Though a loss to the Dallas Stars on Thursday brought their streak to an end, the St. Louis Blues redeemed their season with an incredible, franchise-record 11-game winning streak. A team that was in last place in the NHL as recently as Jan. 3 is now third in their division, securely in a playoff spot.
The turnaround has been enough to fuel speculation that the Blues will promote Craig Berube, who has served as the interim head coach in relief of Mike Yeo since Nov. 20, 2018. Though the argument for removing Berube’s “interim” tag is compelling, it would be a mistake for the team to make that decision at this juncture.
Berube Rebuilds the Blues
In recent weeks, the Blues have been a different team from the one we saw in the first half of the season. Their stars, most notably Vladimir Tarasenko, are on fire, their goaltending, particularly Jordan Binnington, has been stout, and the team as a whole has looked much better. The defense has prevented more opportunities, and the roster is gelling, which helped them to this unbelievable winning streak.
The turnaround is visible, both in the on-ice product and in related statistics. It is equally visible in the culture and environment of the team. The players, who were once literally fighting one another in practice, are now a unit who that are playing for one another and the crest on their sweaters.
Berube deserves full credit for inspiring this turnaround. It is his handiwork that has brought the Blues back into the playoffs, and it’s understandable why some believe he should be made the permanent head coach. But recent history should be a warning of the dangers of making that decision too rashly.
Mike Yeo Experience Repeating?
With the benefit of hindsight, the Blues are undergoing a change eerily reminiscent of a similar reversal of fortune experienced under former head coach Yeo just two seasons ago. When Yeo took over for his predecessor, the legendary coach Ken Hitchcock, the team immediately found success and looked like a whole new group.
When Yeo took over the Blues on Feb. 1, 2017, the team was 24-21-5 and barely clinging to a playoff spot. Goaltender Jake Allen was ice cold and had been sent home during a road trip to get himself straight. The team had seemingly quit on Hitchcock, and the results on the ice proved it.
The turnaround under the new bench boss was immediate. Yeo led them to a 22-8-2 record and helped them navigate through the first round of the playoffs against his former team, the Minnesota Wild. Nowhere was this transformation more evident than in Allen, who returned to form and then some. He was 16-8-2 after the NHL All-Star Game and had a .935 save percentage and 1.93 goals against average, and was the biggest factor in the team escaping that series against the Wild.
Though Yeo never wore the “interim” tag, as he was brought on as Hitchcock’s replacement before the season, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he had earned a permanent gig. But the success he had in 2017 was fleeting. The following season, the Blues missed the playoffs, and an unexpected rocky start to his third season earned him his walking papers less than two years into his tenure.
Some will dispute the similarities between Berube and Yeo, saying that the former brought the team back from more dire circumstances or orchestrated a more dramatic turnaround. This may be true, but that does not erase the correlation between the team’s performance in the aftermath of the last two coaching changes.
Another issue is the indication by general manager Doug Armstrong that the coaching search would be exhaustive. In his Nov. 20 press conference introducing Berube, Armstrong explained how they would create a list that included, “experienced head coaches… European head coaches… college head coaches… major junior [head coaches].” He went on to say:
We’re not going to minimize or limit the scope that we’re going to look at, but it’s not something that’s going to be done over the next day or two. This is going to be a process that we’re going to look hard and be thorough on… the net is wide.
Armstrong did leave room in the press conference for the possibility of Berube’s earning the job, saying,
You’d love to have a situation where enough is enough for our core group, and they take charge of this team, and Craig is at the helm of that, and we have great success, and we move forward together.
The question is whether the 11-game winning streak that has formed the bulk of the Blues’ resurgence constitutes the “great success” that Armstrong envisioned at the time. For a team that has never won a Stanley Cup, and that missed the playoffs last season, it seems like too low a bar to set for such a major decision as a coaching hire.
How Soon is Too Soon?
Berube is entitled to the praise he’s received for turning around his team in spectacular fashion. But is a month of success really enough? There is building momentum to suggest that it will be, but there is a significant reason to argue that it shouldn’t be. Could Berube fall victim to the same fate as his predecessor?
Moreover, if the Blues promote Berube now, will Armstrong be holding true to his promises about the coaching search? Will they have covered all their bases, particularly with a future Hall of Fame coach, Joel Quenneville, on the market?
If the Blues promote their coach in the near future, one wonders what forced them to make the decision so soon. Berube isn’t likely to seek a new job in the offseason, even if the team takes their time with a coaching search. If they complete that search and Berube remains the best option, by all means, they should install him permanently. But to act now after one hot streak would be a rash and unnecessary decision.