Struggling Blues fire coach, but goaltending remains the big issue

St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong and new head coach Mike Yeo hold back the tears as they announce that the organization has relieved Ken Hitchcock of his head coach duties, and the vision going forward.

If the thinking is that Mike Yeo can somehow make Jake Allen play better starting today than Ken Hitchcock could, then the St. Louis Blues may be on to something.

Perhaps, you know, Yeo’s ability to get Allen to feel his inner Jacques Plante will work more efficiently if Yeo takes a few steps to his left behind the Blues bench to stand where the head coach normally stands. Then again, perhaps Allen will improve simply by not having Hitchcock glare at him night after night as he lets in bad goal after bad goal.

Otherwise, the abrupt move by the Blues this morning to can Hitchcock in favour of Yeo brings to a close one of the stranger succession plans in NHL coaching history, one not likely to be repeated by other NHL clubs anytime soon.

As soon as GM Doug Armstrong announced last spring that Yeo would take over from Hitchcock at the end of this season, even if the Blues won the Stanley Cup, he was deliberately creating a very awkward lame duck situation. Given that Hitchcock’s coaching style grates on players, even when the team is successful, this allowed players unhappy with their role or minutes to simply look to the future and new possibilities under Yeo rather than find greater success with Hitchcock behind the bench.

The thinking by many then was that if a change was to be made, it should have been made at the conclusion of last season. The problem was, the Blues had just finished one of their most successful seasons ever, making it to the Western Conference final before losing in six game to San Jose.

That left the dressing room, in Hitchcock’s words, in a state of “devastation.” Armstrong was left to try and pick through the wreckage of another disappointment and make moves that would keep the Blues inching forward.

He moved out veterans like David Backes and Troy Brouwer. The team made a commitment to Allen by dealing Brian Elliott to Calgary for draft picks, and that has backfired spectacularly, with St. Louis now having the worst team save percentage in the entire league.


BLUES PLAYOFF RECORD UNDER KEN HITCHCOCK

PLAYOFF RECORD RESULT
2015-16 10-10 LOST IN CONFERENCE FINAL
2014-15 2-4 LOST IN FIRST ROUND
2013-14 2-4 LOST IN FIRST ROUND
2012-13 2-4 LOST IN FIRST ROUND
2011-12 4-5 LOST IN SECOND ROUND

There were other, bolder trade options for the Blues that would have cost more. Maybe Ben Bishop or Marc-Andre Fleury. Toronto got Frederik Andersen out of Anaheim, but it cost the Maple Leafs first- and second-round draft picks.

The sum total of the Blues’ off-season moves, then, was to put the head coach in an untenable situation, remove size and experience, and weaken the club between the pipes in the hope that Allen would blossom into a true No. 1 netminder.

Instead, 50 games into this season, with the club underperforming but still clinging to a wild card booth, a coaching dismissal is the result.

Such is the logic of the NHL.

It’s not too late for St. Louis to rescue its season, of course, and trying to apply a standard of fairness to coaching changes never works. Rarely does a coach deserve to get fired. Jack Capuano didn’t earn his dismissal from the Islanders. Rather, the team was struggling, trades are more difficult to make now than in the previous 99 years of NHL history, and the supply of coaches far outstrips the demand. The fact that the team has seemingly responded to new coach Doug Weight just makes Capuano’s firing look like it was the right thing to do.

Anaheim didn’t fire Bruce Boudreau because of incompetence last spring. The organization – read owners – were frustrated by a lack of post-season success, and trading one of Ryan Getzlaf or Corey Perry to fundamentally change the roster wasn’t palatable. So Boudreau went, and the Minnesota Wild have been the beneficiaries, the same Wild team that decided Yeo was no longer the coach to lead them last February after he’d lost 13 of 14 games.

And ‘round and ‘round we go.

Just a day before the 65-year-old Hitchcock was fired, meanwhile, Alain Vigneault was given a new four-year contract with the New York Rangers even though Hitchcock’s record is superior in recent seasons. Vigneault did get the Rangers to the Stanley Cup final, however.

No, it’s really more about how coaching changes are made, or aren’t made. Florida attracted all kinds of heat earlier this season by leaving Gerard Gallant on a curbside waiting for a cab after giving him the pink slip despite a 103-point season a year ago. Meanwhile, last spring Dave Tippett managed to save his own skin with the Coyotes by forging an alliance with those in the organization who believed in his talents, and instead Don Maloney was told to take a hike.

In St. Louis, Hitchcock couldn’t coax Armstrong to give him a long-term deal, always creating the impression Armstrong was looking around. As soon as the team faltered, the veteran bench boss was easy to let go.

Last night, in Hitchcock’s final game, Allen demonstrated in a loss to Winnipeg on home ice in which he allowed four goals on 23 shots that being left home for a road trip last week to gather his thoughts didn’t work even a little bit.

Allen is 26 now, and was drafted back in 2008 by the Blues – Armstrong’s first draft – in the second round. Since then, the Blues have tried Ryan Miller, Martin Brodeur and Jaroslav Halak, as well as Elliott. But the belief within the Blues organization under Armstrong always seemed to be that Allen was eventually going to be the guy, and Hitchcock seemed to go with the program, playing Allen in 47 games in the regular season last year while Elliott played 41.

But in the playoffs, Hitchcock’s true feelings came out, and it was Elliott getting the bulk of the work, even while he was battling injuries. Elliott played 18 of the club’s playoff games with a .930 save percentage, but at 31 with one year left on his contract, he was still the netminder shown the door after the Blues lost to the Sharks.

All season, the Blues have paid for that decision. Now Armstrong has until the March 1 trade deadline to see if Allen can respond to having Yeo as his head coach, or whether a more aggressive – and costly – goaltending acquisition is necessary, or even possible.

The Blues have been building for a long time. The were bad enough to get the No. 1 pick overall in 2006, and took Erik Johnson ahead of Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom. They’ve had lots of success as a team since, and Hitchcock was able to accumulate more points in the standings from the day he was hired (Nov. 8, 2011) until today than any other club.

But that’s 11 years of building, with not much to show for it. They’ve tried the gradual, patient approach, which is Armstrong’s style.

One suspects that if today’s change doesn’t work, something much bolder, much bigger, will be coming.

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