St. Louis Blues head coach Craig Berube was quickly called to power after the dismissal of Mike Yeo in early November 2018. He went on to bring the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup. (Photo courtesy: Jeff Curry, USA TODAY Sports)
ST. LOUIS – Let’s be honest. The year of 2019 will be recorded as the best year for St. Louis hockey, bar none. The obvious primary reason being is that the St. Louis Blues finally got that elusive trophy, after nearly 53 years of hopes and dreams dashed, frustrations in upper management, and season after countless season of onerous disappointment.
But, in what can only be described as one of the greatest “Cinderella” stories in professional sports, they did it, in rather spectacular fashion. In a celestial “tale of two seasons”, the Blues were in dead last in the NHL standings on January 1st, 2019 (yes, yes, we’ve heard it 1,000 times). After an uninspiring beginning to the season, head coach Mike Yeo was relieved of his duties (and Athletic subscribers would be wise to read his take here), where Craig Berube, former Flyers enforcer as well as member of the Flyers coaching staff, took over the reigns as the interim.
The rest, of course, is history: the miraculous rise of Jordan Binnington, the “Streak” as it’s now been dubbed, the 80s postgame anthem emanating from a bar in Philly, the push for the playoffs, and, obviously, winning in Boston in game 7.
Since then, the spirits of St. Louis have never been higher: with the All-Star break right around the corner, the Blues sit comfortably atop the Western Conference, touting coach Berube and a league-high four players to the All-Star Game, poetically being hosted in the Gateway to the West.
For nearly a quarter of the league, however, it hasn’t been quite the same story.
This 2019-20 season has already seen seven different coaching changes before the All-Star Break, sometimes deemed the true “halfway” point of the season. The narratives behind every one have been nothing but the highest shock value. From teams underperforming, to allegations of misconduct or abuse, to just simply being “not good enough”, the drama around the hottest seats of NHL organizations has never been higher.
The question is, how much is Craig Berube responsible for? Might seem like a completely random question, but for a coach that took St. Louis from worst to first in half a year, maybe GMs are suddenly salivating at the idea of a “band-aid” fix for struggling teams. We’ll quickly break down what’s happened to some of the NHL coaches in the last three and a half months.
November 20, 2019 – Babcock Fired from TOR
The highest-profile coach in the league was the first to go – shattering headlines across Canadian sports media instantly. Mike Babcock, former Cup-winning coach with the Detroit Red Wings, was relieved of his coaching duties with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the exclamation point on the Leafs’ disappointing 9-10-4 start. Since then, Sheldon Keefe has done about as well as he can with an injured blue line, going 16-7-3 since taking over.
The controversy with Babcock and the Leafs didn’t stop there: Leafs Insider Ian Tulloch tweeted about a story involving Mike Babcock back a few seasons ago, where he pressured rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates work ethics from best to worst (and then told everyone about it).
December 3, 2019 – Hynes Fired in NJD
After the biggest splash of the 2019 free agency, the New Jersey Devils were hyped to start turning the corner of their rebuild. From acquiring P.K. Subban, to landing no. 1 pick Jack Hughes, to having Taylor Hall fully healthy for the season, the Devils were anxious to get back into the playoff picture.
The result was an 0-4-2 start and just four wins in their first 15 games. Going 9-13-4, head coach John Hynes was fired, with the belief that a new coach could be the final piece for a playoff contender. Since then, Alain Nasreddine is 8-11-3, and New Jersey is last in their division.
December 11, 2019 – DeBoer fired from SJS
Just one day after Jim Montgomery’s mystery dismissal, the train only continued to roll. San Jose Sharks coach Pete DeBoer, who brought the Sharks to the playoffs every season he was in (and to the Cup Final once) was fired after the Sharks lost captain Joe Pavelski and the club went 15-16-2. Bob Boughner, former associate coach with the Sharks, has since taken over, going 6-9-2 in his first 17 games.
