Monday night’s 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings was a new low for the St. Louis Blues. As bad as things had gotten throughout the season, a home loss to the last place team in the NHL, with an unheard of fourth string goalie pitching a shutout no less, was still an inconceivable result for a team that entered the season with such high expectations.
It was finally enough for general manager Doug Armstrong to make a serious change and relieve Mike Yeo of his duties as head coach. Craig Berube, who has been the Blues assistant head coach since 2017, will be taking over as the interim head coach.
We recently detailed why it was time for the Blues to part ways with Yeo, and the loss against LA was just further proof of it. But firing a head coach isn’t the end of a team’s story, only the beginning. Now, the Blues have to figure out who they are and where they are going, and it starts with making three key decisions.
1) Find Your Coach
The Blues have named Craig Berube their interim head coach, and that decision is no surprise. Berube has served as the team’s assistant coach for over a year now, and before that, had a brief stint as head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. But Berube is more than just a coach, he’s a grizzled NHL veteran who is well respected by the players that play for him.
It seems unlikely that Berube is intended to be the head coach long term, though. For one thing, he has already had many responsibilities with the Blues, and hasn’t prevented them from struggling, so it is tough to tell whether a promotion will help matters. From a broader perspective, Berube did not shine brightly in his time with Philadelphia, and has a losing record in the NHL as a head coach. Yeo was already Armstrong’s attempt at a head coach reclamation project, and he isn’t likely to try the same formula this quickly.
That begs the question: who is the Blues’ long term answer behind the bench? One answer is clear, though he is the same answer for 29 other teams in the NHL as well: Joel Quenneville. If the Blues can afford the contract for Quenneville and he in turn wants to return to St. Louis, it’s a no doubt move for the Blues to make at this juncture.
But if Quenneville isn’t available or affordable to the Blues, they will obviously need to look elsewhere. We recently took a look at five coaching candidates that may be available. Having tried two established coaches before this, perhaps a young up-and-comer like Sheldon Keefe of the Toronto Marlies will appeal to Armstrong. But he’ll be hotly pursued and likely won’t be available until the offseason.
I know it seems outlandish but I would hire Ken Hitchcock right now and take a shot at a dramatic turnaround and would it be so bad to make the lives of the players uncomfortable? Take a shot! What do you have to lose in a season that could be lost already? @StLouisBlues
— Frank Cusumano (@Frank_Cusumano) November 20, 2018
The final option on the list was former Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock, and even influential members of the St. Louis media are jumping on that bandwagon. “Hitch” could make sense on a one season contract if Armstrong’s primary goal is to try and salvage the Blues’ 2018-19 playoff chances, and given Armstrong and Hitchcock’s strong personal connection, a reunion simply is not out of the question, as much as some fans might like it to be. If Quenneville isn’t immediately available, Hitch could buy the Blues’ front office time to try and lure either Q or another top candidate in the offseason.
Whatever the case, it seems very unlikely that Craig Berube is the long term answer for the Blues, and it’s entirely possible that he isn’t expected to be interim head coach for very long. But the Blues have three critical games against the Predators and Jets this week, so if he stays in charge for any time at all, he’ll need to be sharp right out of the gate.
2) Build Your Identity
Though it will depend somewhat on whom the Blues hire long term as head coach, the team also needs to focus on building its identity in the weeks and months to come. Since Hitchcock was fired almost two years ago, the Blues have publicly claimed that they were transitioning towards a more modern, speed driven style of play than they had employed previously.
Unfortunately, the Blues’ roster moves don’t seem to fit that style very well. Ryan O’Reilly, for all his many strengths, is not a speed demon, nor is the Blues’ top rising prospect, Robert Thomas. Jordan Kyrou, another elite prospect, is, and other players like Vladimir Tarasenko and Vince Dunn are very good skaters, but it seems that the Blues have at least one speed anchor for every potential line or paring of good skaters.
So the Blues must decide whether speed is actually their desired direction, or whether they’d rather fight speed with size, like they did when Hitchcock was coach. While that strategy never won them a Stanley Cup, it did bring them more regular success than they have found since his departure, and perhaps it is the direction the Blues should head in.
