Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Happy New Year 2010, Andy Murray! On January 2 Murray was relieved of his duties as the head coach of the St. Louis Blues and replaced with assistant Davis Payne, who played 22 games (recording one assist and 14 penalty minutes) in the NHL with the Boston bruins as a checking winger. With a home record of 6-13-3 and a young team struggling, team President John Davidson and GM Doug Armstrong made the decision in an attempt to turn the season around. Not at all surprising was that Murray was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award the previous year when the Blues amazed the hockey world by finishing sixth in the Western Conference. Nor was it surprising that during the week prior to Murray's getting sacked, GM Larry Pleau had said the team was not changing coaches as the organization was solidly behind Murray. Yes, solidly behind him as they pushed him out the door, that is.
Davidson told ESPN.com that "It's kind of maybe the way we lost more than anything else. It's such a mental game at times and this league is so close. Every night it is such a fine line, and you need to be there with your mindset and we just simply haven't been, consistently anyway." Defenseman Barret Jackman was more blunt and honest.
"It's tough to swallow. We're the problem and I think management decided to make changes to wake up the players."
Payne, 37 years old at the time, was hired after a highly successful stint with the Peoria Rivermen and it was obvious that Armstrong felt he could relate more and work better with the core of young players on the Blues' roster. Payne lasted two and a half seasons, compiling a coaching record of 67 wins, 55 losses and 15 ties. After a horrendous 6-7 start to the 2011-12 season, Payne was sacked on November 6, 2011. "It's shocking and it's disappointing, but in the end, you're responsible for all the areas of your hockey team. There were pieces that weren't firing on all cylinders and it's under my umbrella of responsibility", Davis told the Post Dispatch's Josh Renaud. Neither Davidson nor Armstrong were available for comments after Payne was dismissed, rather strange for the previously vocal executives.
Instead, there were comments about the 24th Head Coach in franchise history
they planned to bring in, Ken Hitchcock. Armstrong told Jeremy Rutherford of the Post Dispatch that "This (decision) was based on a gut feeling...that there was a different direction that we could go with an experienced coach (who) could poke and prod and get a young core to meet their potential. That's why and how this decision was made. I wanted a certainty of a head coach with a proven track record...It was very important that we didn't wait around. At what point do the players become responsible and not the coach? That time is today. The players are now responsible for their own actions. The players are now responsible for the success of this team. It's up to our players to respond."
Hitch also had something to say to Rutherford. "The demands I am going to place are on playing the game the right way, core-value stuff that's non-negotiable...The biggest thing for me is I'm a good teacher and I think I can tell them what to do, and I think I'm really good at telling them how to do it. I think there's a point you reach as a coach where you're comfortable in the Xs and Os and you're comfortable in accountability, then you can lean on the support side of coaching. I can teach and I know the game. I've learned from the best...I'm ready to hit the ground running."
St. Louis finished the 2011-12 season in first place in the Central Division, 27 games over .500. The Blues knocked out the San Jose Sharks in five games in the opening round of the playoffs, yet were swept by Los Angeles in the Conference Semifinals. The following season (only 48 games due to another lockout) the Blues finished second in the division, 12 games over .500, yet were knocked out in six games of the opening round of the playoffs by the Kings. A the end of the 2013-14 season, the Blues again finished second in the division 29 games over .500 and lost to Chicago in the first round of the playoffs. Last year, of course, St. Louis finished first in the division 27 games over .500 and once again were bounced in the opening round by Minnesota. Coach Hitchcock has amassed an amazing record of 191-87-31 (including this season) during the regular season, yet is only 10-17 in playoff games, winning only one series and losing four.
So here we are. After a great start, the Blues have been mediocre at best lately and it is clear a slumping team that cannot score has no confidence in the coach, or themselves. It remains to be seen if another bottom-dwelling team visiting late this afternoon will bring out the worst in the Blues and coax them to play down and squander another two points. On a five game home stand in which the Blues should have garnered at least eight points, they will be lucky to get four. As someone once said, "The players are now responsible for their own actions. The players are now responsible for the success of this team. It's up to our players to respond. That time is today."