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Berube sees 'tough' approach pay off with Blues entering playoffs

Coach challenged players, changed tactics after taking over in November

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

The meetings in the beginning weren't pleasant.

The St. Louis Blues were 30th in the NHL at 7-9-3 when Craig Berube took over as coach for the fired Mike Yeo on Nov. 19.

Berube, who was an assistant under Yeo, had to take charge right away.

 

[RELATED: Complete Jets vs. Blues series coverage]

 

"The most important thing was getting these guys to play and work for each other, because that wasn't there," Berube said. "They were just playing and that's not good enough."

The results have been plenty good enough since then.

The Blues open the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVAS) in the Western Conference First Round.

On Jan. 2, St. Louis was last in the NHL with 34 points in 37 games with a 15-18-4 record. From Jan. 3 to the end of the season, the Blues had the most points in the NHL (65; the Tampa Bay Lightning had 64 in three fewer games), going 30-10-5 in their final 45 games.

Upon taking over, Berube brought players into his office one at a time and didn't mince his words or his message. His tone was tough, and the individual video sessions were hard, because much of the discussion during them was based on what that particular player wasn't doing to help the Blues.

"You've got to get it the way you want it and that takes tough meetings sometimes, that takes the truth," Berube said. "We just would show them video and tell the truth. They're not fun meetings, but I'll tell you what, you need them because if you don't have them it won't change."

"I had some pretty abrupt meetings too with the way I challenge people. I got pretty upset a few times, like really upset and tried to get my message across."

Berube didn't protect anybody publicly either.

"From our point of view as broadcasters, we would often ask him, 'Is that the message you want to send or is that OK for us to say that?'" Blues broadcaster and former NHL goalie Darren Pang said. "He'd say, 'Well, that's what I told the player. I told the player he's got to be better. If you want to play, then play better.'"

The message eventually sank in.

"He helped us get back that mentality of let's just work and then we'll find our game," center Ryan O'Reilly said. "You could see it right away how it changed. We started to find an identity and get more comfortable with each other. We got back to being hard to play against, being hard on every puck. Our game started to unfold, we started to have more success and chemistry was found."

Video: Previewing the Blues vs. Jets First Round matchup

That the Blues stumbled at the start wasn't necessarily surprising because of the roster turnover after last season.

They acquired O'Reilly in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres. They signed restricted free agent forwards Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon. Rookie forwards Robert Thomas and Zach Sanford were each ready for a full-time role.

Those additions and promotions meant changes in roles and ice time for some of St. Louis' returning veteran forwards. Their top-scoring forwards last season are all averaging less ice time this season. Brayden Schenn went from 19:44 to 18:35; Vladimir Tarasenko from 19:03 to 18:24; Jaden Schwartz from 19:24 to 18:08; and Alexander Steen from 18:42 to 15:50.

"Everybody wants better players around them, but it's difficult to give up some of the things you had before," Armstrong said. "I think everyone had to find their footing and also their acceptance that to be part of something good it is always bigger than yourself. Everyone had to give a little."

Berube got them to give by pushing for more, being direct, and by complimenting as much as he coached.

It was in many respects the perfect blend of message and delivery for a team like the Blues, who have 12 players with at least 449 games of NHL experience.

"A veteran guy, just tell us how it is," said Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo, who has played in 688 games, all with St. Louis. "Sometimes it's hard to take but it's better than trying to find subliminal messages. He's direct. He's to the point. He tells you what you need to know and want to know, and I think that's made us better. There's no beating around the bush with him."

Video: EDM@STL: Pietrangelo backhands puck by Koskinen

Berube wanted the Blues to be more aggressive and to have the puck more. They were 28th in shots (577) and 24th in both even-strength shot attempts percentage (SAT%, 47.43) and goals (56) when he took over.

"An area of the game that is a simple part of the game but the team wasn't very good at was winning board battles and being aggressive," Pang said. "[Berube] played over 1,000 games in the NHL as a left winger so he had to win a lot of board battles. If he lost a board battle, someone was barking at him that you have to win the board battles."

The Blues changed how they attacked.

"They went from a team backing up in the neutral zone to an aggressive 1-2-2 neutral zone (alignment), which really encouraged the defensemen to hold lines, to stand up, to be more aggressive," Pang said. "That change helped spark a better defending mechanism too."

Offensively, Berube encouraged the defensemen to be up in the play, to have faith that the forwards will swoop back and cover for them.

St. Louis led the NHL in goals from defensemen (46) despite having none of them score more than 13 (Pietrangelo). From Jan. 3 to the end of the season, the Blues were second in shots (1,479; the Toronto Maple Leafs had 1,501 in two fewer games), and seventh in SAT% (53.14).

"We're occupying the offensive zone more than we were before," Pietrangelo said. "We're using the points. We're playing more as a group of five now than we ever have and that's the reason why we're creating so much offense, especially from us on the back end."

It of course matters that the Blues' second-half surge coincided with goalie Jordan Binnington's emergence as a candidate for the Calder Trophy, awarded to the best rookie in the NHL.

Binnington, who got his first start Jan. 7, went 24-5-1 with a 1.89 goals-against average and a .927 save percentage in 32 games (30 starts).

Video: NHL Tonight analyzes notable rookies in the playoffs

"When you get goaltending, every mistake isn't magnified," Armstrong said.

But the Blues weren't making as many mistakes by the time Binnington arrived because Berube's message had gotten through. They went 6-4-1 from Jan. 3-21 before winning 11 straight games. They finished the season with wins in nine of their final 12 games (9-1-2).

"Sometimes you need someone to tell you it's not good enough, that you're in last place and this team shouldn't be in last place so start playing better," Pietrangelo said. "He's done a great job."

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