When the St. Louis Blues announced this would be veteran coach Ken Hitchcock’s final season, going as far as setting up Mike Yeo as Hitchcock’s successor, few thought Hitchcock’s final day would come before the end of the season.
The end came Wednesday with Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong dismissing Hitchcock and replacing him with Yeo. The firing came on the heels of the Blues’ 5-3 loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday at Scottrade Center.
The team has been outscored 157-141 this season, including a 3-7 mark in their last 10 games.
“I don’t think we’ve given our best effort,” Armstrong said. “Ultimately, Ken is ... he is paying the price for all our failures, starting with mine. I’m the manager, I’m the quote-unquote president of hockey operations. It’s my team.”
Armstrong also announced the Blues have fired goaltending coach Jim Corsi. Longtime NHL goaltender Martin Brodeur, currently an assistant GM with the Blues, will split goaltending coach duties for the rest of the season with former Blues goalie Ty Conklin. Brodeur was already on the ice Wednesday at the Blues’ practice.
Yeo will make his debut Thursday when the Blues host the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center. The Blues begin the final stretch with 53 points in the final Western Conference wild-card playoff spot, tied with Calgary and just one point ahead of Vancouver, Dallas and Winnipeg.
“We made a lot of hard decisions last summer,” Armstrong said. “The decisions were made with not just this season in mind, but with the future of the franchise in mind, (and) I was excited about that. I was excited about moving forward with the group of players. I don’t think we’ve given our best effort.”
Now it’s Armstrong’s team with a new coach behind the bench in the 43-year-old Yeo, the former head coach of the Minnesota Wild.
“I am definitely up here with some mixed emotions,” Yeo said. “Absolutely the first thing I have to do is thank Hitch. He was nothing but amazing to me day-in and day-out, so I learned a great deal from him. I’m very appreciative, so I feel very bad that I’m sitting up here today. That said, I know that I have a job to do, an important job to do and one that I don’t take lightly.
“When I look at the people that have coached the St. Louis Blues and Hitch being one of them, those are some awful big shoes to fill. I look forward to that challenge.”
Blues goaltender Jake Allen has struggled this season like many of his teammates. Allen said the team feels responsible for Hitchcock’s dismissal.
“You’ve got to take some (responsibility,” Allen said. “The coach can only do so much, but a lot lies on the players. He did so much for this organization (in) his six years here, he turned this whole ship around. It’s tough news to take for all of us. There was a tough vibe in here this morning, but we’ve got to move on. We’re excited to have Mike steer the ship now and see where we can go.”
Hitchcock leaves the Blues with 781 NHL coaching victories, one away from tying former Blues player and coach Al Arbour for No. 3 on the NHL’s all-time list of coaching wins.
In six seasons with the Blues, the 66-year-old Hitchcock was 248-100-41, but his team struggled to find consistency this year. The Blues decided not to re-sign veteran free agent power forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer after this season and spoke about going with a quicker, up-tempo style to highlight the skills of players like star forward Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and others.
But success — and especially consistency — have been tough to find.
“In a very sad way, none of us are satisfied and can be satisfied with where we’re at right now,” Yeo said. “We all have to dig much much deeper than we have. I know much has been made that we lost a couple players, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t go out there with the mindset that we’re going to compete harder than the other group.
“We might have to be doing it a little differently, but absolutely, each player, we need them to go out there and we’re going to outwork the guy across from us.”
Hitchcock’s teams made the playoffs all five seasons going into this year, reaching the Western Conference final last spring before losing to San Jose. The Blues also suffered first-round playoffs three times and reached the second round once.
“He might have been a hard coach, he might have been demanding, he might have been all those things, but that’s what made him a great coach,” Armstrong said of Hitchcock. “From my experience working with Ken, the players realize what a great coach he was; unfortunately after the fact, not as you’re going through it. It’s a re-birth for Mike today. It’s a hard day for me, but it’s a great day for Mike.”
Yeo begins his second head coaching tenure in the NHL; he was behind the bench for the Wild from 2011-16, with a record of 173-132-44.
“I feel terrible that I’m up here, but one thing that I can say is that every day I was there, I had Hitch’s back and I wanted to win,” Yeo said. “I wanted to turn it around, and I wanted to turn it around as an assistant coach. That didn’t happen, so now I have the task of doing it as a head coach.”