Famous chess player Bobby Fischer once said, “All that matters on the chessboard is good moves.”
Well, the St. Louis Blues moved several key pieces around on the chessboard this offseason. Doug Armstrong got rid of some old pieces and found some new ones. Now it’s up to head coach Mike Yeo and his coaching staff to figure out where to put them and how to best utilize them.
There have been a couple of moves with the coaching staff as well, which got me to thinking, “How will the coaching staff react to these new players? How will they line them up? Will they change the way they’ve been coaching? What will be different?”
So, that’s what I wanted to explore in this story. Let’s take a look at the men who will be maneuvering the squad this year.
Head Coach, Mike Yeo
Mike Yeo will be starting his 2nd full season with the Blues. Last season, the team started out like a house on fire, and were the best team in the NHL for a time. But a couple of key injuries, an abysmal power play, and a couple of losing streaks added up to a disappointing 2nd half of the season and the team missed the playoffs for the first time in 7 years.
Looking back on his coaching career, Yeo was part of the coaching staff in Pittsburgh for their 2009 Stanley Cup. He was hired as the special teams’ coach for the Penguins (something we will take a closer look at later in this story). So, he knows what it takes to win it all. He’s been a part of it. He’s seen it first hand.
The following year, Yeo took over the head coaching job in Houston for the AHL Aeros, the top Minnesota Wild affiliate, and led them from a non-playoff season the year prior to his arrival, all the way to the conference championship in his first year.
Following the successful season in Houston, he was named head coach of the Minnesota Wild and coached there for 4+ seasons. He joined the St. Louis staff in 2016 and took over as head coach when Ken Hitchcock was fired in February 2017.
Coach Yeo introduced a different style of play with the Blues. They got away from the “dump and chase” and played a game focused more on moving the puck up ice, a game that included the defense taking a more active role on the offensive end. That style of play, under Yeo’s leadership, took the Blues all the way into the 2nd round of the playoffs.
However, last season’s injuries forced Yeo to put together lines where guys were playing in places they wouldn’t have been playing otherwise. With the pieces he had on the board, Yeo maintained a familiar offensive approach, with 3 lines of offense and a 4th line of harder-hitting, physical players.
When you look around the league, the teams that have enjoyed success are those rolling more of a ‘four-line’ squad, teams like Vegas and Winnipeg. They are putting four lines of faster, more skilled players on the ice who can all score.
We’ve also seen the role of the enforcer diminished over the past couple of seasons. The game is changing.
In a live Q & A with Jeremy Rutherford, a writer for The Athletic, I posed the question about what the offense will look like this year.
Rutherford said he posed the same question to Yeo at the Ice Breaker event last week. “He [Yeo] said he’ll have the option to go either way this year. It’s hard for coaches to get away from a physical fourth line. But without Kyle Brodziak and Scotty Upshall, it may be a little easier for Yeo, especially if they’re still planning to have Robert Thomas centering that fourth line.”
Rutherford went on to say, “But whoever they put on the wing, [Zach] Sanford, [Ivan] Barbashev, Dmitrij Jaskin – is going to have to perform. If not, you may see Yeo go with [Nikita] Soshnikov and Chris Thorburn and stick with the more traditional look.”
Do the Blues now have the personnel to play four lines deep without a “physical” line? Does the physicality of Maroon, Edmundson, and Bortuzzo eliminate the need for a Thorburn? If so, will Mike Yeo adapt to the players on the roster? Will we see a 4th line of highly-skilled, younger players like Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou? Or will we see more of Chris Thorburn and Dmitrij Jaskin? Maybe we will see both, depending on who the opponent is on a given night.
Mike Yeo’s Coaching Record
Associate Coach, Craig Berube
Craig Berube is a long-time NHL player of over 1,000 games between 1986-2004. Since the end of his playing career, he has coached at every level. Before joining the Blues, he served as the head coach of the AHL’s Chicago Wolves where his team was 44-19-13. (source – Blues website)
In Chicago, he coached Vince Dunn, Sammy Blais, Ivan Barbashev, Jordan Schmaltz, Jake Walman, Jordan Binnington, Jordan Kyrou, and Ville Husso. His relationships run pretty deep with lots of the young guys on the Blues roster and others in the organization that we’ll see coming along in the next year or two.
Berube served as the special teams coach last season. The Blues were 30th in the league on the power play, an area that definitely needs improving if the Blues are going to be successful this year.
