Skip to main content

Hockey Blues’ GM Armstrong says team has become collection of ‘independent contractors’

Just about every news conference that follows a coaching change produces the same bland, boilerplate language – the "yadda yadda yadda" of Seinfeld.

On his way out the door, the newly unemployed coach is lauded for his diligent efforts; for his contributions to player development; and for the overall stamp he left on the organization.

Most times, you're left wondering: Why did they fire this coaching paragon anyway? It usually sounds like he should have gotten a raise instead.

Story continues below advertisement

But on Wednesday, in announcing that he had replaced Ken Hitchcock behind the bench with coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo, St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong made a fascinating point about why his team is flailing away in the NHL's Central Division this season. According to Armstrong, the Blues have lost all sense of team identity and have morphed into a collection of "independent contractors."

Now, most people would have been content to discuss whether Hitchcock had been done in by the goaltending struggles of Jake Allen and/or Carter Hutton; or if he'd "lost" the dressing room because of his unrelenting methods.

But Armstrong, a long-time executive who won the Stanley Cup with Hitchcock and the 1999 Dallas Stars, upped the ante considerably by shifting the discussion to selfish play.

He understands that being an independent contractor is a fact of life in today's NHL – and that the notion cuts both ways. When former Blues captain David Backes left as a free agent to join the Boston Bruins in the summer and Troy Brouwer left to sign with the Calgary Flames, they did so partly to enhance their wealth, but also because the Blues made the financial decision to let them go rather than squeeze their demands into their salary-cap structure and make changes elsewhere.

So the Blues lost two of their edgiest players and two essential pieces of their identity.

Philosophically, Hitchcock always relied on his leadership group to act as a liaison between the coaching staff and the dressing room. Backes – a smart, glib facilitator – did yeoman's service there, helping to keep the peace when unhappiness threatened to bubble to the surface.

For most of their years under Hitchcock, the Blues played the same essential style as the Los Angeles Kings. They were a hard team to play against, one that would grind you down physically. In theory, their take-no-prisoners style was supposed to pay dividends in the playoffs (which it did for Los Angeles, but not for St. Louis).

Story continues below advertisement

As the Blues saw their championship window closing, they refreshed their roster, this summer making it younger and putting more emphasis on speed and less on size. Nail Yakupov came in. Robby Fabbri's minutes were upped. But in moving to a different type of team, the Blues were no longer the same fearsome opponent. Talent remains – in Vladimir Tarasenko, in Jaden Schwartz, in Colton Parayko and in older players such as Paul Stastny, Alex Pietrangelo and Alexander Steen.

But fundamentally, they lost their way.

All of that could have been overcome if the goaltending had held up. But the Blues determined that this was the year, once and for all, that Allen would be given the opportunity to become the team's undisputed starter, after moving on from the likes of Ben Bishop, Jaroslav Halak, Ryan Miller and Brian Elliott. The decision has been a massive failure to date.

Allen has seemingly lost all his confidence, and Hitchcock's decision to remove him from a series of games in January only exacerbated the problem. Just before the NHL all-star break, the Blues left Allen behind for a game against the Winnipeg Jets so he could take a mental break from the game.

He returned Tuesday night, gave up five goals to the Jets – and looked to be the same fragile soul he was before the break.

So naturally, the coach had to go.

Story continues below advertisement

In Yeo, the Blues promoted the man that was going to be Hitchcock's replacement next year anyway.

Last year, the Blues played 20 playoff games and were tied 2-2 in the Western Conference final against the San Jose Sharks, with the home-ice advantage, but lost in six.

It was the sort of glass-half-full postseason success story that tempted the team to give it one last try with Hitchcock – minus some of the players that played the Hitchcock way.

Armstrong's next key decision will be what to do with defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk, a pending unrestricted free agent and one of the biggest names making the rounds as the NHL trading deadline approaches.

The Blues have made it clear that, with their other payroll obligations, they probably cannot meet Shattenkirk's asking price, which means they'll either move him by the deadline or risk losing him for nothing in free agency.

Again, that's the nature of the beast in the NHL. Everybody's an independent contractor at their core, and the most successful coaches are the ones who can convince players to put their individual goals aside once the ink is dry on their contracts and pursue team goals.

Story continues below advertisement

Hitchcock leaves the NHL coaching ranks with 781 career regular-season victories, fourth on the all-time list and just one behind Al Arbour, a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

Hitchcock is a hockey lifer and as such will resurface – perhaps in an advisory role, perhaps coaching for Canada internationally or even by taking an overseas gig, of which there are always plenty open. The hired-to-be-fired culture isn't limited to North America or the NHL.

A year ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins made a midseason coaching change – from Mike Johnston to Mike Sullivan – and it translated into a Stanley Cup championship. Last month, the New York Islanders replaced Jack Capuano with Doug Weight and they haven't lost in regulation since (5-0-1). But the results were far less positive in Florida, where interim coach Tom Rowe had just 11 wins to show for his first 28 games behind the bench after replacing Gerard Gallant. So there is no one-size-fits-all solution for an in-season coaching change.

But Yeo will seem a lot smarter if he can figure out how to get Allen stopping pucks consistently again. For better or worse, a coach's IQ is almost always linked to his goaltender's save percentage, no matter how beloved – or disliked – they were.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter