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.

Three Stars of the Midweek

NHL

Auston Matthews, Toronto: Do we really need to explain this? At one point it was looking like he was going to bury eight. The savior has arrived in Toronto.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton: The first overall pick in 2015 prior to Matthews being selected first in June logged defenseman-like 23:27 in the Oilers 7-4 win over Calgary. Oh, and he had two goals and an assist to boot.

Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis: His second goal was an empty-netter, but his goal with 32 seconds left in the second period set the tone for the Blues three-goal third period in their 5-2 win over Chicago.

CHL

Nicolas Hague, Mississauga: The Steelheads poured it on Guelph with an 11-3 win on Wednesday. Hague, a defenseman, accounted for three of the goals, finishing with four points while finishing with a plus-four. A projected first round pick in 2017 with dimensions of 6-foot-5/216 pounds, the 17-year-old has five goals and eight points in seven games.

Jeremy Bracco, Kitchener: More good news for Leafs fans. Bracco, a second-round pick by Toronto in 2015, had three goals and five points in the Rangers 8-4 win over Guelph on Monday. He factored in four of the five powerplay goals for Kitchener, including two of his three goals. The Long Island native has five goals and nine points in three games, following up a strong first OHL campaign in which he put up 64 points in 49 games after leaving Boston College to join Kitchener. He had 14 points in nine games in the 2016 OHL playoffs.

Michael Bullion, Portland: Coming off a rough outing in which he allowed seven goals on 28 shots in a 7-3 loss to Swift Current, he stopped 48 of the 52 shots he faced in the Winterhawks 5-4 win over Regina on Wednesday night.

 

 

 

Central Division: Facts, Figures, Predictions

*The Chicago Blackhawks will go for its fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons this upcoming spring (OK, they have to make it first). The last team to win four within eight years was Edmonton, who won five in a seven-year span from 1984-90.

*Patrick Kane’s 106 points en route to the Art Ross Trophy in 2015-16 was the highest scoring total in an NHL season since Evgeni Malkin posted 109 in 2011-12. No player has reached 110 since Henrik Sedin’s 112-point campaign in 2009-10.

*(Kind of) oldie but a goodie – the Blackhawks point total in 2012-13 adjusted to 132 (they had 77 in 48 games). That total would’ve tied a record held by the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens.

*The Colorado Avalanche have won 39 games in each of the last two seasons; the first time the Avs failed to win 40 games two full years in a row since the NHL went to a 82-game schedule in 1995-96. Back when the franchise was in Quebec City, the Nordiques won 16 and 20 games, respectively, in 1991 and ’92, part of a stretch of six years of 40 wins or fewer from 1987-92.

*Matt Duchene scored 30 goals last season, the first Colorado player to reach that mark since Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk tallied 36 and 35, respectively, in 2006-07. Hejduk is the most recent to score 40, when he buried 50 chances in 2002-03.

*In 2013-14, Seymon Varlomov led all goaltenders in wins (41), his .927 save percentage was tied with Carey Price for second, and ranked 10th with a 2.41 GAA among goalies who played 55 games. In two seasons since, he’s 15th in wins (55), his .918 save percentage tied for 11th, and his 2.68 GAA 15th.

*The Stars league-leading 3.23 goals-per-game last season was the highest since the Penguins led the league with 3.33 in 2011-12.

*There have been just six 30-goal seasons in Nashville Predators history. Filip Forsberg and James Neal accounted for two of them last season.

*The Blues have allowed the second-lowest goals per game over the past five seasons, a rate of 2.26 per game. Only Los Angeles (2.24) has allowed fewer.

Predictions

1. Nashville: You’re going to love the way this team plays hockey.

2. St. Louis: David Backes is gone, but all will be well up front as Vladimir Tarasenko scores 50 goals.

3. Chicago: The Hawks window is far from closed.

4. Dallas: The Stars overcome early struggles as its best recover from offseason injuries.

5. Minnesota: Bruce Boudreau effect gets underway, expect a higher finish than this.

6. Winnipeg: Patrik Laine finished with more points than Auston Matthews.

7. Colorado: The Avs are a franchise at a crossroads.