Doug Armstrong is not in an enviable position.
Through 50 games, the St. Louis Blues are 24-21-5, teetering on the edge of the Western Conference playoff picture. The Blues are tied with Calgary for eighth in the West with 53 points, a pair of games in hand serving as the magic ticket keeping the team on the good side of the world famous ‘if the season were to end today’ scenarios.
On one hand, the Blues are a team coming off a trip to the Western Conference final, finally breaking through last season following three straight first round exits and finishing among the last four standing in the NHL for the first time since 2001. This year’s team has plenty of holdovers from last season, but is currently an underachieving group with a talented yet snakebitten young netminder in Jake Allen. Should things come together, anything is possible in a wide-open Western Conference. After all, who saw San Jose reaching the Stanley Cup final at this time last year?
On the other hand, the Blues lost captain David Backes to free agency over the offseason in addition to Troy Brouwer and Brian Elliott, who was traded to Calgary in a draft-night trade. St. Louis is unlikely to re-sign UFA-to be Kevin Shattenkirk, a dynamic puck-moving defenseman who will command a big payday on the open market. The Blues look like a team in transition.
It’s for those reasons why the decision to fire head coach Ken Hitchcock or allow him to ride out his final season behind the bench was probably as hard a decision Armstrong has had made as an executive, one he likely mulled over for weeks if not months. On Wednesday morning, Armstrong chose the former, relieving Hitchcock of his duties and handing the keys over to coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo, who was poised to take over head coaching duties following the season.
The angst that befell Armstrong as he made this decision showed when he spoke with the media on Wednesday to announce the decision, fighting back tears as he grabbed a few slices of the blame pie.
Armstrong can take solace in the fact this was probably the right move to make. This year’s Blues club isn’t as good as it was in past seasons. St. Louis currently ranks 18th in the NHL with a 48 percent goals for percentage at five-on-five, according to puckalytics. The team hadn’t finished below seventh in the league in that category over the last three seasons, and hadn’t been below 51.59 percent in the five previous seasons under Hitchcock. The Blues score, zone, and venue adjusted Corsi was 53.1, according to Corsica, which checks in at fifth-lowest in the league.
While Allen shows a good deal of promise in net, he hasn’t given anybody the confidence that he could carry a club through the Stanley Cup playoffs. The team in front of him hasn’t been particularly great either, despite allowing the fifth fewest shots per 60 minutes, at 27.33.
Outside Vladimir Tarasenko, whose carried the Blues offense with 49 points in 50 games, the St. Louis attack has been nonexistent.
Again, the case can be made that this is a talented, underachieving group that can come alive at any time. Maybe the Hitchcock firing turns into a turning point in the season for the Blues. It could also be the start of St. Louis starting over, in which the next shoe to drop would be dealing Shattenkirk, who will hit the open market come July 1st.
But at the end of the day, this was the right decision for Armstrong to make with regard to the coaching situation in St. Louis, no matter how hard it may have been.