For the third year in a row, the St. Louis Blues entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs with championship aspirations. For the third year in a row, that same team has found itself on the outside looking in after just one round.
With a 4-1 loss on Sunday afternoon, the Blues succumbed to the Minnesota Wild in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. It marks just the latest example of a Blues team that coasted to success in the regular season, but simply wasn’t good enough when it mattered most in April.
So now an offseason full of questions begins for general manager Doug Armstrong and the rest of the Blues front office. Though major decisions are certainly going to be made in regards to the makeup of the Blues roster, one question that needs to be addressed much sooner rather than later involves the man who leads the team from behind the bench.
Since coming aboard in 2011 after the team fired Davis Payne 13 games into the season, Hitchcock has no doubt seen success as head coach of the Blues. Unfortunately, all that success has come during the regular season. The 63-year old coach has gone 175-79-27 in his four years with the organization. The .671 winning percentage is the best among his four head coaching jobs (St. Louis, Philadelphia, Columbus and Dallas) in the NHL. On the other side of the spectrum is his playoff success in St. Louis, or lack thereof.
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The Blues have made the playoffs every season he’s been behind the bench, but only made it out the opening round during Hitchcock’s first year. They ended up losing in the semi-finals to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. What makes it worse is that in every series under Hitchcock, the Blues entered has the higher seed and expected “favorite”.
Now, Hitchcock’s contract has expired after yet another underwhelming playoff exit for St. Louis. He’s been given talented teams that, despite performing at a high quality during the regular season, just can’t seem to put things in order come postseason. The idea that the shortcomings are on the players is a very logical one, but the thought that it’s Hitchcock’s system just not being good enough for playoff success is also plausible.
It seems that by the time the playoffs roll around, Hitchcock’s teams are just too tired to push through. He grinds them down throughout the year that, once the playoffs arrive, players aren’t able to keep up the physical style that Hitchcock demands. He’s toned it down in recent years while allowing his skill players to showcase their talents more (see Vladimir Tarasenko), but it hasn’t been enough to get his teams to find success in April and, sometimes, May.
Hitchcock was fired after four years in Columbus, and was in the middle of his fourth season in Philadelphia when he was canned. After four years in St. Louis, it’s time for Armstrong and the Blues to move in a different direction.
Several strong candidates are available, including Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle and the recently freed Todd McLellan. There is also the status of Bruins head coach Claude Julien that is up the air which could lead to another prime candidate becoming available in the coming weeks. There’s no doubt that Hitchcock will land on his feet as a head coach with another team, but his time in St. Louis needs to come to an end.