From the moment the Blues announced the coaching succession plan in June, this seemed a plausible outcome.
Ken Hitchcock was going to give it one more year; Mike Yeo was brought in as coach-in-waiting, for a one-year apprenticeship as an assistant before taking the reins as the head honcho for 2017-2018.
But what would happen if things went awry? With Hitchcock’s eventual replacement already looming behind the bench, would the message of the incumbent grow stale for the players?
By all accounts, that’s what happened. The Blues have floundered in every facet of the game. Goaltending has struggled. Defense has faltered as the offense has abandoned accountability in favor of pursuing individual stats. Doug Armstrong said as much Wednesday during what might be classified as Yeo's introductory press conference, Hitchcock's eulogy–or both.
However you name it, Armstrong was not shy during the presser about placing the onus on the players for the firing of their coach.
“We don’t lose with pride,” Armstrong said. “It just felt like we were hit and miss night-in, night-out and I think we need to demand more of ourselves. Our record is not indicative of what we thought.
“Whoever’s had a sidebar with a player about the ogre, the hard coach, the mean guy: Here you go.”
This comes from the man who constructed the roster–a roster that never jived with the stated direction of management. It would be disingenuous for Armstrong to refer to his players as “independent contractors," as he did multiple times during the presser, without also redirecting some of that blame toward himself for the failures of the team this season.
“It was exciting about what we were gonna go through,” Armstrong said of this season, which he admits he viewed as a 'rebuilding or retrenching' year. “I was excited about going through it with a different mindset than what we’ve been in the past. We made a lot of hard decisions last summer. The decisions were made with not just this season in mind, but with the future of the franchise in mind. But I was excited about that. I was excited about moving forward with a group of players, and I don’t think that we’ve given our best effort.
“Ultimately, Ken… He’s paying the price for all our failures, starting with mine. I’m the manager… It’s my team.”
That’s an interesting discussion. Hitchcock is the man out of a job, but does he deserve the bulk of the blame for his team’s shortcomings?
Some of the blame–fair or unfair–has to go to Jake Allen. While it’s shortsighted to believe that everything is goalie’s fault, his woes have accelerated the revelation of everybody else’s warts. Pronounced the undisputed franchise goaltender before the season, Allen ranks near the bottom of the league in goaltending statistics–not a winning combination.
Beyond Allen, turning the microscope toward Armstrong is more reasonable than lambasting a future Hall of Fame coach. He made the decision to let David Backes and Troy Brouwer walk. Perhaps panicking about losing too much veteran presence, he then handed a four-year extension to Alexander Steen, a contract that risks resembling the Jay Bouwmeester deal a couple years down the road.
He also awarded Jake Allen a contract extension before his capability as an every-game starting NHL goaltender could be tested. And when seemingly everyone else saw through the charade, Armstrong let Vladimir Sobotka give him the run around over the summer.
It wasn’t a banner offseason.
So how much of the blame should be levied against Armstrong? With the trade deadline just a month away, his handling of the roster will be heavily scrutinized.
"Yeah, it should be,” Armstrong said about whether his job should be in jeopardy. “Should be every day. It’s pro sports–you’re hired to be fired. I get that part of it. This isn’t something you sign up for with a lifetime contract. I’m going to do the best I can do and when someone says your best isn’t enough, they’ll let me know.”
Firing Hitchcock was no easy decision for Armstrong, as evidenced by his emotional demeanor Wednesday. But somebody had to take the fall for what has taken place on the ice this season. Now he'll have to decide whether the Blues have enough to turn it around and reach the playoffs under Mike Yeo.
Armstrong is under the gun–he knows that the fight for his job doesn't end with Hitchcock's tenure.
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