Bernie on the Blues: An Appreciation Of Doug Armstrong, Who Built A Winner That Endures

Blues broadcaster John Kelly of Fox Sports Midwest presented a terrific stat during the team’s 3-2 win over visiting San Jose on Tuesday night.

Since Craig Berube became the Blues’ coach on Nov. 20 of 2018, replacing the dismissed Mike Yeo, a total of 13 other NHL teams have sacked their head coaches. Things change quickly in the NHL. Job security can melt away, just like the ice.

The Blues obviously have benefited from the coaching change. As the Blues’ boss, Berube has a regular-season record of 65-29-13. Over that time, The Note ranks third among the 31 NHL teams in wins and points. Since last Jan. 3, the Blues lead the NHL in wins (57), points (126) and points percentage (.708.)

Plus, the Blues earned and collected that elusive little prize, the Stanley Cup, along the way. For the first time, ever, in franchise history. In 51+ seasons of hockey.

The Blues have changed coaches multiple times since Doug Armstrong became the GM and leader of the team’s hockey operations. Thirteen games into the 2011-2012 season the struggling young coach Davis Payne was sent away to make room for salty veteran coach Ken Hitchcock.

When the mostly successful Hitch regime stalled, Yeo took over for the final 43 games of the 2016-17 season and got the Blues into the playoffs. After missing the playoffs in 2017-2018, an overwhelmed Yeo lost his job 19 games into last season after the team’s troubling start.

The pieces of Armstrong’s roster have changed, too.

Many times over. That too is part of the NHL way.

But one thing hasn’t changed under Armstrong:

WINNING.

Since Armstrong was put in charge of the team in the summer of 2010, the Blues rank fourth in regular-season points and are third in regular-season victories with 430. Only Pittsburgh (445) and Washington (438) have accumulated more wins.

Since the start of 2011-2012, Armstrong’s team is second to Pittsburgh in wins, and only Pittsburgh and Washington have more points over the eight-plus seasons. The Blues have missed the playoffs one time — by a single point — during the eight-year stretch. But even then, the 2017-2018 Blues went 44-32-6 for 94 points … which is hardly a disgrace.

All NHL front offices make mistakes. So no one is attaching the word “perfect” to Armstrong’s history of payroll and personnel decisions in St. Louis. I’ve been impatient with him at times. But the men who run NHL teams tend to be overly aggressive, overly anxious, or in some instances overly confident in what they have. Throwing free-agent money around doesn’t always solve problems. Keeping a group together for the sake of continuity isn’t always the solution. Thinking that you are “one player away” can become delusional.

The key, of course, is balance. Even when factoring in some miscalculations, Armstrong seems to have found a happy medium. Armstrong hasn’t lost his edge, or hunger. We saw that when the GM of the defending Stanley Cup champions made a big trade on Sept. 24, acquiring Carolina defenseman Justin Faulk. But Armstrong also has the patience, and the wisdom, to know when it’s best to stay the course. Why make panicky trade-deadline deals? Why overpay in a trade for a player that probably won’t make that much of a difference?

If anything Armstrong has shown a reverse kind of boldness; with the Blues in playoff contention he’s traded away stars at the deadline (Kevin Shattenkirk, Paul Stastny.) You’re not supposed to do that, right? Well, Armstrong has gone against the grain to collect draft picks and/or future pieces that eventually won roster spots or filled roles in a meaningful way. Or the GM has been creative. Example: sacrificing a first-round draft choice to offload a bad player with a bad contract (Jori Lehtera) to land a talented, valuable fixture (Brayden Schenn) of a Stanley Cup champ. And there’s been some straight-up thievery (see: Ryan O’Reilly.) And some very intelligent, value-driven signings (see: David Perron.)

Because of Armstrong and the efforts of his assistants and scouts — and the essential support of team chairman Tom Stillman — the Blues have assembled rich roster depth that helps them overcome a series of issues.

This organizational roster has guys playing in the AHL (including Klim Kostin) that are NHL-caliber talents. This roster has young stars in the making (Jordan Kyrou) who aren’t assured of NHL playing time.

This Army-built roster is loaded with veteran, character players who compete hard and know how to respond during tough times. Veteran, character players that are cultivating the same traits in the team’s younger players. That’s how a winning culture becomes an almost tangible attribute. That culture covers that small gap between winning and losing. The teams that have it — teams like the Blues — have an advantage.

“I think you need a combination,” Armstrong said earlier this season in an interview with The Athletic. “You need top-end, skill players, but top-end skill players need heart, also. If you have found that great combination of skill and heart, you have something special.

“You need a good balance. Our team is built with a lot of really good players we believe have high character levels who can push the game and win the game in different fashions. I think if you build the team in one direction you can win in one way. If you build the team in different directions, you can win in multiple ways.”

Absolutely.

This is why the Blues are 27-10-7. It’s why they are leading the Western Conference (and their division) by seven points.

This is why the Blues are 7-0 in one-goal outcomes … and 6-2-1 when tied after two periods… and have won four games when trailing after two periods.

This deep Army-built roster has enabled the Blues to keep rolling despite losing Vladamir Tarasenko, indefinitely, to shoulder surgery.

At the time of his injury on Oct. 24, Tarasenko was second only to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin in the NHL for most even-strength goals over the last four-plus seasons. But in their first 35 games without Tarasenko, the Blues are 23-8-4. That’s very good. In fact, through Tuesday, the Blues led the NHL in points (50) during Tarasenko’s absence.

That’s special.

The Blues have had some disappointing finishes to season; until the franchise finally won the Cup last June the annual frustration was intense and cruel. But after so many broken promises, the Blues made it to that promised land. It was, and is, an amazing triumph.

Doug Armstrong built that champion. And he built it to last. You didn’t see the Blues rise to the top, then crash. You didn’t see the Blues have their breakthrough, then break apart into rubble.

Those past postseason disappointments were difficult to handle, but that was better than having a hopeless, poorly run team that can’t compete, can’t escape from the quicksand. The Blues’ consistency under Armstrong is enduring.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie