When the St. Louis Blues decided to fire former head coach Mike Yeo and replace him with his assistant, Craig Berube, it seemed like the season was already lost, and it was only Nov. 20. Now, four months later, the Blues are solidly in a playoff spot, and the new coach is understandably getting a lot of the credit.
Most recently, he earned a place atop NBC Sports’ NHL head coach power ranking. The national media is singing Berube’s praises, but has he fully earned it? Let’s take a look at the numbers, and compare Berube’s performance this season to Yeo’s performance when he took over.
Brand New Blues
The Blues were in dire circumstances when they made the move to replace Yeo. The team was 7-9-3, despite high expectations for them following a momentous offseason, and the Nov. 19 shutout at the hands of the league-worst Los Angeles Kings was too much for the front office to stomach. Thankfully, they already had another coach with NHL experience behind their bench.
The transformation was not immediate: the team was 2-4-1 in its first seven games under the new bench boss. But after a three-game road trip to Western Canada in mid-December, the team started to look like an entirely different group. Players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Jay Bouwmeester turned quickly from zeroes to heroes, the goaltending improved dramatically with the arrival of Jordan Binnington, and things began to head in the right direction.
All of this culminated in an 11-game win streak that began on Jan. 23 and lasted through Feb. 19. In that streak, Binnington stood on his head, a new look first line of Tarasenko, Ryan O’Reilly, and Brayden Schenn began to find incredible chemistry, and the team looked truly unconquerable.
With the win streak in hand, the Blues’ record since the coaching change is 31-18-5, for a point percentage of .620 and a winning percentage of .574. Compared with the .447/.368 marks under Yeo, it is an improvement well worth lauding.
Is Berube the New Yeo
For some Blues fans, though, the emergence of Berube and his early returns are too reminiscent of a similar phenomenon that took place just two years ago, when Yeo took over for his predecessor, Ken Hitchcock.
The comparisons are remarkable: Hitchcock struggled with many of the same things that haunted the early 2018-19 Blues, particularly the poor goaltending. Starter Jake Allen was 17-12-3 before the All-Star Break, but he had a 2.83 goals against average (GAA) and a .897 save percentage (SV%). After Yeo took over, he transformed into a legend: 16-8-2 with a 1.93 GAA and a .935 SV% after the break.
Allen’s turnaround helped lead Yeo and the Blues to a 22-8-2 record: a .719 point percentage and a .688 winning percentage. Those numbers, though on a shorter timeline, are even better than the numbers Berube has posted this season.
After Yeo’s phenomenal first season, in which the team made the second round of the playoffs, the Blues reverted to the status quo immediately. In his second year, the team was 44-32-6, and missed the playoffs by a single point. And in his third year, as we’ve already discussed, Yeo was fired after just 19 games.
Berube’s turnaround is eerily similar, all the way down to the red-hot netminder. Even more concerning, the Blues needed an 11-game winning streak to get to the position they’re now in, make that streak even a very good stretch, like 8-3, and the team is in a much different state. None of that constitutes a reason to discredit what the Blues have accomplished under their new coach, nor his role in that turnaround. But it may be a reason for caution going forward.
The Quenneville Question
Berube is unquestionably a front runner for the Blues’ full-time coaching gig, but the case should not be closed just yet. Two things must happen before Berube’s interim tag is removed: the Blues must do well in the playoffs, and the team must at least talk to Joel Quenneville.
First, the Blues need to not only make the playoffs but do well in them. The franchise’s history is replete with settling for first-round
More importantly, though, the team needs to have a heart-to-heart with Quenneville, the best free agent coaching candidate available, himself a former Blues’ head coach. Frankly, the team ought to have a deeper coaching search than that, ensuring that, if Berube is their choice, he is the best available option. Even if they choose to limit their search, settling for any coach without ensuring that Quenneville is off the table would be foolhardy, to put it politely.
Berube’s Bright Future
In the long run, Berube is highly likely to remain as the team’s head coach going forward. The turnaround has been too stark, the Blues are generally conservative with their coaching decisions, and many fans have become enamored with their interim coach’s hard working, blue-collar attitude.
But if the Blues do make a surprise move and go in a different direction, Berube should have plenty of suitors. With the Ottawa Senators, Philadelphia Flyers (Berube’s former team), the Anaheim Ducks, the Edmonton Oilers, and possibly the Kings already looking for coaches, and more teams likely to join their ranks in the offseason, there’s little chance no one will be interested in the Blues’ bench boss. None of that matters unless the Blues let him go, and at present, that seems highly unlikely.
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.