Everyone has been there before. That feeling of disappointment which leads to wanting to make a change. You question your dreams, how you have been living your life, are you going about it the right way? It’s something almost everyone asks themselves at some point in life…who are you? I think this is where the St. Louis Blues find themselves right now.
Today, the Blues dealt T.J. Oshie to the Washington Captials for Troy Brouwer, a minor league goalie, and a third round draft pick. Once the Blues suffered their third consecutive first round exit from the playoffs earlier this year it was expected GM Doug Armstrong would make some changes to the roster, possibly even behind the bench. Blues fans were expecting changes, some fans demanding drastic changes. From Hitchcock to Oshie, David Backes, Patrick Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo; no one except Vladimir Tarasenko was safe in a Blue note sweater for the fans.
The off-season began slowly for the Blues, with a short but intense courtship of Mike Babcock as a possible successor to Hitchcock. After Babcock decided to go elsewhere the Blues were left to bring back Hitchcock. It was no secret that Blues coach Ken Hitchcock and T.J. Oshie did not see eye to eye. Hitchcock is a by the books coach that believes in his system until the end. Oshie, likes a little more freedom. The two didn’t match. But in his press conference Hitchcock, and Blues G.M. Doug Armstrong, stated the Blues had to be faster:
“What’s happened here in very quick order, this league has sped up,” Hitchcock said. “This league has pace like never before, and you can’t change out a bunch of players. That’s not our job as coaches. Our job is to get the most out of every player. And I think internally, without changing a bunch of players, we can really quicken our team and make our pace a lot higher.”
But now the Blues, a team which has struggled finding play makers and game changers, trade away one such player (although his play has not been as consistent as one hopes) for a player who has over 50 fewer points in nearly 100 more games during his career. Whether you were an Oshie fan or not there is no denying he had the potential to change a game. Brouwer on the other hand, is a big-body winger. Seems to me like that is opposite of getting faster like Hitchcock and Armstrong said the Blues needed to do.
So you say well Brouwer has playoff experience and brings a Stanley Cup winning mentality to the locker room. Yes he was on the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning team in 2010 but how much of a role did he play? He has failed to score a goal in his last 17 playoff games and in fact has just 19 points in 78 career playoff games. Just because you are a member of a Cup winning team doesn’t automatically elevate you into a postseason standout, heck even Tony Hrkac won a Stanley Cup during his career.
Now although I am a T.J. Oshie fan I am not ignorant. I understand he was the best bargaining tool the Blues had this off-season. He didn’t have a no-trade contract (Backes), his contract itself wasn’t overly priced (Alexander Steen), and he still had some demand from other teams (Patrick Berglund). However just last week after a quite off-season in which they had only signed a few fringe players, Armstrong stated he would not make a move just to make a move. He would not lessen the talent level of the team. Anyone believe that Brouwer is more talented than Oshie? I have no doubt that Oshie will flourish next year in Washington, where he can play a style more fitting for his talents and possibly play on a line with Alexander Ovechkin. Oshie was the face of the young upstart Blues coming off some of the worst seasons in franchise history. He had the charimsa, the style of play, the looks, and the Blues put everything on him. While he was more likely a second line player he filled in the role of a front line player for a franchise in need of face; adjusting his style of play to a scheme that he didn’t work well with. Fans always wanted more from him, but this deal does not bring the Blues more than what he offered or gave.
My whole point is that the Blues do not know who they are. Hitchcock has a system he believes in and it does work, as evident by the team’s success since his arrival. However come playoff time something happens. Is it the makeup of the team? Is it the system? Do the Blues want to be a big, physical team? Do they want to be a fast, attacking team? The issue is Hitchcock and Armstrong don’t seem to know. They say one thing but then do another.
The Blues keep changing their roster but can’t make up their mind on who they want to be. We have talked about this on our podcast (Bar Stool Shenanigans) and maybe what the Blues need to be doing is finding their identity. What type of team do they want to be? They have tried being a puck possession team, a hit anything that moves team. They have talked about becoming a faster team, found a legit goal-scoring start (Tarasenko). But it seems like every time they make a move it is counterproductive to what they had already constructed.
Remember the first season Hitchcock took over, in 2011-12, he brought in Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbruner, and Andy McDonald, all playoff experienced players; and that team made it all the way to the….second round. The following year, in 2012-13, the Blues started their youth movement with Oshie, David Perron, Jaden Schwartz, Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk all taking the lead roles. Oh but wait…following that season, a first round playoff exit, they dealt the play making Perron (also a salary dump) to get bigger and more physical. So in 2013-14 the Blues had their ideal mix of physical and offensive talent, but maybe their fault was in net so they went all in with the trade for goalie Ryan Miller. First round exit, whoops. Okay well that failed, so the Blues said let’s see what else can we do. Oh yeah we still can’t score goals in the playoffs so let’s upgrade our defensemen to a more offensive style. So they deal Roman Polak, a stay at home type, for Carl Gunnarsson, a more mobile type. The Blues go through the regular season with Gunnarsson playing just 28 games because of a hip surgery (which they knew about when trading for him) before realizing maybe we actually do need a stay at home type and deal for Robert Bortuzzo at the trade deadline, only to not suit him up in the playoffs. See a pattern here?
Hitchock and Armstrong see where the Blues need to be and what they need to do. But instead of getting faster, more talented, the Blues just picked up a third line player. The Blues goal scoring once again was missing in the playoffs last year, scoring just four goals in their four losses to the Wild. So rather than bring in scoring, or change the style of play, the Blues subtract a scorer? Could Oshie have done more, sure. But so could have 16 other other players on the team (I think Tarasenko did plenty for the team). Instead of adjusting to the players he has and making them better he has tried squeezing them into his system.
At the end of the most recent Blues failure I was part of the movement wanting a new coach. (April Blues, Make Us April Fools) I didn’t know who the Blues would get to replace Hitchcock but I felt that he needed to go. I said the Blues also needed to shake things up with their roster. Dealing from their core. As I admitted Oshie was the most likely player to go due to circumstances. However to me one change does not seem to be enough to right the ship.
This all seems eerily similar to another coach in St. Louis that seems to get a pass. Jeff Fisher has come under fire from some fans because after initial progression for the team they have failed to take the next step. People bring up the fact that Fisher has just six winning seasons in 20 years as a head coach, with his last coming in 2008. Fisher, a long time ground and pound offensive style coach, wanted to open things up a couple of years ago even spending a high draft pick on a wide receiver. But after an injury at quarterback he has gone completely back to his running style and now appears ready to run a modern day wing t offense. What about Hitchcock? Yes he has one Stanley Cup win and one other finals appearance, as well as two more conference finals appearances. But did you know that he has also either been fired, missed the playoffs, or lost in the first round 12 times in his 19 years. The last time he advanced beyond the second round was in the 2003-04 season.
I know that in the end it is the players that are responsible for outcomes on the ice. But the coach is there to prepare his team the best way possible and get the most out of his players. Hitchcock even said so in his press conference (see above) this summer. There is no doubt that the Blues players have not fulfilled their talent and expectations. I don’t think it is a motivational or effort failure but a strategical failure. Why else would Hitchcock state the Blues need to be faster? Why make numerous comments about the final four teams in the playoffs being the fastest teams in the league if you are only going to add slower, bigger players? The Blues needed to make a change, I just feel this was the wrong one.