Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
What does St. Louis have in common with fellow NHL teams Tampa Bay, Columbus, Winnipeg, Anaheim and Calgary? They are all under-performing so far this hockey season and disappointing their fans with sloppy, lackluster play and a knack for losing points to weaker teams. What is the difference between the Blues and those other teams? The Blues are in second place in their division, 8 games over .500, and in a slot to qualify for the playoffs, while the others are all out of a playoff contention with records near, at or under .500. Yes, Blues Nation is a tad spoiled with the club's earlier success in October and instead is focused, and rightly so, on the team's losing three of the last four games in December and unbelievably poor play at home, even at times (only three shots in the first period) during Tuesday's 4-1 win over Arizona. The guillotine blade is primed and ready to fall, with Coach Ken Hitchcock's ample neck still stretched out on the block.
It is said NHL coaches are hired to be fired, and even the best coaches have at some point in their careers found a pink slip in their mailbox, including Scotty Bowman (#1 in coaching victories with 1, 244), Al Arbour (#2, 782) and Joel Quenneville (#3, 722). Ironically, all three have been sacked by the Blues. You can add Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn, Hitchcock, Mike Keenan, Ron Wilson, Bryan Murray and Lindy Ruff to the top ten in all-time wins of coaches who have been fired, almost all multiple times at that.
The Blues actually did fire a coach on Christmas Day in 1971. After playing four seasons for St. Louis on left wing, Bill "the Senator" McCreary was hired as coach to start the 1971 season, yet found a pink slip in his Christmas stocking. McCreary was only on the bench for 24 games with a 6-14-4 record. The team was without a victory in the Senator's last eight games, only managing to tally an average of a goal and a half in that span. Jeremy Rutherford of the Post Dispatch reported that McCreary said, "I don't know what went wrong. They played so well in some games that you wonder why they couldn't continue." Sound familiar?
So, what's wrong with the Blues? Is it the coach and his restrictive systems?? Is it spoiled rotten, rich players giving up on the coach, as well as themselves??? Is it a combination of the two?
The simple, concise answer to the last three questions is, yes.
So, how do you fix it? Of course, there is no simple, concise answer to that question.
My 30 years experience teaching junior and senior high school history leads me to believe the old tired adage, "You can lead a horse to Imo's pizza, yet cannot make it eat provel cheese", or something akin to that. The Blues' players have had various coaches for at least fifteen years or more in their careers and they know the systems and how to play the game. They wouldn't be in the NHL otherwise. So, it's up to the players on the ice to combine their prior knowledge with the current systems and with hard work, effort and determination, using their superior skills to produce results on the ice.
Mike Babcock is acknowledged to be the best coach in the NHL. His previous NHL teams (Anaheim and Detroit) qualified for the playoffs 11 of 12 times and he won a Stanley Cup with Detroit in 2008. He also coached two consecutive gold-medal Olympic teams (2010, 2014) for Canada. Currently, his Toronto Maple Leafs team is five games under .500 and nowhere near qualifying for the playoffs. His number one goaltender is hurt and his number two is in the American Hockey League. His leading scorer is former Dynamo Moscow veteran Leo Komorov (who?). No matter how good Babcock is, he simply does not have the horses to win many races and it is highly unlikely Toronto can or will qualify for post season play. No, it isn't always on the coach when things go wrong, even though it is far easier to can the coach rather than trade/waive/release many of the players.
Not to say that Hitchcock doesn't have the horses, though. Of course he does, as owner Tom Stillman's group has spent to almost the salary cap maximum to fulfill GM Doug Armstrong's wishes. Even without the injured Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz and now Steve Ott, the Blues have enough offensive talent on paper to run three good lines and an effective checking line. Too bad the game isn't played on paper, I guess. Hitch can only shake his head and parrot what McCreary said 44 years ago about not knowing what is going/went wrong.
For a couple of past seasons now the spotlight has been on the Blues' goaltenders as the primary problem with the team, yet it is clear now that the problem really was (and still is) an inability to produce offensively when it matters. At the one-third mark of the season, the Blues scored 68 goals, around 2.5 goals per game, almost half a goal decrease since the end of October. Goals against average at the one-third mark was also about 2.5, almost half a goal increase since Halloween. So, on average, if the Blues can score three goals in a game, they win; if they allow three against, they lose. Lately, of course, they have been losing more than winning.