It’s easy to be a pessimist, because everyone’s happy if you’re wrong — but you look prescient if you’re right. After a fourth straight premature playoff exit for the St. Louis Blues, pessimists are looking like the most logical group in the room. It looked like the seas were parting for the Blues in many ways, with perennial bugaboo Los Angeles out of the fray and the Blackhawks sporting stars not at 100 percent. Sure, rookie Jake Allen had some iffy goals, but most of those came late in the series after it was established he was getting almost no help. Significant players, from David Backes on out, were invisible. As usual, the sole bright spot was the defensive corps, which the team should build around as it chips away at its rotting core.
Step One: Sign Tarasenko
At the risk of sounding obvious, signing Vladimir Tarasenko is the ultimate priority for Doug Armstrong provided he’s still GM at that point. Other than Tank, the rest of the forward group proved that it just can’t get things done in the postseason. Alex Steen is a definite keeper, but once you get past him it’s hard to build a compelling case that Backes, T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund are earning their postseason keep. We should give a small pass to Jori Lehtera, who has amazing chemistry with Tarasenko and was hurt partway through the series. Steve Ott is a useful player, but once again Coach Hitchcock gave way too much ice time to an instigator on a team failing to put the puck in the net. Without Tarasenko the team would have had an utterly embarrassing offensive outing vs the Wild. Seven million dollar center Paul Stastny was completely ineffective, and this from a guy who allegedly steps his game up in the postseason. The latter example just shows how completely wrong this series went, and underscores how dire the situation has become.
Step Two: Find New Leadership
Ken Hitchcock is a proven winner, but not in this century and certainly not in the type of NHL currently in existence. He’s also a notoriously grinding coach that tends to wear down personnel over the course of a season. By the postseason, that mental and physical fatigue becomes readily apparent. I’ve read grumblings that strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte should be axed as well, which might have more validity than we think given the Blues’ inability to keep pace when it matters. Hitchcock is clearly a guy that, despite his head for the game, routinely fails to make important adjustments in the playoffs. His stubborn approach to playing who he thinks “should” be on the ice for the 90’s game isn’t holding water in 2015 — and hasn’t over the past four playoff appearances he’s led. In fact, it’s a pattern: all four exits were of the first or second-round variety, and most were against teams the Blues finished ahead of in the regular season. For a team skilled enough to challenge for the President’s Trophy virtually every year, this is unacceptable and an indicator of an ineffective system. The team also runs the risk of listening too closely to “stats guy” Jim Corsi, who was obviously instrumental in starting Jake Allen over Brian Elliott and probably had a little too much input into matchups.
Step Three: Make a Choice with the Goaltending, and Stick With It
Perhaps a new coach will do this right. At the start of the season, we all heard that Brian Elliott is the clear-cut starter for this Blues iteration. Over the course of the season, rookie Jake Allen’s progressively impressive starts began to chip away at this idea. Although Elliott had a stretch of questionable outings, once a couple games passed and the playoffs began, the net should have been his. For a Blues franchise that is now the only original expansion team to not win a Stanley Cup, along with being the winner of arguably the toughest division in the NHL, to place that pressure on a rookie goalie is unfathomable. Allen played well enough for the Blues to have a 3-1 lead in the series when it was 2-2, but Elliott probably doesn’t give up a few of those shaky, nervous goals that undermines a playoff run. Whomever stands behind the bench next year should decide Elliott is getting an 80/20 split in starts like every other real starter in this League. If not, Elliott has earned the right to be set free from these mind games coaching insists on playing with him.
Step Four: Toughen Up the Defense
Butter-soft finesse defense isn’t going to get a team anywhere in April, other than early tee times. Carl Gunnarsson, aging Barrett Jackman and Jay Bouwmeester need to be looked at very closely to decide if their postseason grit is sufficient. With bangers like Petteri Lindbohm and Robert Bortuzzo on the payroll and not on the ice, we see another example of Hitchcock’s insistence to play people based on contract amount (see Halak, Jaroslav) rather than ability. The utter lack of grit by this team bordered on the embarrassing but, more importantly, is simply ineffective when the going gets thickest. This team confuses after-the-whistle shenanigans with toughness, and has a nasty habit of chasing the play rather than setting the tone. Outside of a couple guys, the Blues’ defense simply displays an inability to match the pace of a modern NHL playoff series.
The Blues’ front office doesn’t need to completely implode the team to make changes. It does need to ignore which players attract the most female fans, sell the most jerseys and have roster spots because of tenure. The team must start winning or face the very real possibility that these early exits will begin to infect culture and ability to draw important free agents moving forward. Sometimes, in order to fix things you must first break them. That shouldn’t be too difficult in St. Louis, since too much of this team is already broken.