January 6, 2020 – Laviolette Out, Hynes In
With one Winter classic coach fired before the outdoor game, the other was fired afterwards. After the collapse of the Nashville Predators in the outdoor game hosting 80,000+ on New Year’s Day, head coach Peter Laviolette was let go after a surprisingly 19-15-7 start, after the team made it to the Cup Final in 2017.
Despite a winning record, the Predators are barely in the wild card race in a relatively stacked Central Division. In another surprising move, the Predators quickly hired coach John Hynes – 34 days after he was fired from New Jersey. Since then, Hynes is 3-3-0.
January 15, 2020 – Gallant Fired, DeBoer Hired
This one completely rocked the hockey world. After a four-game losing skid put them out of a playoff spot (but a 24-19-6 overall record and 3 points out of first), head coach Gerard Gallant and assistant coach Mike Kelley were fired from the Vegas Golden Knights. Gallant had been coach of the Knights since its recent inception into the 2017-18 season, as it was his third season with the team. General Manager Kelly McCrimmon stated “it’s more the feeling you have that a change might be needed” to the media in justifying the change.
To say this was a surprise was the ultimate understatement: Gallant lead the Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their first year of their inception in 2018, and got them into the playoffs the following year. More salt in the wound: Gallant was named the Pacific Division’s All-Star Game coach (which was later stripped). In typical “Vegas” fashion, rival coach Pete DeBoer was immediately named the new head coach of the Knights, where he is 1-1-1 with the team thus far.
What’s it All Mean?
Now, you’ll notice I didn’t include Bill Peters or Jim Montgomery in this article. Well, the storylines for their dismissals had nothing to do with a team’s record – Peters was dismissed after allegations of racism and abuse of former players turned out to be true, and Montgomery was fired for “a material act of unprofessionalism,” which later revealed to be tied to alcohol abuse.
So, five different coaches have been fired for either a team’s shortcomings in the standings, underperforming, or in Vegas’ case, evidently not being good enough after a Stanley Cup Final in their first year (if you can detect my sarcasm). Where does Craig Berube fit into all this? The storyline with St. Louis’ success.
You’ve likely heard from sports analysts that teams on the outside looking in would forever treat adversity in a season like their own “St. Louis Story” – that is, regardless of where they are in the standings by this time, they could still win the Cup if they just made a few key adjustments. “Hey if they went from worst to first in half a season, so can we, right?”
Wrong. Nope. Nuh-uh.
I do not use the term “celestial” lightly when I describe the Blues’ ‘18-19 season. I’ll use the Toronto Maple Leafs for my first point. The Blues got their new coach in early November, as did the Leafs, but the obvious point still remained – the emergence of Jordan Binnington. For the Leafs, this too is a similar predicament – just with their blue line.
With Morgan Reilly and Jake Muzzin down, they have no choice but to promote players like Rasmus Sandin and Timothy Liljegren to the big time – not to mention that Cody Ceci is tragically awful. The Leafs are where the Blues should have been after this many games – slogging it out in the wild card, maybe with a chance to get in.
However, the stars aligned for the Blues, and with a cold-as-ice type of player in Jordan Binnington, it’s no surprise that the Blues finally started playing to their true potential in February and March. The Leafs have their bonafide starter in Freddy Andersen, but they’ve relied on him heavily to try and crawl their way into the postseason. For the Leafs, it’s all about defense.
The rest? Well, New Jersey rolled the hard six on guys like Gusev and Subban, as they have yet to pan out as a win for them. Mackenzie Blackwood still doesn’t quite have that NHL potential, unlike Binnington did when he started. They have young talent like Hughes and Hischier, but it’s not enough to counter with their defense of Greene, Severson and co.
And Then There Were Three
Now, DeBoer, Laviolette and Gallant are all interesting cases. Like the Blues of 2018, all three were looking at an underperforming roster (even with Vegas in a topsy-turvy Pacific). All three being former, consistent playoff contenders for the past 3-5 seasons; all now fighting for a wild card berth, or worse. Here’s the interesting part, however: they’re all really good coaches.
