Ken Hitchcock firing signals Blues starting over

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.

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Mid-season award predictions

So it’s the official midpoint of the season even though many teams are around the 50-game mark, well past the official midway point that is 41 games. But anyway, here’s a look at who might, will, and/or should win the respective NHL awards that are handed out following the season.

Hart Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- This award will probably go to Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby but Burns is why the Sharks lead the Pacific Division and are in the running to repeat as Western Conference champions. He’s been on the ice for 36 percent of San Jose’s goals, according to puckalytics, which compares to 28 percent for McDavid and 22 percent for Crosby. His 51 points in 50 games leads the team.

Vezina Trophy: Devan Dubnyk, Minnesota- What a story this will be. The once forgotten about, cast away to the AHL only to get another chance and thrive goaltender in Dubnyk finally getting his due. He’s statistically been right up there with Carey Price among the game’s best netminder over the past few seasons and he’s been unconscious once again this season. He leads the league in save percentage (.936) and GAA (1.88), and is second in wins (27). The only thing that separates him from the goaltending Triple Crown at the moment in Sergei Bobrovsky, who has one more win than Dubnyk.

Norris Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- For all the reasons mentioned above, and then some. He’s having an historic season for a defenseman, and is making a serious push at the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading point-getter. Should Burns win the scoring title – he’s eight points off the current perch held down by McDavid – he’d be just the second blueliner in NHL history to lead the league in scoring. The other is Bobby Orr.

Selke Trophy: Ryan Kesler, Anaheim- Kesler has been Anaheim’s best player this season. He has 39 points in 51 games while his 21:48 of ice time per game is a second behind Patrick Kane for the league-high among forwards. Kesler has taken a league-high 1,119 faceoffs, his 57.6 success rate on the draw third in the league behind Patrice Bergeron and Ryan O’Reilly among players that have taken greater than 900 faceoffs. Watch out for a late surge from Bergeron, whose offensive numbers aren’t there but numbers on defense, faceoffs, and possession remain through the roof.

Calder Trophy: Auston Matthews, Toronto- In what has been the Year of the Rookie in 2016-17, Matthews stands alone in the race for the Calder. That’s how good he is, and that’s how much higher a level he’s on than everybody else. Forget rookies, Matthews has been one of the top five players in the league this season. He looks like he’s been in the NHL for 10 years. He’s tied with Alex Ovechkin for fourth in the NHL with 23 goals.

Jack Adams Award: John Tortorella, Columbus- The Blue Jackets have broken out this season, emerging as one of the league’s best teams, highlighted by a 16-game winning streak that stretched from November to January. It’s another feather in the cap for Tortorella, whose best known for going into young clubs and getting guys to realize their potential, as he did in Tampa Bay and New York.

General Manager of the Year: Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton- Chiarelli has done a fine job reconstructing the roster in Edmonton, and the Oilers are on track to erase an 11-year playoff drought as a result. Of course, it all starts with Connor McDavid, but a Chiarelli bringing in a number of players over the past two years, such as Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Andrej Sekera, Mark Letestu, and Kris Russell has changed the identity of the team. While he traded an elite talent in Taylor Hall, it’s looked like the shake up the Oilers needed.

Lady Byng Trophy: Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis- He’s having his best season yet, with 47 points in 49 games while carrying a Blues team that isn’t as good as years past. He’s done so by staying out of the box, with just eight penalty minutes.

Masterton Trophy: Craig Anderson, Ottawa- Anderson hasn’t played since December 5th, away from the Senators to be by his wife’s side as she undergoes treatment for cancer. However, he’s nearing a return as his wife has completed treatment.

Art Ross Trophy: Brent Burns, San Jose- He’s a long shot but what the heck, let’s have some fun here. I’ll be rooting for the story.

Richard Trophy: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh- Crosby has slowed off the pace when it comes to putting the puck in the net after a torrid start to the year, but nobody has really caught up.

Vladimir Tarasenko hits cold streak

It wasn’t too long ago that Vladimir Tarasenko was among the short list of serious Hart Trophy candidates, carrying the St. Louis Blues and continuing his rise among the NHL’s best players, a ladder he’s ascended at a steady pace since entering the league in January 2013.

It looks like equilibrium has set in for the 25-year-old winger, who began the season with 13 goals through 24 games and 16 and 38 points through 33 contests. Tarasenko hasn’t scored a goal in eight games, recording just three points over that span to go along with a minus-seven rating. His even rating in Tuesday’s 3-0 win for St. Louis in Pittsburgh snapped a seven-game skid of finishing in the minus. He hasn’t been a positive on the plus/minus side of things since January 2nd, when the Blues beat the Blackhawks in the Winter Classic at Bush Stadium.

