No, the Blues did not get Mike Babcock, but you knew that already. However, the Blues were reportedly vying for his services with Ken Hitchcock still behind their bench. Today, the latter agreed to a single year extension with the team he has coached for the last four seasons.
The 63-year old came into St. Louis in 2011 after being fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets. Through the four seasons, the Blues’ faithful have seen unreal hockey…In the regular season. The team has posted the best regular season record since that year, with a 175-79-27 mark. Hitchcock has been no stranger to regular season success, posting eight 45+ win seasons in his coaching career, along with three 50+ win seasons with two of them coming in the last two campaigns. His first 50-win season saw him win a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999, the only Cup in his career and in the franchise. He’s been trying to grant the wishes of the Blues organization in doing the same, but he and his teams have been painfully unsuccessful.
Those last two 50-win seasons have seen first round exits, with the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild each beating the team in six games respectively. In fact, the Blues have been ousted in the first round in each of the last three seasons. But, how much of it falls on Hitchcock versus the stars he has on the team?
In 26 playoff games under Hitchcock’s tenure, T.J. Oshie has scored just five goals and nine points. David Backes in 25 games has just four goals and ten points. Alex Steen in 27? Six goals and 13 points. Newcomer Paul Stastny after scoring five goals and netting ten points with the Avalanche in seven games last season scored just one goal in six games. Budding superstar Vladimir Tarasenko has been the consistent playoff performer up front, scoring 10 goals in just 12 games since last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. The defensemen have chipped in, with Kevin Shattenkirk potting 15 assists in 27 games, including eight this past postseason. Alex Pietrangelo, steady as he goes, has twelve points in 26 career playoff games; not as impressive. It’s good to get some offense from the blueline on the big stage, but the players up front have to steal the show, and that is something that has not happened for the Blues during this four-year run.
A substantial problem for the Blues in recent years when it comes to the playoffs has been goaltending. In 2012 and 2013, Brian Elliott was the guy. In the 14 games combined, he had a .911 save percentage and a 2.14 GAA. Not bad, but not extraordinary, and he ran into Jonathan Quick twice. In 2014, it was Ryan Miller getting a chance after being traded from the Buffalo Sabres at the deadline, a team that he posted a playoff stat line of a .918 save percentage and 2.51 GAA in 47 games with. He underperformed to say the least, posting a .897 save percentage and 2.70 GAA. The team fell to the Blackhawks in four straight games after winning the first two at home, exiting early yet again. This year, it was the youngster Jake Allen. In games 1-4, he was steady, posting a .935 save percentage as the Blues came home for Game 5. The team would lose that game and the clinching Game 6, with Allen giving up six goals on 32 shots combined.
Knowing the performance of the most important players on the roster, how much of it really does fall on the head coach? In his career, Hitchcock himself has gotten past the 2nd round with his respective teams four times in the 13 times he’s made it to Lord Stanley’s Tournament: three consecutive times with the Dallas Stars from 1998-2000, and once with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2004. With those Stars teams, in ’98, the team won the President’s Trophy with 109 points and lost in the Conference Finals. In ’99, the team did it again, posting 114 points and winning a Stanley Cup. In 2000, the team won just 43 games and netted 102 points, but went to the Finals again. In 2004, the Flyers won just 40 games yet won the Atlantic Division with 101 points clinching the 3rd seed in the East, just one point from a sixth seed. The team went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, coming up a goal short of the Stanley Cup Final in Game 7.
So, Hitchcock has done it before, coaching the both the favorite and a team that was not as sexy in the regular season. The problem is that has not advanced past the second round consistently since 2000 and that there are high expectations in St. Louis. The team is playing arguably their best hockey in franchise history since the team made three straight Stanley Cup Finals when they came into the league in 1967 under a coach by the name of Scotty Bowman, so naturally the thirst for the first drink from the Cup is stronger than ever. The one-year deal given by General Manager Doug Armstrong is indicative of the playoff struggles the team has had despite their regular season success under Hitchcock, and gives a sense of urgency for not only the team to make it farther but more so for the coach.
If the Blues don’t succeed in 2015-16, major changes could be coming. Not only would they be made behind the bench(let’s face it, it’s a 1-year deal), but in terms of certain underperforming personnel, it’s definitely possible some core pieces could be moved. The team could win more games than this year’s Blues team in the regular season, but it all comes down to the spring.
If there’s no progress there, well…