Craig Berube, interim coach for the St. Louis Blues, hoists his and the team’s first Stanley Cup after taking over the coaching role last November (Photo courtesy: Michael Dwyer, AP Photo)
ST. LOUIS, MO – For the St. Louis Blues, it’s been one wild, emotional rollercoaster from start to finish.
A city had their dreams realized this June when the St. Louis Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 52-year history. Many gave credit to the rising star of a rookie goaltender, others to an 80’s disco anthem, still others to a familiar face in a new uniform. However, all can agree that the Blues would have never escaped from their shambles of a first half of the season without the one they simply call “Chief”: the newly-signed head coach, Craig Berube.
Before The Storm
Let’s take a walk back to the end of the 2017-18 season. The Blues, under the tenure of Mike Yeo for a full year, are right on the brink of the playoffs. After four overtime wins and six straight victories, the Blues lost four in a row and were facing Colorado in game 82. They were also without Paul Stastny, who was traded to the surging Winnipeg Jets.
The winner of that game 82 would punch that golden ticket for the final wild-card spot, and Blues fans know how that went: Colorado eliminated St. Louis in a resounding 5-2 victory, leading to the Blues facing questions in the offseason.
July 1st, 2018: The Blues moved to the top of the NHL headlines with massive moves. The Blues acquired Ryan O’Reilly from the Sabres in exchange for Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, prospect Tage Thompson, their 2019 first-round pick and a 2021 second-round pick. They picked up Tyler Bozak, David Perron, and later Pat Maroon.
Fans and analysts across the nation were now turning their heads saying, “this top 6 can get the Blues’ their first Stanley Cup”. The two big snags? How the play of Jake Allen would fare (especially with Martin Brodeur returning home to New Jersey) and head coach Mike Yeo getting his team on the same page after a rough second half to 2018.
Then, September to December happened.
The Blues opened the season 2-4-3, and by mid-November, head coach Mike Yeo was fired. Assistant coach Craig Berube, who cut his teeth both as a player and a coach with Philadelphia, was named the interim coach, but it didn’t pay off immediately: St. Louis was dead-last in the league by the end of the calendar year and had become the laughingstock of the NHL. Worst of all, rumors spread like wildfire of Pietrangelo, Parayko, Allen, and even Tarasenko seeing themselves in different jerseys soon.
For one eventual Jack Adams Finalist (and Stanley Cup Champion) Craig Berube, that wasn’t going to fly.
With the help of rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington (whom all Blues’ writers are contractually obligated to write about in their articles now), Berube helped the Blues launch themselves from last place to third in the Central division, nearly taking second and even first towards the end of the season. From January to April, the Blues went 30-10-4, set a franchise record with an 11-game winning streak, and stunned the league by making the playoffs in half a season.
The team was 38-19-6 under Berube after he took over. Most importantly, the seven lines for the Blues were finally playing with confidence and cohesion, something we hadn’t seen in over a year’s worth of St. Louis hockey.
That started with Craig Berube. At the time of his promotion, the locker room atmosphere seemed completely shattered. Players underperforming, dealing with personal issues, not seeing eye-to-eye with each other (cue the Bortuzzo-Sanford fight); the situation was a gongshow.
The Blues needed someone to unite them, and Berube did just that. However, the 7th all-time player in penalty minutes wasn’t going to be delicate with it: he told the players to man up, get past the egos and the hurt feelings and start playing some hockey.
It took some time, but the message sank in, and five months later, the Blues made history: their first Stanley Cup. Whether Berube just lit a fire under the behinds of the Blues (unlike Yeo could have ever done) or just downright ticked them off, Mike Keenan-style, his methods worked.
The first method that has worked is his rapport with the players. He’s not as lovey-dovey as the legendary “Badger” Bob Johnson, but he invests in the personal aspects of his players.
“All assistant coaches are a little different when they go to be a head coach, but he’s very approachable,” Brayden Schenn told KSDK back in March. “He’s not afraid to tell you ‘Good job,’ ‘Get it going.’ ‘How’s your day going?’ He’s around the locker room, he’s easy to talk to. Guys obviously love playing for him and he’s obviously turned the season around.”
Not only does he keep in close connection with his players, however; he makes sure they play to their highest ability. “He keeps you honest and that’s definitely what you want,” Jaden Schwartz told KSDK. “You want a guy that knows when you can give more and knows when you’re at your best. He definitely holds guys accountable.”
The Cup Run
Another facet to Craig Berube is his attention to matchups. Look at the Jets-Blues series in round 1. Berube is known and praised for his “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mentality; if his line combinations are performing well, he sees no reason to shake them up. However, games 3 and 4 were bad losses to Winnipeg that tied the series.
As a result, midway through game 5, the lines are shuffled and three straight goals in the third give the Blues the series lead. “After that game 5 win in the Winnipeg series, I knew this team was for real”, Berube later reflected.
Let’s also talk Tarasenko for a moment. Fans have been more than aware of his superstar talent and how it’s evolved the last few years. What was also apparent was his failure to see “eye-to-eye” with former coaches Hitchcock and Yeo. Berube, on the other hand, didn’t much care what the Russian sniper thought of him.
What Berube cared about was Tarasenko performing at his best when the chips were down, and that became apparent after the game 1 shellacking in the Conference Final. His numbers into game 1 totaled to 6 points and a -8. Berube gave a bit of a jab at Tarasenko publicly, afterwards, putting simply that “he needs to be better”. After that, Tarasenko was 6-5-11 and a +3 for the remainder of the playoffs. It’s a fine line between amping up your star player or just ticking him off, and Berube hit the sweet spot again.
The final, big aspect to Berube’s coaching style was the day-in, day-out mentality. Even when the team went down, Berube helped them brush it off and prepare for the next game. Former Canadien and coach Larry Robinson even had praise for Berube in this regard, after the controversial OT loss to San Jose in game 3.
“I mean, we were all upset,” Robinson said. “But he just came in and he told the guys: ‘Mistakes happen, stuff goes on in hockey and you just got to live with it. Don’t let it affect your play … use it as motivation.’ That really calmed our team down and got us focused and I think he kept everybody focused. He never let anybody get too high or too low and I think that was a big strong point in the way that we played.”
He was eventually right: after their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 49 years, the Blues took Boston down in a gutsy 7 games to claim their first-ever title. When the Blues announced Berube as interim coach in that mid-November press conference, General Manager Doug Armstrong said he would search the globe for his next head coach. Whether it was in North America, Europe, NHL, AHL; he wanted to find the best coach available.
As it turns out, the best coach available was sitting right next to him. On June 25th, Berube signed a new contract and will be the bench boss for the next three seasons. What was supposed to be a world-wide search needed only a look around the room to find the man for the job.
For teams like Washington and Philadelphia, Craig Berube is definitely an icon within their franchises. For the Blues, however, Berube has now been cemented into legend, and let’s hope he can bring more success to St. Louis in the years to come.