Tarasenko has just four goals over his last 15 games, all four of which came in a three-game stretch earlier this month.

Over the eight-game span in which Tarasenko has gone scoreless, the Blues have slumped to a 3-5 mark amidst what has been a trying season in St. Louis as the Blues have been unable to replace key losses over the offseason in David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Brian Elliott. Goaltending has been the big trouble spot for St. Louis, with Jake Allen unable to take hold of the starting job in net while Carter Hutton and Phoenix Copley haven’t been anymore than what they’re advertised as – which is backup goaltenders.

While Tarasenko remains on pace for a career-high 78 points, he has just eight in his last 15 games while his minus-11 is a career-low.

Of course, much of that rating can be attributed to the team around him not being as good as it was in prior seasons. Stats like plus-minus and Corsi (his Corsi-for per 60 minutes is a career-l0w 57.78, according to Puckalytics) are largely contingent on team play. And few would deny that this is the worst Blues team that Tarasenko has played for.

Tarasenko’s value to the Blues goes without saying, and it shows in the numbers. That career-low Corsi-for per 60 minutes leads the team among players that have logged 300 minutes for St. Louis this season, and is one of just seven among that group of 18 to have a goals-for percentage greater than 50 percent (52.83). It explains why he’s in the conversation for the award that goes to the NHL’s most valuable player, and will continue to be should the Blues remain in the playoff race.

Because of that value he brings to the Blues, his struggles of late in terms of getting on the scoresheet also explains why St. Louis has taken a bit of a dip in the standings.

David Backes will ‘Try not to cry’ as he returns to St. Louis

The St. Louis Blues made the playoffs for 25 consecutive years leading into the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, a run highlighted by stars from Bernie Federko to Brett Hull to Chris Pronger  to Al MacInnis in which the Blues did just about everything except – true to the Blues half-century existence – win a Stanley Cup.

Lean years followed coming out of the 2004-05 lockout however, beginning with the Blues missing the playoffs for the first time since 1979 in the 2005-06 season, eventually scoring the franchise’s first three-year playoff drought when St. Louis missed the postseason in 2008. The five Stanley Cup playoff DNQs in six seasons out of the infamous play stoppage was two more than the Blues had experienced in 37 seasons preceding the lockout.

David Backes was one of the key pieces to St. Louis returning to the NHL forefront from the abyss earlier this decade. Backes, who was drafted in the second round of the 2003 draft by the Blues, played a decade in St. Louis prior to signing a five-year deal with the Boston Bruins this past summer. He became a mainstay in the St. Louis lineup in 2006 and was named team captain in 2011. The Blues never missed the playoffs in the duration of his captaincy. A rugged, two-way forward, Backes developed into one of the NHL’s best 200-foot players during his time in St. Louis, while being a lock for 25-30 goals and around 60 points.

In his final season in St. Louis, the Blues came within two wins of its first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1970.

Tuesday night will be mark the first time Backes has played in St. Louis since departing for Boston, when Bruins visit the Blues.

“I’m going to try not to cry,” is what Backes told NHL.com’s Amalie Benjamin about the return. A tribute video will be played for Backes, the team announced on Tuesday.

Over 10 seasons, Backes put up 206 goals and 460 points in 727 games. His 727 games rank fifth in Blues history while his 460 points are sixth. In addition to his play on the ice, he was did a lot of work in the St. Louis community, which makes his homecoming that much more special for the Blues, the St. Louis fans, and more importantly, Backes himself.

Thoughts Are My Own: Trouba Has No Leverage

Thoughts as you realize it’s the first day of November. Woah, it’s the first day of November.

*Jacob Trouba is being Jonathan Drouin-ed. And will continue to be. The Jets want what no team will give for his services. He’s a solid, top four defenseman at 21 years old. He has the size, he has the projection of being a top defenseman. Winnipeg will let the situation ride itself out until the December 1 deadline, where which Trouba will forgo a full season should he not be signed then, which only hurts his value. Ball is in the court of Kevin Cheveldayoff and company.

*Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid facing off for the first time ever is the headliner of Tuesday’s games, and rightfully so; they’re special talents, the two most recent first overall picks, and two of the best in recent memory. But here’s some other matchups that might catch your eye: Tampa Bay at Islanders, Steven Stamkos vs. John Tavares in another showdown of first overall picks; Washington at Winnipeg, Alex Ovechkin vs. Patrik Laine, the greatest goal scorer of the post-lockout years against what looks like the next great goal scorer the game bears witness to; and Anaheim at Los Angeles needs no explanation.

*The matchup (not Tuesday, obviously, but down the road) I find most compelling is Toronto vs. Buffalo. Matthews vs. Jack Eichel in a showdown of the two top American youngsters, two guys who are among the faces in U.S. hockey as teenagers. This is only made better by the natural geographic rivalry that exists with the two franchises fighting for the love of southern Ontario.

