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Failures by Blues cost coach Ken Hitchcock his job

GM Doug Armstrong cites need for culture change, improved effort

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

This is not what Doug Armstrong wanted to do, but this is what he felt he had to do as general manager to jolt the St. Louis Blues.

Armstrong fired coach Ken Hitchcock, whom he called probably his best friend, when the 65-year-old was at 781 wins, one from tying Al Arbour for third in NHL history. He made it clear that it wasn't as much an indictment of Hitchcock as it was the team as a whole, that the players had to stop playing as individuals and start playing as a team again, and it was brutal.

"Obviously it's a very difficult day for myself," Armstrong said during a press conference at the Blues' practice facility in Hazelwood, Missouri, on Wednesday. "Made a …"

He paused, emotional.

"… hard decision."

He announced associate coach Mike Yeo would take over. He said he was excited and called it a rebirth for the players. But then he paused for even longer and got even more emotional. The only sound came from camera shutters.

"I don't think we've given our best effort," Armstrong said later. "Ultimately Ken is the …"

He didn't finish the sentence. He didn't have to.

Hitchcock is the fall guy.

"He's paying the price for all our failures, starting with mine," Armstrong said.

Video: Dan Rosen on Blues firing Hitchcock, promoting Yeo

Hitchcock is one of the best coaches in NHL history, and the Blues have been one of the best teams in the NHL under him.

Since the start of the 2011-12 season, when Armstrong hired Hitchcock after 13 games, the Blues have had a .644 point percentage. Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (.656) and Chicago Blackhawks (.648) have been better.

The Blues went to the Western Conference Final last season and came within two wins of their first Stanley Cup Final since 1970.

But the Blues still never have won the Cup, and they've gone 9-14-1 since a 15-7-4 start. Since Dec. 8 their point percentage is .395; only the Colorado Avalanche (.196) and Arizona Coyotes (.375) have been worse.

They are clinging to the second wild card spot in the Western Conference, in danger of missing the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2010-11.

Armstrong said he and Hitchcock had a talk during the Christmas break, but he wanted to give the coach as long as he could. Finally he had enough. He informed him after the Blues' 5-3 loss against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday.

Video: The guys analyze the coaching change in St. Louis

"He was defiant to the end," Armstrong said with a bittersweet laugh. "I went home last night and had a strong drink and thought about that, and that's what I love about the guy. He's a hell of a coach. There was no kumbaya last night. He was angry, and he should have been angry. He's upset. He's upset at where we're at as a franchise, the decision that I made. If he wasn't, I would have been more shocked than I was."

Goaltending has been a huge problem. The Blues traded Brian Elliott and signed Jake Allen to a four-year extension in the offseason, but Allen has struggled so badly that he was kept home from a recent road trip to reset himself mentally. The team save percentage is .887, last in the NHL. Armstrong also fired goaltending coach Jim Corsi, replacing him with assistant general manager Martin Brodeur and goaltending development coach Ty Conklin for the remainder of the season.

The problems have run deeper, though.

Armstrong let captain David Backes and forward Troy Brouwer leave as unrestricted free agents. That might have been prudent in the long term considering the contracts they received -- Backes five years, $30 million from the Boston Bruins; Brouwer four years, $18 million from the Calgary Flames -- but it hurt in the short term.

Video: WPG@STL: Trouba's one-timer sneaks past Allen

Hitchcock declared this would be his last season, though he has backed off retirement talk since then. Armstrong hired Yeo on June 13, 2016, with the intent of having him succeed Hitchcock next season. Assistant coaches Kirk Muller and Brad Shaw left; Muller for the Montreal Canadiens, Shaw for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

So the Blues lost leadership, experience and size, and they had a lame-duck coach with a new staff.

Armstrong said the players became "independent contractors." He explained what he meant by saying when there was a 50/50 puck, they would cheat on the offensive side of instead of the defensive side.

This comment particularly was damning:

"We don't lose with pride," Armstrong said. "What we have to do is, we have to become a team again. We have to take pride in doing things for each other for the betterment of the team. I see when we win how guys react when they don't get what they want. I see when we lose how guys react when they get what they want. It's a losing brand of hockey."

In other words, it's selfish.

"I think the culture's changed a bit and we have to regain the culture," Armstrong said. "We have to regain wanting what's best for the Note on the front, not the name on the back."

Armstrong now will watch how the players react to Yeo before the March 1 trade deadline. He has three pending unrestricted free agents: forwards Patrik Berglund and Scottie Upshall and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.

This is not about strategy or systems.

"What Mike's going to do different, I don't know," Armstrong said.

Yeo couldn't do much differently if he wanted to. He oversaw practice Wednesday and then the Blues play the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scottrade Center on Thursday (9 p.m. ET; FS-MW, TSN4, NHL.TV). He said he would do some teaching and tweaking and not overload the players with new concepts.

"Effort," Yeo said, "is going to be something that is talked about day in and day out."

This is about passion and execution. This is what GMs do when they can't fire players.

When he replaced Davis Payne with Hitchcock on Nov. 6, 2011, Armstrong said: "At what point do the players become responsible and not the coach? That time is today. The players are now responsible for their own actions. The players are now responsible for the success of this team."

This is what he said Wednesday: "It puts a spotlight directly on the players."

Video: Darren Pang discusses the Blues' coaching moves

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