EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran in our fan-run paper sold outside Monday night's Blues game against Vancouver.
Ken Hitchcock and Doug Armstrong have to be feeling the heat.
The calendar shows seven regular season games and, at a minimum, four playoff games left on the schedule for the 2014-15 season. If those four playoff game are all the Blues play this year, it probably marks the end of the Hitchcock Era in St. Louis.
The Blues are winding down yet another successful regular season. They've collected a bevy of points, they're at or near the top of the standings in the division, conference, and league. By any metric, the 2014-15 regular season will go down as a success for the Blues.
But disappointment is always lurking for the St. Louis Blues. The Blues' window as an elite team opened three years ago, but the last three years have all ended the same way — with a disappointing exit. In the Blues, and Hitchcock's, last three trips to the playoffs they have won a grand total of eight games. They have yet to win in the second round. They haven't won a road game in two years. All three playoffs ended with four straight losses.
This is not new information to the die-hard fans of the St. Louis Blues. Most fans who live and die with this team can tell you about all the playoff mishaps of recent past.
One thing in common for the last three years is the tag team duo of Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong running the show. Another thing in common is, Hitchcock and Armstrong don't go into the playoffs with the team that brought them all the regular season success.
Playoff hockey, as it's often said by Hitchcock is different. It features tighter checking, uglier goals, fewer chances and a thinner line between success and failure. Playoff hockey is different, which is why Hitch and Armstrong make the Blues different every single year.
Armstrong has attempted to load up the Blues at the trade deadline every year since 2013. After standing pat in 2012, the first year of the Blues' run, Armstrong has been earning his paycheck every deadline. In 2013, it was Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold. Last year was Ryan Miller and Steve Ott. This season was Zbynek MIchalek, Robert Bortuzzo and Olli Jokinen.
The results, this year included, have been mixed. Bouwmeester is easily the best left-handed shooting d-man on the Blues roster. He's, when healthy, a smooth skater and a solid player. His price tag is a bit high, he's not very physical and his offensive game has disappeared, but he was good when the Blues acquired him and is still, for the most part, good now.
The others? The others have all been questionable upgrades at best. Leopold was a poor fit from the start. Armstrong was trying to add a left-handed defender at the deadline and was obviously working for Bouwmeester. In case that didn't work, he sought a backup plan. The Leopold trade came first, but was made irrelevant once Bouwmeester showed up. Now, instead of working in one new d-man, the Blues had to try and work in two. Two near pairs were created and the Blues had to develop chemistry fast. It didn't quite work. The Kings bullied the Blues d-men and pulled off 4-2 series win.
The next year, Army brought in Miller and Ott. Most fans don't need to be reminded how that worked out. The guy the Blues are counting on in net this year, Brian Elliott, was shoved to the bench. The other guy, Jaro Halak, was great but oft-hurt, was sent away in favor of a guy who was great four years prior to 2014. Miller, who is hurt now for the Vancouver Canucks we're seeing tonight, was not a difference maker. Ott is a bottom 12 player that brings little, if anything to the table. Of course, he saw first-round time last year in the playoffs because he's a Playoff Player. He's got grit and sandpaper and all that.
This year's additions haven't really stood out too much either. Michalek was hurt when he was acquired and has been fine since his return. Jokinen has shown he has next to nothing left in the tank. This is a guy who is regularly getting scratched and when Hitch makes a roster move, Jokinen is being passed over for Chris Porter. Bortuzzo has been a nice physical addition for the Blues, but he's the No. 4 right-handed shot behind the healthy trio of Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Michalek.
Basically, when you look at the Blues, the key players are all inside guys. David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, etc. The main outside key players are Alexander Steen, Shattenkirk, Bouwmeester, Elliott and Paul Stastny. Outside of Bouwmeester and Stastny, most of those guys have spent more time playing for the Blues than not.
So what does this mean for Armstrong? It means that the Blues have drafted and developed a solid core, which is good. Some trades before the Blues recent run of success were fruitful. But lately, when given a chance to augment the roster, he's been more miss than hit. He's attempted to build and rebuild the defense multiple times now. Outside of Barret Jackman, Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk, the Blues have had a constant rotation of guys. Ian Cole, Wade Redden, Roman Polak, Carl Gunnarsson, Carlo Colaiacovo, Leopold, Bouwmeester, Michalek, Bortuzzo, Kent Huskins, and Kris Russell, among others, have all suited up for the Blues in the last three years. And yet the Blues are still searching for the top-six.
The forward have also been misses. Ott, Jokinen, Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Derek Roy and others have all failed to contribute. When it comes down to it, the Blues are relying on the same core of forwards to get the job done.
If the Blues tank in the playoffs again this year, one has to wonder if Armstrong will, again, be given a chance to repair the roster. Tom Stillman didn't hire Armstrong, so the pressure is on his guys to produce or else it may be time to update the resume.
The pressure is also on Hitch. Armstrong has given the coach all these news pieces and, again, the head coach has turned into the tinkerer. Once again the team the Blues rode to regular season success is being fiddled with by the Blues' bench boss. Steen, Backes and Oshie have had great chemistry for two years now? Well it's time to split them up. Same with the STL line. Yes Jori Lehtera has slumped in 2015, but the key has always been Tarasenko and Schwartz. Remember these are the guys that made Vladimir Sobotka look good.
Lately the only Blue with a roster spot locked up is Ryan Reaves: Fourth-line winger. Everyone else is in flux. And when things go bad like Steen going out Saturday with an injury and Oshie missing the game with an illness, well Hitch really shines. Chris Porter goes to the top line, because that makes sense. In the third, Hitch went with a line of Porter-Backes-Reaves.
Hitch's solutions for issues are based on checking and grit. He doesn't replace skill for skill — Berglund played his best game in months on Saturday night and would have been perfect with Backes after Steen got hurt. Instead? Backes got the sandpaper boys.
The Blues have had the most success with the Steen-Backes-Oshie, Schwartz-Lehtera-Tarasenko, Berglund-Stastny-Jaskin top-nine. Hitch seems determined to run from that, because it's what plays in the playoffs or something. The question is, if something doesn't work in the playoffs (and how would Hitch know that since he hasn't won more than four games since 2004?), why is he spending 60-plus games on it during the regular season?
Simply put, the Blues have had great regular season success and playoff failures because everything changes in late March and April. Armstrong keeps adding pieces that don't fit and Hitchcock keeps messing with success in search of what works in the playoffs. The teams that have had success in the playoffs — like the Kings and Blackhawks — haven't suddenly changed everything up come the first round.
If the Blues disappoint again, change at the top is needed.