*Elliotte Friedman reported on Saturday that there will be no changes to the All-Star Game voting format, which if true is the right decision. Last year’s game was as successful as it had been in quite some time, no need to overthink it. The league has bigger fish to fry.

*Nothing wrong with Mikhail Sergachev, the ninth overall pick in this past June’s draft, being sent back to Windsor. He’d played just three games in Montreal, might as well get another year of OHL experience under his belt. He’ll be on a Spitfires team that features fellow first rounder Logan Stanley on the back line and 11th overall pick Logan Brown up front. Sean Day was a third round pick.

*Ohio State hockey is out to a 5-0-2 start to the season, moving up to No. 11 in the USCHO.com poll. The Buckeyes should only expound on the strong record, with doubleheaders against Robert Morris, UConn, and RPI awaiting in the next three weekends. The big challenge doesn’t come until after Thanksgiving, when Ohio State travels to Minnesota to open its Big 10 schedule.

Links

Dave Tippett has a motorcycle shop in his house.

Bruce Boudreau was ‘grumpy’ at the Wild practice on Monday as Minnesota rode a short bench for multitude of reasons.

The latest in the class-action lawsuit that faces the CHL and threatens to change the landscape of major junior hockey in Canada.

Teams led by Peter Chiarelli and Marc Bergevin benefitting from questionable offseason transactions the two general managers made for the respective organizations, the Edmonton Oilers (Chiarelli) and the Montreal Canadiens (Bergevin).

Jay Bouwmeester reflects upon his career to date as he approaches his 1,000th career NHL game.

Coyotes rookie forward Christian Dvorak gets sent down to the AHL. The 20-year-old had three assists in seven games while averaging 13:45 of ice time per night.

A question nobody has asked, or even thought of – could Matthews/McDavid be the next great NHL rivalry?

In case you missed it: Episode two of the Bobcast with Bob McKenzie. He does a really good job with these, really offers a bit of everything; from inside information to the sharing of knowledge of the game to even veering outside the game. Worth the listen.

UConn Win over Notre Dame Another Sign of Program Moving in Right Direction

This year marks the third season for UConn in the Hockey East. The Huskies were 13-23-8 in league play over its first two seasons in the conference. They started 1-0 with a 4-2 win over seventh-ranked Notre Dame on Thursday night.

The 14-23-8 record in UConn’s first 45 games in Hockey East suggests exactly what was expected of the program when it entered the league two years ago. The friendly rivals down Interstate 84 would be, well, doormats. Maybe they’d pick up a win over a Providence here, tie a BU there, pick up a weekend sweep with an unsuspecting team once in a blue moon. And to be fair, the record suggests just that – a team that beats up on the Maines, New Hampshires, and Vermonts but can’t compete with the BCs, BUs, and Providences.

But it’s been the exact opposite. While talk of playing at the TD Garden for the Hockey East semifinals or qualifying for the NCAA tournament have been few and far between, the Huskies have been a respectable club, a formidable foe to conference opponents.

The Huskies win over the Irish on Thursday was its first. They’ve beat UMass-Lowell three times since joining the league. BC and BU have suffered defeats at the hands of the Huskies, while two of their eight ties have come against the two standard bearers of the conference. UConn is 8-12-4 against ranked opponents since entering the league.

This season, UConn is out to a 3-1-3 start through seven games – its lone loss to then-fourth ranked Quinnipiac – allowing just two goals per game, among eight teams in the nation to allow two goals or fewer. That group includes Army, BU, Bemidji State, Miami, North Dakota, Minnesota State, and Denver.

When factoring out odd-man situations (i.e. powerplays, shorthanded, extra attacker), the Huskies are outscoring opponents, 16-10, a goals-for percentage of .615. That’s good for sixth in the Hockey East. That said, Vermont is second in the conference in that category, where BC is the standard-bearer at .72. UConn is tied with UMass, and Maine is fourth. Meanwhile, UMass-Lowell and Providence lag along in the bottom five.

The centerpieces of the Huskies are a pair of Blues prospects, Maxim Letunov – a second-round pick by St. Louis in 2015 – and Tage Thompson, who was taken 26th overall by the Blues this past June. The duo combined for 30 goals and 72 points as freshmen last season, and are off to strong starts yet again in 2016-17; Thompson leads the team with eight points in seven games, Letunov has seven in six.

This year’s freshman class is headlined by Slovakian goaltender Adam Huska, a seventh-round pick by the New York Rangers. He was in net on Thursday, stopping 47 of 49 shots in the upset win. He compliments Rob Nichols, who has been among Hockey East’s most consistent goalies over the past three seasons.

