation is a Finnish tragedy — the timing of his arrival is ideal. The core is young, and tired of not winning. They are more likely to listen before growing weary of Hitch’s harping, stressing, and long meetings.

Think of Benn as this team’s version of Modano, who is best built for Hitchcock. Benn is one of the best players in the NHL, and already more of a two-way player.

The challenge will be players such as Seguin, Klingberg, Ales Hemsky, Jason Spezza and any player who does not have the reputation of committed to stopping the other team.

For the media and the fans, Hitch is a dream. He remains as gifted as any coach ever has in the ability to deliver a story or a zinger, and he is unafraid to call out his team.

What he has is a shelf life. NHL coaches are more disposable than any other major sport, and given his age and personality this will only be a temporary hire but his addition will be a long-term solution.

Listen to Mac Engel every Tuesday and Thursday on Shan & RJ from 5:30-10 a.m. on 105.3 The Fan.

Mac Engel: 817-390-7697, @macengelprof

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