This wasn’t hard to see. You had a team that had quit on Ken Hitchcock a couple times in the past already, and its biggest star had clearly soured on him. You then announce he’s leaving after the season and his replacement installed right next to him. It was a pretty easy leap to think he wouldn’t finish out the season.
There were some thing that are out of Hitch’s control. He didn’t let Backes and Brouwer, a combined 40 goals, walk out the door and try to replace them with just David “Most Annoying Sound In the World” Perron. Hitchcock didn’t trade Brian Elliot and be forced to hand the job to Jay Gallon who has never proven he was ready for it. Ken Hitchcock didn’t fail to provide a #1 center any better than Jori Lehtera.
But that doesn’t mean Hitch isn’t responsible for a lot of what’s gone wrong in St. Louis, and you wonder if it isn’t so scorched that there’s nothing Mike Yeo can do.
Paul Stastny came off a 60-point season in Colorado, playing behind Duchene and MacKinnon. He’s had five 50+ point seasons in his career, including three 70+ point seasons. In St. Louis he’s topped out at 49, though he was hurt and missed 18 games. This is the best center the Blues have, and he’s been drawing checking and second line assignments ever since he arrived.
Where’s Robby Fabbri’s leap? Why did it take so long to realize that Jay Bouwmeester is finished? Ryan Reaves still dresses every night. But what Hitch’s legacy will be, and why he’s updating the resume today, is the way he shackled this team. He seemed to get it last year, just a bit, but went in reverse this season.
The Blues have always been defense first. Their first, second, and third priority was limiting shots and opportunities against. But that lowers the margin of error so much in the playoffs, you’d better get other-worldly goaltending to maintain it. How many crushing OT losses did the Blues have in the playoffs? Games 4 and 5 agains the Hawks in ’14. Game 5 in ’13 against the Kings. Their other losses–’12 to the Kings, ’15 to the Wild–saw their goalies simply fall apart and they were blown out of the series. That’s how much hinged on what the guy between the pipes did.
It’s a lesson coaches like Hitch refuse to learn. Look at all your recent Cup winners, and they could all score and let loose in the offensive zone. People are thrown off by the Kings. But the ’14 Kings were rife with weapons and the ’12 Kings had Quick put up a .946 SV%. You can’t count on the latter, you can try for the former. And it’s not as if with Tarasenko, Fabbri, Stastny, Schwartz, Steen, Shattenkirk, and Parayko that the Blues are bereft of scoring talent. There’s been more in the past.
Here’s another thing, what was so attractive about Hitchock in the first place? A Cup and Final appearance nearly 20 years ago in Dallas? Have you looked at that roster? At the height of the Dead Puck Era? One conference final appearance with a pretty loaded Flyers team? The non-playoff win time with the Jackets? Hitch was essentially a name, whose success came in a different era. But hey, in the NHL if you’re good with the media and don’t completely throw up on yourself, you’ll get another job.
Oh sure, they’ll point to 4th in all-time wins. But it’s time we admit that these things are boosted by shootout wins now. Lindy Ruff is 5th after all. Barry Trotz is 7th. Darryl Sutter is 12th. Do you really think of those guys as all-time greats. It’s a mark of longevity more than skill. Quenneville, Hitch, these are good to great coaches. But walking with giants? Curious.
Where do the Blues go from here? I don’t know what stops Yeo can pull here, though we know from his time in Minnesota he’ll try just about everything. Maybe use Stastny as a #1 center again, and try and let the leash out a bit on his offensive players. There’s nothing he can do about Jay Gallon not being able to stop a shuttlecock at the moment. And it’s probably unfair to install him with a team that’s aching to blow it all up.
firing Hitch means you want to get something out of this season, which means Doug Armstron is going to have to pull a deal to save the season. Which means he needs to find a goalie, but I don’t know where he’s going to find one. It would take a lot for Fleury to be pried out of Pittsburgh. Ben Bishop has been bad, and it’s always a good sign when you have to give up real assets for a player you gave up for nothing. Sell out for Mike Smith in Arizona?
Maybe there’s a dead cat bounce here. Maybe the players have agitated for Yeo to be promoted all season and will respond. The Blues brass had better hope so, because the precipice awaits.