Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post Dispatch broke the news on Thursday morning that the St. Louis Blues would be sticking with interim head coach Craig Berube for the remainder of the 2018-19 season. This news is in keeping with Doug Armstrong’s initial promise that the coaching search would likely conclude after the season.
Still, the fact that the Blues made this announcement isn’t without meaning, and it may hint that the team hopes that Berube will stick around long-term.
What Went Wrong With Yeo
The Blues are in this position in the first place because of their decision in late November to move on from former head coach Mike Yeo. He spent just under two seasons with St. Louis after replacing Ken Hitchcock in Feb. 2017.
Yeo found immediate success with a team that had grown tired of Hitchcock, leading them to a 22-8-2 record and the second round of the playoffs. His youth and approachability were a breath of fresh air, as his predecessor had worn out his welcome with Blues’ players.
Still, good vibes only carried Yeo so far. In his second season, the team went 44-32-6 and missed the playoffs, something they hadn’t done in Hitchcock’s five seasons at the helm. That failure left him on the hot seat, and his 7-9-3 start to this season was enough to convince the front office to move on.
Yeo’s struggles as a head coach in St. Louis closely mirrored the shortcomings that ultimately got him removed as coach of the Minnesota Wild. He relied too much on veterans while refusing to utilize young players. His offenses were anemic, and his power plays were at best inconsistent, and at worst totally ineffective.
Most troubling for the Blues in 2018-19 was the absolute disappearance of the team’s defense. Yeo entered the season with a man-to-man defensive scheme, something entirely out of date in today’s NHL, particularly with the personnel the team had to offer. The team’s defense, aging and in some cases recovering from serious injuries, simply couldn’t keep up, and the Blues were in the hole from the very beginning.
All of those factors forced the Blues’ hand into a swift decision, but it was an easy decision to make, as a coach like Berube with NHL experience was already behind the bench.
What Berube is Getting Right
Since the coaching change, the Blues are 15-13-2. It’s a meager improvement, but enough of one for the team to commit to Berube for the remainder of the season.
Under new leadership, the Blues still have their struggles. They are middle of the pack on special teams, ranking 17th on the power play (19.4 percent) and 18th on the penalty kill (79.6 percent). They are 19th in goal differential at minus nine, tied for 22nd in goals per game (2.8) and 18th in goals against average (2.92).
But there are promising statistics as well. They’ve allowed fewer shots this season (1416) than any team in the league but the Carolina Hurricanes. In more advanced stats, they’ve allowed the fourth-fewest high-danger chances against them, just 373 on the season, and they’re 10th in high-danger chances for (451).
Like, wow. pic.twitter.com/Uyi5alk7wq
— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 24, 2019
The most interesting transformation under Berube is represented in the chart above, the sudden and permanent spike in expected goal differential. As the chart displays, the Blues were, with few exceptions, at or below even on expected goal differential until mid-December. Whether it’s something the coaches changed or a natural gelling of a newly-assembled roster, there’s no denying that the shift happened under Berube, and he deserves the credit.
Armstrong’s Final Coach
We know who will coach for the remainder of the season, but now it’s Armstrong’s responsibility to decide whether the team’s transformation under Berube is significant enough for him to earn the job long-term.
It’s a big decision, as the next head coach of the Blues will likely be Armstrong’s last as general manager. He has been with the team for most of a decade, and while they’ve competed consistently, they’ve made it to one conference final under his tenure and no further. He did just sign a four-year contract extension with the team, but it is hard to see him staying beyond that unless the Blues have tremendous success before then.
So Armstrong has a decision to make. Berube has shown some promise with the team, but is he the man to carry the Blues deep into the playoffs? He was unsuccessful in his brief term with the Philadelphia Flyers, but Armstrong has been unafraid to hire retread coaches who failed with other organizations. Will he take that risk again with what could be his final coach?
We won’t know for certain until this summer, but we shouldn’t read too much into the decision to commit to Berube for the remainder of the season. Many of the best candidates out there, including Joel Quenneville, may not be prepared to take over a team until next season, and Armstrong promised fans and the media that his coaching search would be exhaustive.
Berube may ultimately be the man for the job, but it won’t be until the Blues have gone through a significant search and interview process with other candidates. They owe their fans that much, and Armstrong owes himself as well if he hopes to stay on with the Blues for many years to come.
Stephen Ground is an author with The Hockey Writers and is co-host of the Two Guys No Cup Podcast. He enjoys studying the numbers and providing fresh looks at various stories.