But it isn’t impossible that the Blues could finish building a faster team. While players like O’Reilly and Thomas aren’t typical speedsters, they are certainly fast enough to hold their own on an up-tempo team, and they are smart skaters as well. The Blues could also make key acquisitions to help shift their roster into a higher gear on the ice, perhaps in the form of the rumored Colton Parayko for William Nylander trade from which the smoke never seems to dissipate.
Whatever the case, the cobbled-together Frankenstein roster that Armstrong has assembled has not gelled into a cohesive unit yet, and it shows on the ice. The Blues need to identify where the fat is, and ready themselves to trim it, which brings us to our third decision.
3) Identify Your Core
As important as hiring the right head coach is, this is far and away the most important decision the Blues have to make in the near future. Whether the 2018-19 Blues are a playoff team or not, the rest of the season should be primarily devoted to answering this question, and Armstrong must be prepared to make difficult choices to ensure that he establishes the team’s core quickly.
Right now, the Blues seem caught between several eras. Players like Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester are veterans whom, at least in Bouwmeester’s case, the game has passed by. The middle generation of Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo, and Jaden Schwartz were supposed to be the young energy boost that propelled the Backes era to the Cup, but since then they have not seemed to develop into the leaders they need to be in the current group.
Meanwhile, new players are arriving via trade and free agency, and O’Reilly and Brayden Schenn seem to be critical players to the Blues’ future. There is a still younger generation as well, with the likes of Thomas, Kyrou, Klim Kostin, and others, who are either already in St. Louis or will be arriving in the near future.
While it should be a blessing for a team to have many generations of talent in one group, the Blues don’t seem to be able to identify which players serve which roles, and there is constant discussion of whether player leadership, beginning with Pietrangelo the captain, is sufficient to the demands of the NHL game.
So the Blues need to answer several questions. First and foremost: is your current player leadership group doing the job? If Alex Pietrangelo isn’t the captain you need, now may be the time to trade him (if he is willing to waive his no trade clause) with two years left on his contract and a hefty pay raise in his future. If Vladimir Tarasenko isn’t the superstar you need him to be (though there are reasons to believe his game is evolving), now may be the time to face up to the pain (and it will hurt) and trade him for the king’s ransom he will command before his no trade clause kicks in this summer.
Second, the Blues need to answer which of their young players are the real deal and fit into their long term plans and which do not. The Blues have a number of incredibly talented and highly-touted young prospects, but they cannot and will not all play for the Blues for the long term, and now is the time to determine which ones are cornerstones for your future and which ones are tantalizing trade chips to lure other top talents. Robert Thomas is almost certainly staying, as is Kyrou, but the Blues have many other pieces that could round out a nice package in a blockbuster trade if they are not going to be long term fixtures in St. Louis.
Third and finally, the Blues must decide on goaltender Jake Allen by season’s end at the latest. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Jake Allen is not the goalie the Blues need long term, but that is an easy decision for a fan to make. It is much harder for Armstrong, who faces the possibility of eating or possibly even buying out Allen’s remaining contract. But the Blues cannot afford to enter another season battling the “will he, won’t he” of Jake Allen in net. Either he establishes himself permanently by season’s end, or the Blues must find a better solution.
There are other roster decisions to consider for sure, but with the right leadership, the right youngsters, and the right goalie, the Blues will be in a much better position than they are right now. Some of those answers are certainly in house, some of them are not. The Blues have dug themselves into a hole from which they may not be able to recover. So the time is now for them to begin answering these questions and building for a brighter future. It doesn’t have to be a true rebuild, at least not yet, but a thorough restructuring is certainly in the cards for Armstrong and the Blues.
In the Immediate Future
Some of these questions will take much longer for the Blues to answer than others. For now, the Blues have three critical division matchups coming up after being shut out three of their last four games. Berube is at the helm, at least temporarily, and the Blues have the players that they have. If there’s any scrap left in the team, now is the time to show it.
Doug Armstrong has a lot of big decisions to make, some of them very quickly (if, for example, he wants to trade for and use William Nylander this season, he’ll have to do it before the Dec. 1 signing deadline). All we know for certain is that there will be a press conference Tuesday morning at 10 A.M. The Hockey Writers will be watching, and bringing you all the coverage you need, so stay tuned.
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.