By Lou Korac
Using lines similar to what he had previously already done twice in his tenure as president of hockey operations and general manager, Doug Armstrong had to once again explain to the media and St. Louis hockey fans why another coaching change was taking place for the Blues.
Armstrong fired Mike Yeo Monday and replaced him with associate coach Craig Berube, who was named on an interim basis, after a dreadful 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Kings, who are the only team keeping the Blues (7-9-3) from the league’s basement and a team that has already gone through a coaching change of their own.
The Blues have 17 points in the Western Conference, a far cry of what they expected when they made the significant splashes this summer with free agent signings of David Perron, Tyler Bozak, Pat Maroon and Chad Johnson before making the blockbuster trade with the Buffalo Sabres to acquire center Ryan O’Reilly.
A cap ceiling team is severely underachieving (where has this been heard before?) at this point of the season that has nearly reached the 20 percent marker, and the Blues are already five points out of the second Western Conference wild card berth.
“It’s obviously an uncomfortable day for myself and the organization,” Armstrong, who has fired Davis Payne in 2011 and Ken Hitchcock in 2017, said Tuesday morning. “A difficult decision was made last night to relieve Mike Yeo of his head coaching duties. You never make these decisions in a vacuum or quickly and it was something that I felt and shared with ownership that it was time to make a change to see what we can accomplish for this season. With that being said, I’m excited to work with Craig. Craig’s career speaks for itself as a player. He’s put in his time as an NHL head coach before, he’s worked in our organization with some of our younger players, he’s in tune with today’s game, he’s in tune with today’s athlete and I’m excited to work with him on an interim basis and I thank him for being a total team player and grabbing the rope when I asked him last night in a very uncomfortable time for him and the organization.”
So in other words, someone else is paying for the mistakes of those that are still employed by the franchise. Sounds familiar. And predictable, considering the Blues have never won a Stanley Cup and reached the Western Conference once since 2001.
Yeo, hired by the Blues on June 13, 2016 as an associate coach and eventual successor to Hitchcock, replaced Hitchcock on Feb. 1, 2017 and immediately went on a 22-8-2 run that pushed the Blues from on the brink to making the playoffs to being a shoe-in. He then opened 2017-18 with an identical 22-8-2 run, giving him a 44-16-4 start to his Blues career, which is fantastic.
But after missing the playoffs last season for the first time in seven years and stumbling out of the gates in 2018-19, Yeo closed his Blues tenure at 29-33-7 and finished with a still respectable 73-49-11 record in parts of three seasons.
“I want to thank Mike Yeo for his time with the Blues,” Armstrong said. “I got to know Mike and his family well. And that’s the difficult part of this. You start out as co-workers, then you become friends. And then you have to go back to co-workers. The talk I had with him last night, telling him that we had to make a change, my experiences being where he was sitting, as soon as you hear that information, your mind starts to move quickly: I gotta talk to my wife, I gotta talk to my kids. So I plan to get with Mike later in the next week or two to go over and thank him personally and reassure him that he’s paying for the sins of myself and the entire organization. It’s very unfortunate.”
So what went wrong?
“Ultimately it comes back to our record,” Armstrong said. “I thought when he came in, he was able to jell the team. We went on a nice run, we won a playoff round. We had a good feeling about ourselves. That carried over into the first 25 games of next season. We were a top three or four team in the league, feeling good about ourselves, everything was going well. Then we hit a rut in December, January. And quite honestly, we haven’t got out of it. If you look at our record since Dec. 1 of ’17, we’re about a .500 hockey team. That’s not good enough in today’s NHL.
“And as I said, Mike is paying for sins of a collective group. It’s not all on Mike, but ultimately as the head coach you’re responsible to get the team to play at a level. I thought we made some changes this summer that would put us in a different spot than we are at this time. We haven’t had consistent play for our top players … that goes without saying.”
So since 2011, Armstrong has fired Davis Payne, Hitchcock and Yeo, and there’s no guarantees Berube keeps the job permanently. Speculation has run rampant that former Blues coach Joel Quenneville, recently fired by the Chicago Blackhawks after winning three Stanley Cups in the Windy City, is a candidate for the Blues job. But Quenneville, 60, still is owed $6 million this year and next as part of his contract with Chicago. Armstrong was non-committal on names that could emerge among a group of veteran coaches that could be in line for the job here.
“I would say the interim tag is based on a decision made last night,” Armstrong said of Berube, a former coach of the Philadelphia Flyers (2013-15) and the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, the Blues’ AHL affiliate at the time in 2016-17. “He did a very good job with our American Hockey League affiliate. He’s got experience. He’s gonna be given that opportunity. But as a manager you have to multi-task. I’m gonna throw my full support behind Craig and his staff right now as we try and cauterize the wound and get back into the playoff picture. By doing that though we’re going to start the process off putting a list together of head coaches. There’s gonna be experienced head coaches on that list. There’s gonna be European head coaches on that list. There’s gonna be college head coaches on that list. Major junior head coaches. We’re not going to minimize or limit the scope that we’re gonna look at, but it’s not something that’s gonna be done over the next day or two. This is gonna be a process that we’re gonna look hard and be thorough on. And doing that, we’re gonna support Craig and his staff. You would love to have a situation where enough is enough for our core group and they take charge of this team. And Craig is at the helm of that and we have great success and we move forward together.”
