A few days ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who happens to be a St. Louis Blues fan. We spent most of our time talking about how they completely and utterly ran out of gas in the Western Conference Finals (they totally did), what's going to happen to Kevin Shattenkirk (it seems like he's going to be traded or thrown into a well), and how hard David Backes had to play to sort of maybe almost earn himself a contract next season (he had to play really, really hard).
Eventually, though, we rehashed a conversation we've had in the past, about Ken Hitchcock, his coaching tenure with the Blues, and his legacy. For a while, I've liked Hitchcock and his approach to the game, which, while not always fruitful in the late spring, has almost always produced regular season success and has allotted a lot of room for creative players to shine. On May 31, Hitchcock signed a one-year contract with the Blues to stay on for the 2016-2017 season, stating definitively that this year would be his last with the organization.
During his five seasons with the Blues, Hitchcock's roster achieved so much regular season success, but at the same time struggled constantly to put together solid postseason runs. It should be no surprise, then, that Hitchcock's new contract is limited to a single season. Both Hitchcock and the Blues made it clear that the upcoming season will be meant to ease in a new coaching regime while giving Hitchcock a well-deserved send off and one last chance to take his team all the way.
Since the terms and intention behind Hitchcock's final coaching contract were revealed, much of the conversation around the Blues offseason has surrounded his successor and the future of the team. In that same span of time, the Minnesota Wild named Scott Stevens and John Anderson assistant coaches in the ongoing, much-needed shakeup of the organization. The Wild's signings signaled that the market for available assistant coaches was drying up more and more while many teams with valuable prospect pools like the Anaheim Ducks, the Calgary Flames, and the Ottawa Senators were still seeking new Head Coaches.
Since their late season collapse, the Senators had set their sights on the defensive-minded Mike Yeo, meeting with him as a serious candidate to replace David Cameron. Yeo was also approached by the Ducks after they let Bruce Boudreau go. In the end, neither team really seemed like a good fit. The Ducks, with some high-caliber offensive weapons, really only have Hampus Lindholm to rely on as an elite defenseman. The Senators, despite having some serious defensive talent on their roster (Erik Karlsson anyone?), are structured less as a shut down defensive system and more as a puck-movement D-system. And while the Flames boast a promising young roster filled with offensive talent, it would seem to be bad strategy to try to mold either Yeo or the Johnny Gaudreau's of the world to a system that doesn't fit either party's needs. It makes sense, then, that Yeo dropped off these teams' radars long enough for the Blues to sneak in and nab one of the best young coaches in the league.
It also makes sense why the Blues would be motivated to go after a coach like Yeo for both an Associate Coaching role this year and the Head Coaching role for the following three. With five seasons of Wild coaching under his belt, Yeo satisfies an experiential requirement that often stands in the way of young coaches' advancement in the league. He's dealt with enough of the ups and (too often for many fans) the downs associated with an NHL roster to separate himself from the pack.
He'll be joined in St. Louis by Rick Wilson, who spent time with both the Wild and Yeo as well as Hitchcock in Dallas. This will provide a lot of synergy on the bench and in the locker room and really is one of the best outcomes imaginable for any of these three coaches. They'll be on the same page quickly and that solidarity will silence any critics and answer any questions about how smoothly the transition in St. Louis will go.
He also has a mind for the defensive side of the game, and given a smaller set of responsibilities with the Blues, should flourish. Players like Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko represent two very different styles of NHL-caliber defensemen, yet Yeo will be familiar with both and his ability to deploy these players as well as command the lower lines of the forward corps should maintain the 7th-best PK in the NHL last season. In St. Louis, Yeo could be reunited with Kyle Brodziak, whose ability to hit the post was often noted but easily discounted because of his value on the PK.
As for his shortcomings, the Blues again provide an optimal fit for addressing and correcting his issues. By giving him one year as an Associate Coach before taking the reigns, the Blues have smartly given him a chance to take a breath at the NHL level and learn from a fantastic coach in the modern game. One of the biggest issues that this gap year could address is the fact that Yeo's Wild teams have always suffered from an inability to score. Their lack of scoring is certainly due in part to Yeo's mindest for coaching, but would also seem to be driven largely by a lack of young, elite scorers. While the Blues don't possess any Patrick Kane's or Connor McDavid's.
In the Blues roster, Yeo will be forced to learn how to coach creative goal scorers and game breakers like Vladimir Tarasenko. In past seasons, Yeo's scoring has been built off an availability of gritty goal scorers like Zach Parise, who thrive in the low areas and the crease. The physical style that's typical of Minnesota's top scorers allowed Yeo to ignore developing a distinct offensive system or even a strategy of dealing with pure goal scorers. In St. Louis, he'll be given (at least) 82 games to figure it out before players like Tarasenko will answer to him.
Taken together, both the Blues and Yeo have made an excellent move going forward. For the Blues, they've given their players the assurance that there is a plan for the future and they're preparing for it now. For Yeo, he's been given the chance to thrive and develop under the tutelage of one of the most consistent regular season coaches in the past few years. For the rest of the league, Yeo is one big and underrated name that must fall off the radar for too many prospective teams needing a good coach.
What do you think about Yeo's signing with the Blues? Will he thrive or will he fail? Let me know in the comments below.