In the five season span Hitchcock has coached the Blues, they rank third in regular season win %. During this span, St. Louis has also finished first or second in the central division. With numbers like that, it is safe to say that the Blues have been one of the league’s upper-echelon clubs over the last half decade. Although the Blues regular season success has consistently dissipated come postseason, they stepped forward and advanced to the conference finals last year.
This year though, things have gone sour in St. Louis. They have not enjoyed the same regular season success we have all grown accustomed to. Currently two points out, the Blues have teetered in and out of the playoff picture lately. So why has a perennial powerhouse lost their luster with a still very talented roster? More importantly, who is responsible for the big drop off, and who should have actually been fired?
Ken Hitchcock: Prior to the season, Ken Hitchcock announced that this would be his last season coaching in the NHL. Ranking 4th all time in NHL wins (one win behind Al Arbour for third), Hitchcock is one of the more accomplished coaches in league history. Hitchcock has done it all, leading the ’99 Stars to a Stanley Cup, and reaching the playoffs with every team he has coached. Bottom line, he knows how to win in this league.
When inspecting the Blues system and structure, everything more or less checks out as relatively decent. They have not abandoned the defensively sound system that has led to their success in past seasons. They currently rank 13th (50.4) in even strength corsi, which is a dip from 6th (51.9) in the past five years. While this is a significant dip, the Blues have not fallen off a cliff this season and are still playing a controlled game.
The Blues have not produced at the rate of an elite level offense this year, but it has certainly been good enough. The Blues rank 11th in GF60, scoring 2.77 gpg. In fact, if we look back at the prior five seasons under Hitchcock, we find that offense has been even slightly better than usual. From 2011-2016 the Blues ranked 12th in GF60 averaging 2.67 gpg. The Blues have been the third winningest team in the NHL with an offense less prolific than the one they have now. They also still possess the same strong defensive core that must draw mass envy from all teams. So outside of the obvious poor goaltending, which is certainly out of Hitchcock’s hands, what has he ‘messed up’ this year? The Blues seem to be still playing an intense brand of hockey and there is no distinct justification to terminate Hitchcock.
Jake Allen and Carter Hutton: We all know what a horror story the St. Louis Blues goaltending tandem has been. The Blues rank dead-last with an 88.84 sv%. The fact that they are even in the race for a playoff spot is remarkable in itself. The Blues defense has not exactly let them get barraged by shots either.
The Blues are only allowing .7 more shots a game than the previous five seasons with Hitchcock under helm. In fact, Allen and Hutton have faced less of a workload than a majority of the league, as the Blues rank 5th in SA60 (27.3). So all in all, there is only one distinct explanation for the Blues regular season success having gone awry this year, and that is goaltending. Jake Allen and Carter Hutton have not given the Blues much of a chance. A move certainly needs to be made to rectify the Blues’ goalie situation.
Jake Allen might want to send Ken Hitchcock a gift. If Allen is even average this season, Hitch is employed right now.— Matt Larkin (@THNMattLarkin) February 1, 2017
Doug Armstrong (GM): Investing only ~3.5 million cap hit of a 73 million dollar cap, on hockey’s most valuable position, may be… slightly shortsighted. Armstrong banked big on cheap goaltending, and that is a really bold move that has blown up. When buying a house, you would not buy expensive furniture and renovate the kitchen if you have a leaky roof. You fix the roof first, and then move forward. Do not go cheap on structure or foundation. Going cheap on foundation is exactly what Armstrong has done. Armstrong has made poor evaluations in regards to personnel. He traded away goalie Anders Nilsson, who has blossomed this season, for only a fifth round pick. Letting leadership players walk, like Backes and Brouwer, may have hindered the Blues in a season of crisis as well.
For a team that had cup aspirations prior to the season, Armstrong has made major miscalculations. The Stanley Cup appears to be a distant dream in St. Louis these days. So why do Armstrong and the goaltending tandem still have their jobs, while Hitchcock is essentially forced into retirement? If anyone should have paid for the Blues tumultuous season so far, it should be Armstrong, and not Hitchcock.
Can a team only two points behind the Calgary Flames, with three games in hand, find a way into the postseason? Yes, they most certainly will grab a wildcard under new head coach Mike Yeo. The Blues have the pieces to trade for an average goaltender. Luckily, average appears to be all they need to qualify for the playoffs as they are balanced otherwise. The Blues are still a threat, and maybe some regular season adversity will rev them up come playoff time. However, the wrong man lost his job in St. Louis.