As for Quenneville?
“I’m not going to talk about any one individual,” Armstrong said.
Enter Berube, 52, who is a hard-nosed, old-school Hitchcock protege that will demand results but can communicate well with his players.
He is the second straight associate coach to be appointed coach, albeit on an interim basis.
“It’s a difficult time for sure,” Berube said. “Mike’s a good friend of mine, I loved working with him, coaching with him, so it’s tough, but we’ve got to move forward here and we’ve got to get better, and that’s the plan.”
And how do they plan on doing that?
“We’re working on that,” Berube said. “We’ve got ideas we’re working on right now. We’ve definitely got to instill some confidence back in this hockey team. It’s a good hockey team, we’ve got good players and we’ve got to get moving in the right direction.
“I don’t think that it’s nothing’s worked or nothing’s gelled. It’s inconsistent. I think there’s been times where it’s looked really good and we don’t get that on a consistent basis. That’s something we’ve got to figure out.”
And of course, there’s the player reaction, and all to a man that spoke said they failed Yeo and simply have to be better (where have we heard that before, too?).
“Nope. It’s not easy, it’s not easy,” Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo said. “Stuff starts affecting families and life. It’s not an easy thing to go through.
“You develop a relationship obviously prior to [Yeo] becoming a head coach and then he is and then my role obviously, you have to have a relationship. It’s a tough part of the business. You feel like you let him down and he’s paying for the fact that we’re not playing up to our standards.”
Perron, who signed a four-year, $16 million free agent contract to return to the blues for a third stint, said there’s no doubt who let who down.
“We had to be better. We had meetings, I think it was three weeks ago, and obviously we knew something was going to happen if we didn’t change,” Perron said. “You can see one good game, then one game … in Chicago, it kind of broke us (a 1-0 loss on Nov. 14). I think we actually played a pretty good game and didn’t score, almost like [Monday] night. It was hard and then we go to Vegas and play probably our absolute best game of the season (a 4-1 win on Nov. 16) and couldn’t follow it up the next day (a 4-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks).
“It’s obviously heartbreaking for [Yeo]. We feel for him. We let him down and it’s tough. We’ve got to find a way to move forward. He knows the business and that’s what he signed up for, but it’s never easy to take. He would want us to move forward and turn the page as soon as possible because he’s been in this situation. We feel for him.”
Players always “feel” for the coach, because he’s usually the one getting sacrificed for players’ failures, and let’s face it, this has been an utter failure thus far through 19 games, but Armstrong left it on the table that the core group will not have any more mulligans here.
“We’re not good enough,” Armstrong said. “As the general manager, the wins and losses fall on hockey operations, and as the president of hockey operations and general manager of the team, there’s things that need to be addressed. We’ve stayed patient with the core group of players, and that patience now is at it’s thinnest point.
“… The core group’s equity built up is gone, that’s what I have to say. I guess I could say it again that the next permanent head coach, if we’re having this conversation, there’ll be core players gone. But I guess if I said that once I wouldn’t believe it either.”
Pietrangelo, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester, Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson and others, the ball is in your court now.
“We just have to win games,” Allen said. “We just have to find ways to get points. That’s it. There’s really no other words around it. We have to find ways. We’re below .500 and that’s not acceptable for this organization. We haven’t been like that since my tenure as a Blue and it’s definitely disappointing.”
“I understand what he’s saying,” Pietrangelo said of Armstrong. “I’ve been here through a few coaches now and it’s got to be on the players to turn things around. At some point, it’s off the coach and on the players.”
Armstrong also got that message from chairman Tom Stillman, who along with his ownership group have given Armstrong free reign to spend up to the cap, and with attendance already dwindling sparked by fan anger over the team’s play, Armstrong’s neck may soon be on the line also.
“He’s angry. Not angry at any one individual. He’s a fan,” Armstrong said of Stillman. “I talk about the blue collar people that come to our game, he might be white collar, but he’s a blue-collar fan. He loves the game and he gets angry when we don’t play well and it’s a good anger; it’s not venting. He’s disappointed where we’re at, we walk through the process of why we’re where we’re at. We talk on a daily or every other day basis, so it’s not something where I hadn’t talked to him since training camp. I called him in the second period last night. But he’s disappointed. He’s supportive of what we want to do. He also believes that Mike is paying for sins that aren’t just his own. He’s obviously said if this group isn’t the right group, ‘I need you to do your job.'”
Because one trip to the Western Conference Final in nine years at the helm isn’t going to cut it.