The St. Louis Blues dropped a bomb on their fans on Tuesday, when they announced the contract extension of head coach Ken Hitchcock, whom many in the area thought was on his way out. While fans across the gateway to the West voiced their displeasure of the organization’s decision, they may have overlooked the value behind the bench, and up through the club heading into next season. Fans may also want to turn their frustrations away from the bench boss, and to the core group of players who have yet to find true consistency under any coach.
Who’s Really to Blame for Past Seasons’ Lost?
Many will want a short, definitive answer here, but that’s simply not how the game/business of hockey works. A short answer to the above question would be the organization as a whole, but that doesn’t help anyone come to conclusions about short and long-term fixes for the Note. Here’s a breakdown of who’s at fault for each piece of the Blues puzzle over the last several years.
First off, the coach’s job is to find a system or series of systems that works with the talent, or projected talent, he has in his organization to give them the most success each year. Hitchcock has managed to do this pretty well, although he did hit major speed bumps last season in terms of consistency as he tried to employ a quick-up transitional game alongside his defensive-minded grinding style of play. However, he has racked up a 175-79-27 record while in St. Louis (.671 win%), and has won 2 division titles in one of the hardest divisions in the NHL in just 4 tries, and has even won a Jack Adams award (coach-of-the-year, 2011-12) as well. Overall in his playoff career he’s even managed to keep a .516 win% (76-72, even with less than stellar numbers in the playoffs with the Blues), has won 2 conference titles, 1 controversial Stanley Cup, and 3 Olympic Gold Medals as an associate coach with Team Canada (2002, 2010, 2014) showing that he has the knowledge to win on the biggest stages.
However, where Hitchcock has failed the Blues is in finding ways to relate to players and keep them focused through the end of the season and the playoffs without playing mind games that aim to ‘keep them in check’. A big piece of the coaching puzzle is finding ways to motivate players to give it their all and to get to that next level in the postseason, which drives them to victory amidst the extreme pressure and competition that each NHL playoffs bring. This is one of the reasons why the Blues never seem to find that extra gear in the playoffs, but it is not the main reason.
Moving forward, Hitchcock will need to loosen the reigns some to allow creativity on and off the ice, and to give the player’s brains a rest so they can think the game faster than it’s played come playoffs. If he can manage to do this he’ll likely put skeptics to rest in next year’s postseason, but it will be an uphill battle. Moving on from Hitchcock but staying in the coaching realm, assistant/associate coaches Ray Bennett and Brad Shaw should be under the microscope as the Blues are one of the only teams who haven’t had new head coaches select their assistants themselves, and with Bennett and Shaw being a big part of the Blues coaching staff since 2006-07 without any real postseason success, they should be on their way out as well barring a big change in special teams and defensively in next year’s playoffs.
When looking at the Blues management team, they seem to be in great shape moving forward after locking up Martin Brodeur to a 3-year deal behind GM Doug Armstrong (2012 GM-of-the-year winner), who has definitely made some great moves to bring the Blues into the Cup picture, until the playoffs begin. Where he has failed is to find those player-trade deals that bring the team wins in mid-April, when it truly matters.
This is on him and his management team to weed through all the stats, game footage, and scouting reports to find those role players who not only fit into the system, but who are proven to perform on the biggest stages at multiple playing levels (Juniors, NHL, other pro leagues, etc…). Yes Armstrong has failed in this regard, but again, he has brought high-caliber players that should’ve been able to get the Blues to a Conference Final at least, and has given them all the opportunities to prove their worth, with each year ending too abruptly.
Here’s the current state of the Blues, a team with heart that can’t seem to let everything go except the game at hand come playoff time. A team made up of guys who have all individually and collectively been in the NHL’s spotlight at one time or another for a variety of reasons, except when it truly matters. This is the main problem with the Blues, their players lack the relationship with their coach, and more importantly, lack of drive within themselves to get to that next level come playoff hockey time. Yes the coach (Hitchcock) should be doing a better job at motivating and uniting the team each game, especially in the playoffs, but at the end of the day it’s up to the players, those being paid millions to physically play the game, to go out and find a way to make plays, get that net front presence to create quality chances, and pound away until the clock runs out and victory is had (then repeat 15 times).
Unfortunately for the organization and its fans, the Blues players themselves have been unable to string together anything long term in the playoffs, and have become perennial early-tee time makers due to that. As discussed above, the players are not the only problem in the organization, but they are the biggest piece of the team’s failure which is why change begins now.
Players Must be Held Accountable
It’s part of the game, and part of life. If someone under-performs at their job and it costs a company future sales, current revenues, or is too time consuming to fix, they get fired plain and simple. It’s the same for the business oriented NHL and fans need to remember that. They’ve watched the core of this Blues team grow from boys to men, and would love to see them all raise the Cup for the first time in St. Louis, but those same players have had 4-to-7 chances to string together playoff series wins (depending on when the joined the team respectively), and have yet to win more than 4 games in a postseason total. That’s simply unacceptable for a club looking for it’s first Stanley Cup in it’s illustrious 47 year history, especially with such great regular season successes over that span.
Out of the current Blues’ core (David Backes, TJ Oshie, Alexander Steen, Barret Jackman, Patrik Berglund, and Alex Pietrangelo) only one of them is a positive plus/minus player in the playoffs (Pietrangel0, plus-3), and out of a total of 184 playoff games this core has only been able to amass 68 points total. That means the leaders of the Blues since the mid-2000s average a measly .37 points per game (PPG), a combined minus-45 (including Pietro’s plus-3 rating), and a 14-29 record together in the playoffs which shows they simply fall out of their team game when the pressure of the playoffs mounts.
What All This Means
What this means is that the fans around St. Louis should realize that Ken Hitchcock is a small part of the problem, but by no means is he the ‘make it or break it’ piece. Player changes need to be made to get the team closer to a Cup, not (necessarily) a coaching one, though Hitchcock does have some work to do to improve his coaching style, as mentioned earlier. When looking at the Blues’ core as a whole, they have been through 4-5 coaches (Quinneville: ’97-’04, Kitchen: ’04-’06, Murray: ’06-’10, Payne: ’10-’11, and Hitchcock: ’11-Present) yet have remained in tact, without ever growing into playoff performers.
Hitch: this was a process of reflection and now we are getting ready to get the players in right frame of mind. #stlblues
— Alex Ferrario (@FerrarioKMOX) May 26, 2015
This list becomes more staggering when the coaches overall playoff records versus their playoff records while with St. Louis are examined. Quinneville had the most success behind the bench as a Blue going 34-34 in the postseason, followed by Hitchcock (8-13), and then Murray (0-4). But when looking at their overall playoff records you see the difference is in the Note’s personnel and front office. Quinneville now has a 109-87 record in the playoffs (.556 win%), with Hitchcock trailing him at 76-72 (.514 win%) with Murray bringing up the rear again at 10-18 (.36 win%). This is just a small glimpse into the Blues postseason woes but does prove that Hitchcock’s extension should be welcomed, not frowned upon.
Though Hitchcock hasn’t had the best reviews from his players or fans recently, he still has a lot of knowledge to move teams deep into the postseason. If he can loosen his grip a little and allow for some creativity and mistakes along the way, and with a few key player personnel moves, the Blues could return to Stanley Cup contention as early as next season.
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Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.