Two of UConn’s three wins have come against Alabama-Huntsville while the Huskies tied American International out of Atlantic Hockey – a conference that has been pushing over the apple cart all season – but the Notre Dame win is more of a sign that this is a team going in the right direction. Expect to hear more about them as the season goes along.

Bruins Face Canadiens for First Time, Scott Stevens Returns to New Jersey, Brian Elliot Faces Blues

Quite a bit to watch on Saturday night as 12 NHL games are being played, including the first game between Boston and Montreal, Flames goaltender Brian Elliot facing the Blues, who traded him over the offseason. Zach Parise and Scott Stevens will make their returns to New Jersey as the Wild face the Devils; Parise, of course, as a player, and Stevens as an assistant coach to Bruce Boudreau.

Here’s the games being played: Toronto at Chicago, 7; N.Y. Rangers at Washington, 7; Montreal at Boston, 7; Carolina at Philadelphia, 7; Tampa Bay at Ottawa, 7; Colorado at Florida, 7; San Jose at Detroit, 7; Minnesota at New Jersey, 7; Pittsburgh at Nashville, 8; Columbus at Dallas, 8; Vancouver at Los Angeles, 10; St. Louis at Calgary, 10.

Players to Watch

Chicago: Richard Panik; Don’t look now but Panik is leading the Hawks with five goals in five games. Patrick who?

Toronto: James van Reimsdyk; Will not be playing against his brother, Trevor, as its being reported the younger van Reimsdyk will miss 5-6 weeks with an upper-body injury, as it’s being reported by Scott Powers of The Athletic. The two have played each other just once.

N.Y. Rangers: Mike Zibanejad; Off to a nice start with five points in four games.

Washington: Zach Sanford; The rookie expected to play Saturday after being out of the lineup on Thursday. Will face fellow ex-BC big forward Chris Kreider for the first time.

Montreal: Tomas Plekanec; The 33-year-old center seems to like playing the Bruins, his 46 points against the archrival is the most he’s scored against any NHL opponent.

Boston: David Backes; First game in the rivalry. In 11 games against Montreal, he has four goals and eight points.

Carolina: Victor Rask; The Swedish center leads the Hurricanes with five goals in four games. He had 48 last season, up from 33 his rookie season.

Philadelphia: Pierre-Edouard Bellemare; The French centerman is leading the Flyers with a 54 percent faceoff percentage. He’s won 24 of 44 draws.

Tampa Bay: Ben Bishop; The Lightning netminder played 23 games in Ottawa from 2011-13 before being traded to Tampa, where his career has since blossomed. He is 117-53-17 since that deal, with a .921 save percentage and 2.26 GAA. Bishop has twice finished in the top three of the Vezina Trophy voting in a Lightning uniform.

Ottawa: Guy Boucher; Yeah, yeah, I know. He’s a coach. But the Senators first-year bench boss spent three seasons as the head man in Tampa Bay, going 97-79-20. He led the Bolts to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2011, his first season behind the bench.

Colorado: Patrick Wiercioch; The defenseman has four points in four games.

Florida: Jaromir Jagr; Jagr coming off his 750th goal of the season.

San Jose: Brent Burns; The defenseman has points in five consecutive games to begin the season.

Detroit: Thomas Vanek; Still second on the team with six points.

Minnesota: Zach Parise; Still hanging on 299. How fitting would it be to get 300 in New Jersey, where he spent the first seven years of his career?

New Jersey: Cory Schneider; Has a .938 save percentage and 2.00 GAA in four games. Going to need to keep it up; the Devils have six goals in four games.

Pittsburgh: Patric Hornqvist; He has four points in five games, second on the team behind Evgeni Malkin, who has five.

Nashville: James Neal; Played in Pittsburgh from 2011-14, had 89 goals and 184 points in 199 games.

Columbus: Zach Werenski; The rookie leads the Jackets in scoring.

Dallas: Devin Shore; The 22-year-old tied with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin for the team lead with four goals.

Vancouver: Jacob Markstrom; He’s stopped 68 of 73 shots that have come his way in three games.

Los Angeles: Jeff Carter; His 58.8 faceoff percentage ninth in the league.

St. Louis: Jay Bouwmeester; The defenseman played four seasons in Calgary. His 25:52 average time on ice was the highest among the three teams he played for (Florida 2002-09, St. Louis 2013-present).

Calgary: Brian Elliot; Played five seasons in St. Louis, had a 2.01 GAA and .925 save percentage in 181 games.

#HatTrickChallenge

James Neal: Hasn’t found the net in four games. Breaks out against his former team.

Game of the Night

Montreal at Boston: It’s never a dull one when these two teams face each other.

Lock to Win

Minnesota: Zach Parise gets his 300th goal against the team that drafted him and the Wild continue to roll.