Sure, maybe Vegas’ identity as a fast, exciting team has slipped a bit (despite them having some of the best Corsi, Fenwick and xGF% in the league). Yes, the injuries have mounted in Nashville, in addition to guys like Victor Arvidsson and Mikael Granlund not exactly playing to expectations. Of course, San Jose’s roster got older with the captain out and Marleau in, not to mention the goaltending fiasco.
Yet, we still look at goaltending numbers any time a coach is being evaluated for their performance. Nashville’s Rinne has struggled, bringing the combined save percentage to .897. Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are .898 for the Sharks. Marc-Andre Fleury is the only developed goaltender with a percentage barely over .900 in Vegas. So why, for these three teams in particular, is the coach to blame for the team’s recent failures?
Back to Berube
It points again to Berube, and the miracle run of the St. Louis Blues. Berube gets swapped in, the team is suddenly gaining some confidence, and all of a sudden they’re Stanley Cup Champions. Simple band-aid solution for other GM’s, right?
Again, wrong. While the new coach could get a team rolling on the same page, Berube’s rally of the club was more of a “right place, right time” scenario. Berube was named head coach of the Chicago Wolves – the Blues’ AHL affiliate at the time – in 2016. He joined the Blues organization in 2017. The players knew him and respected him, and after Mike Yeo’s firing, Berube still knew he had a good hockey team on his hands, and the players were still familiar with the man.
That’s not the story with Vegas, Nashville, or San Jose. DeBoer played for the bad guys, new Sharks coach Bob Boughner coached with Florida for two years until now, and John Hynes was nowhere near Tennessee. The coach may have seen some of the former players with other teams, but you have a new ringleader trying to rally a frustrated team back on the same page. Cherry on top, none of them have found a new Binnington, or Rinne, or Fleury.
Yet we’ve had seven firings from general managers thinking with the broken mindset that they can replicate the Berube success story by simply replacing the most important non-player of a roster. Sure, Devils GM Ray Shero has since been fired, and the Calgary and Dallas incidents had very different circumstances, but the band-aid solution the Blues set last year cannot be relied upon.
I’m not discounting a single thing Berube has done, or will do, for the St. Louis Blues organization. Craig Berube took a solid, yet disgruntled roster and found the golden ticket in Jordan Binnington. He’s in complete control of the locker room (which is great), and the consistency the Blues have displayed on the ice this season reflects that. He’ll be with the organization for the next two and a half seasons and he could be with the club for more, depending on how the next few seasons pan out.
We would be naïve, however, in saying that Berube didn’t “ruin” the coaching position and its turnover in the NHL. GMs still have the thought that swapping out a coach mid-season will magically change their fortunes, when the reality (as it was with St. Louis) is the players need to shape up and get back to playing as a cohesive team. We’ve seen it most prevalently in Nashville, San Jose and Vegas, teams that were still in their primes just last year.
I’m open to coaches changing things up as well. Nashville fans can make the argument that Laviolette’s coaching style (which only lead him to 637 wins) wasn’t adaptable enough to change, which lead to his eventual downfall. Maybe John Hynes’ AHL success didn’t translate well in New Jersey and can do better in Nashville. Maybe DeBoer’s positive attitudes towards the game as a coach can turn things around in Vegas (if there was anything to turn around in the first place).
Bottom line: not every firing can be justified by the “sins of the father”. Get the player’s head straight before deciding to right the ship with a new coach. Gallant won’t be longing for employment – at least until the 2020 offseason. Peter Laviolette will likely be a hot commodity as well, maybe with our new friends over in Seattle. But as a typical hockey fan with little knowledge on the historical turnover with new head coaches, I’d advise not looking too far into the Blues 2019 Stanley Cup when the time comes for something different.
Can you believe Bruce Bourdeau’s still coaching the Wild?
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