Given the Blues’ potential as a genuine Stanley Cup contender, the breadth of changes the team had undergone in the off-season and the subsequent lack of success that had followed through the first quarter of the campaign, it was only a matter of time until the winds of change blew through St. Louis. And on Monday night, following a loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the only team lower than the Blues in the Western Conference standings, the axe was finally, almost mercifully dropped on Mike Yeo, who has spent almost every waking moment since the puck dropped on the new season positioned squarely on the hot seat.
In some corners, the thought was that Yeo, having hung on to his spot on the Blues’ bench through the firings of Los Angeles Kings’ coach John Stevens and Chicago Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville, could be spared if St. Louis attempted to tinker in other ways. Some believed a move here or there could spark a Blues side that hasn’t lived up to the promise it held during the pre-season. But it’s difficult to suggest that Yeo, who exits after also failing to guide St. Louis to the playoffs last season, didn’t have the horses to run in the West.
Truth be told, Blues GM Doug Armstrong had arguably the best off-season of any team builder, starting with the blockbuster acquisition of top-center Ryan O’Reilly and continuing on with subsequent acquisitions of Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon. It appeared that Armstrong had addressed the offensive blemishes that at times plagued the team last season, and St. Louis already had in place a defense, led by lineup fixtures Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson and Jay Bouwmeester, that was more than capable of putting the Blues back in a post-season position, at the very least.
However, some might suggest that the one move Armstrong failed to make, an addition in goal, is the one that has sent St. Louis to the bottom of the conference and cost Yeo his job. After all, the age-old axiom is that goaltending makes or breaks a coach, and there may be some truth to that in this scenario. The Blues’ biggest shortcoming this season has been goaltending, and that’s barely up for debate. After temporarily losing his job as starter last season and splitting duty with Carter Hutton, first-string netminder Jake Allen has again struggled to find anything that resembles consistency. Through 14 appearances, he’s sporting a .500 record — five wins, five losses and three overtime defeats — but he has managed that record almost in spite of his statistical performance. To wit, there are 34 goaltenders who have played in at least 10 games this season, and among that group Allen ranks 29th in save percentage (.895) and 30th in goals-against average (3.33).
But to lay Yeo’s firing and the Blues’ struggles entirely at the feet of Allen would be to absolve this team of its greater issues, issues that arguably shouldn’t exist given how talent-laden this roster is. Through 19 games under Yeo to begin the campaign, St. Louis’ 5-on-5 ranks are some of the worst in the NHL. The Blues’ Corsi percentage (47.4) is eighth-worst, shots percentage (49) is 11th-worst, scoring chances percentage (47.5) is seventh-worst and high-danger chances percentage (48) is 11th-worst in the league. All four figures are less than ideal, to be sure, and paint a picture of a team that hasn’t skated away from many outings this season able to claim that they deserved a better result.
Those numbers aren’t solely representative of defensive shortcomings, however. There’s also a matter of shot and chance generation, something that desperately needed to be addressed. While other teams have fared worse when it comes to underlying numbers, what has hindered the Blues’ attack — and what may have been the final straw given Yeo’s firing on the evening of a 2-0 shutout loss to the Kings — is a lack of consistent offensive push. As Yeo exits, St. Louis ranks third-last in shot attempt generation (51.9), 10th-last in shot generation (28.8), 16th-last in scoring chance generation (25.8) and 12th-last in high-danger chance generation (10.2) per 60 minutes at five-a-side.
On depth of skill alone, the Blues were able to buck the shortcomings that those numbers suggested through early November. In fact, as of Nov. 10, St. Louis had one of the league’s most potent attacks, with a goals-per-game rate (3.57) that would be tied for top spot in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lighting had it held through the past five outings. Instead, the Blues’ offensive deficiencies under Yeo came to roost. Now mired in a stretch in which they’ve lost four of five games, St. Louis been shutout three times.
And it’s the offensive and defensive numbers, as much as anything, that were the reason Yeo had to go. You can blame Allen as much as you’d like, but when a roster that has two solid forward units and serious top-end firepower is rarely, if ever, establishing offensive dominance, there are bigger problems. The same goes for the defense, which fell woefully short of its potential through 19 games under Yeo this season.
Tasked with getting the wayward Blues back on course, at least in an interim position, will be Craig Berube, who has been elevated from his role as associate coach. Berube joined the Blues organization ahead of the 2017-18 campaign and has been Yeo’s righthand man for the past season-plus. Prior to landing in St. Louis, Berube patrolled the bench for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, where he guided the team to a 44-19-13 record in 2016-17. He has NHL experience in Philadelphia, too, spending parts of seven seasons as an assistant with the Flyers before coaching the team to a 75-58-28 record across 161 games. He was relieved of his duties in Philadelphia following the 2014-15 campaign.
The good news for St. Louis, and for Berube, is that he’s not stepping into a project. This isn’t a teardown and rebuild scenario, and the Blues have all the talent necessary to right this ship and make last season’s post-season miss a hiccup rather than the beginning of a trend. Despite their 7-9-3 record, St. Louis sits only seven points out of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference with two games in hand on the Dallas Stars.
There’s ground that can be made up, and with the aforementioned blueline and an offense that not only contains O’Reilly, Perron, Maroon, Bozak, but Vladimir Tarasenko, Brayden Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen, the Blues are still positioned well enough to turn this around before it becomes one of the season’s more shocking lost seasons.