Looking back to his two years as the head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers, Berube’s teams were above average in the power play. In fact, in his 2nd season with Philly the power play was 5 percentage points better than the league average at 23.44%. That was good enough for 3rd in the NHL.
The Blues added Ryan O’Reilly, who had 15 power play goals last season on a bad Buffalo Sabres team (that’s more pp goals than Schenn and Tarasenko combined). The addition of Patrick Maroon, whose skill and willingness to get in front of the net fills a niche that was sorely lacking last season should help. Certainly, David Perron‘s ability to control the puck and find the open man will help as well. Perron notched 50 assists last season.
Berube has more ‘pieces’ with which to strategize. He also has a track record of being able to get it done. Let’s hope so. Power play opportunities are the difference in close games.
Assistant Coach, Mike Van Ryn
Mike Van Ryn joins the Blues after spending the 2016-17 season as the head coach of the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, where he led the club to the Pacific Division title after posting a 42-20-6 record. A veteran of eight NHL seasons, Van Ryn played in 69 games for the Blues from 2000-03. (source – Blues website)
His connections with the Blues are many and far-reaching. It’s a “Who’s Who” of Blues greats that have shaped and molded Van Ryn’s quick rise to the NHL coaching ranks.
He won an NCAA Championship with the Michigan Wolverines, where one of his roommates was Bob Gassoff, Jr. and their coach was none other than Blues great, Red Berenson. It was Berenson who Van Ryn credits with teaching him the little things that make a difference between good teams and great teams.
Van Ryn was a member of the Houston Aeros coaching staff one year after Mike Yeo was there, so the two have a connection from their days with the Minnesota organization.
I also asked Jeremy Rutherford what Van Ryn’s specific role would be with the club. “Yeo talked about him today,” JR said. “The staff is stoked to have him and he’s going to bring a lot of energy. He will be working with the backend [defense], and I’m assuming the PK [Penalty Kill].”
Rutherford went on to say, “He’s only 39, so he knows how to relate to the young generation, so I think his ability to communicate is going to be as impactful as what he does coaching-wise.”
Jim Thomas of the Post Dispatch wrote a great piece on Van Ryn in June of this year. You can read it here: Van Ryn hopes to paint a picture of success with Blues.
Steve Ott – Assistant Coach
Steve Ott joined the Blues in the 2013-14 season and played 122 games with the organization. He signed on as an assistant coach in the summer of 2017. Ott played in 848 NHL games from 2002-17, amassing 288 points and 1,555 penalty minutes. (Blues website)
He’s certainly not too far removed from his playing days and can surely relate to the players on the team. He was known as a great teammate and good locker room guy. It says a lot about him that the Blues found a way to include him last season.
David Alexander – Goaltending Coach
Sean Ferrell – Video Coach
St. Louis native Sean Ferrell brings more than 15 years of coaching and player development experience to the Blues as the club’s video coach, which includes work with players at both the amateur and professional levels. (Blues website)
The video coach has become a vital piece of the coaching staff in today’s game. Everything from advising on offsides, goalie interference, and goals/no goals calls depends upon what the video coach sees and communicates to the coaches on the bench. The Video Coach also reviews video from game action and then breaks it down, identifying key skills, individual and team tactics, and strategies.
Glen Wesley – Development Coach
Glen Wesley replaces Barret Jackman as the Blues new player development coach. Doug Armstrong said about Wesley, “He had a stellar career as a player – a Stanley Cup champion – and he was doing this (job) for the Carolina Hurricanes. He became available this summer as they had some organization change with the new ownership group (in Carolina). He’s an experienced player that has done development (work) before, so it’s a seamless transition for him to come in and work with (Director of Player Development and Pro Scout) Tim Taylor.”
I recently asked Coach Tim Taylor about how much contact the staff has with the prospects who aren’t playing with the big club. He said, “We get a report on every player after every game. Everything about the game and how they played. We contact every player after every game and we go over their performance and we talk about what they need to be working on. We are very involved with them.”
Another well-known chess player famously said, “I used to attack because it was the only thing I knew. Now I attack because I know it works best.” – Garry Kasparov
The pieces are all out of the box and on the board. The great thing is that they have lots of new players to work with and seemingly have lots of depth. The question we’re all waiting to see answered is, ‘How will Mike Yeo and his staff arrange them and use them?’
It’s your move, Mike Yeo. Attack!
— BluesRants.com 🎺 (@bluesrantscom) September 1, 2018