Throughout the course of NHL history, plenty of coaches have paid the price for piloting underachieving teams to disappointing postseason results. Though many franchises have made knee-jerk reactions to can the man behind the bench in the past when it’s not deserved, other times, firing the coach is a measure that has to be taken for a team to reach it’s full potential.
For the St. Louis Blues, another excellent regular season showing with a stacked roster leaves the team desperately searching for answers after their 4-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild in Game 6.
The question that looms in St. Louis is, what can be done to change the lack of postseason success? With a roster as talented as that of Blues, what more can anyone really do to bolster the lineup itself? Elite defensemen, flashy scorers, grinders and a group that on paper should be able to go up against anyone the league has to offer has now won zero playoff series in the past three seasons. With that amount of talent, in no situation should three straight first-round exits be acceptable.
Something has to change in the Gateway City. That something is the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock.
Despite the shortcomings over the last four years, Hitchcock does have a reputation of being an excellent hockey coach with a pedigree of success. Hitchcock is fourth on the all-time wins list in NHL history and he’s won a Stanley Cup in Dallas. In addition, “Hitch” has piloted four different franchises to the postseason.
All of that is find and dandy, but we live in a sports world where the only thing that matters is what you’ve done lately and past successes can’t be a sticking point for a anyone, coach or player alike.
The Blues came into this postseason on fire, distancing themselves from the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks in the central division, en route to a 109 point regular season. After two straight one and done postseasons, the pressure was on, but the 2014-2015 seemed poised to be different. With all that talent, it had to be… right?
For St. Louis it was more of the same – a quick exit that leads to yet another offseason full of what-ifs.
Much will be made about Hitchcock’s decision to go with rookie netminder Jake Allen over the veteran Brian Elliot. Allen’s 2.20 goals against wasn’t terrible, but a .904 save percentage leaves a lot to be desired. Would the series have taken a different turn if Elliot was in net? That’s a decision that came down to none other than Hitchcock himself. Considering that Elliot’s 2013 postseason numbers featured a 1.90 goals against and a .919 save percentage, perhaps the 30-year-old was the better option.
In reality, the goalie decision might not have swung the tide, but it’s a decision that falls firmly on the coach. Though Allen battled, we’ll never know what Brian Elliot could have done. Hitchcock went with the rookie in net, only to see Allen pulled in game six. Ultimately, the decision to start Allen in all six games resulted in another lost series.
Though much can be made of the goaltending, we also saw a wildly inconsistent roster that failed to match the intensity of the Wild over the course of the six games. There’s no true metric for the “compete level” of a team, but the eye test showed that Minnesota was the more tenacious team in both ends.
There was some good for the Blues that brings some optimism. Vladimir Taresenko was spectacular at times, but it was far from enough. As of April 26th, when the Blues were eliminated, the Russian-winger’s six goals stand as the best mark in the postseason to date.
As for d0-everything defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, his eight assists were first on the team. Tarasenko and Shattenkirk were excellent, but the herculean efforts of just two players don’t win a playoff series by themselves. The Blues had only one other player register more than one goal in the series in Patrick Berglund. Meanwhile, T.J Oshie, Paul Stastny, David Backes and Alexander Steen, who make up the “core” of the Blues offense, combined for four goals in six games. Paul Stastny, whom the Blues signed in the offseason to give them more depth down the middle managed just one goal with no helpers, not exactly the kind of effort St. Louis handed him a multi-year deal for.
As the Blues start to pick up the pieces and assess the organization, the search for an answer to their conundrum starts in Northern California.
Let the San Jose Sharks be a reminder of when a coaching change and a quick, on the fly restart may be the right thing to do. The Sharks, as a parallel to the Blues, had plenty of talent but never reached the Stanley Cup Final. Sharks head coach Todd McLellan’s seven year tenure ended in a tumultuous campaign that saw the Sharks miss the playoffs for the first time under his tutelage. San Jose decided to stick with one man behind the bench through their window of success, without the result they so desired.
Much like the Blues with Hitchcock, the excellent regular season results haven’t resulted in much playoff success. Though the Blues did win a series in 2011-2012, an increasingly talented roster hasn’t even gotten to a game seven in the past three seasons, losing in game six to the Kings, Blackhawks and now the Wild.
The Blues have the chance to hit the reset button and take another shot or two with the current makeup of their roster, which like the Sharks, is loaded with talent and seemingly unlimited potential. Unlike the Sharks, who stuck with McLellan as the roster degraded and became despondent, the Blues are still in the sweet spot in terms of having the large portion of their roster still within their prime. Throw in the fact that Jake Allen showed signs of becoming a legitimate starting netminder during his rookie year, along with the continued emergence of Vlad Tarasenko, the case can be made that the Blues best years SHOULD be in front of them.
All that potential is great, but unless it’s realized, the Blues are doomed to the same fate as the Sharks; a perennial contender that feels the increasing heat of their past playoff debacles until they finally go down in a heap of flames.
Though Hitchcock’s past is decorated, the current state of the Blues begs for a new voice behind the bench, someone who can get the most out of the roster. With so much raw talent, now is the time to make the change. There is still ample time left for a new system to take hold and perhaps bring the Blues closer to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
As the old saying goes, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
After a third straight playoff meltdown, it would be insane to bring back Ken Hitchcock with the same roster and expect a different result.