So much for this being the Blues’ year.
Observers of the St. Louis sports scene over the years have learned something by observing their championship coaches and managers; that it takes exceptionally hard work to win it all.
As we watched the Blues bow out of the playoffs for the fourth straight season, it was quite discouraging to see the lack of urgency on the part of the players.
The game one loss was demoralizing and the loss at Minnesota in game three was embarrassing for the players and disgraceful for the organization.
Former Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa was relentless in the way he drove his teams. He was intense every single day and expected the same from his players. Those that couldn’t handle the intensity and the need to work hard simply didn’t make it with the Cardinals.
Those that could handle it were generally rewarded with championships.
When Dick Vermeil became head coach of the Rams, he talked about “pulling the weeds,” which meant ridding the team of those that didn’t want to work hard enough to win.
Through two years of torturous training camps and regular season practices, Vermeil found out who was tough enough to play in the post-season, and those players…like D’Marco Farr, Todd Lyght, Orlando Pace, Mike Jones, Kevin Carter and Ricky Proehl…were rewarded for their hard work with a Super Bowl XXXIV championship.
Many times when a team reaches a certain level and doesn’t scale the proverbial mountain, it’s the coach that takes the fall. That happened with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001 when Tony Dungy got fired, and they won the Super Bowl in 2002. It just happened with the San Jose Sharks and coach Todd McClellan. It happened with Jim Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers. And it happened with Dusty Baker and the Cincinnati Reds. Sometimes firing the coach works, but usually it doesn’t.
There’s a school of thought that the Blues should blow up their team, starting with the coach, because of the lack of playoff success. I’m of the opinion that Ken Hitchcock has been a victim of a core of players that have been around a long time and consistently failed at big times more than he is a reason for their lack of success.
In the Blues’ playoff losses in games one and three to Minnesota, sniper Vladimir Tarasenko had zero shots on goal, and in the elimination game six, he had two shots late, well after the Wild had taken a 3-1 lead. He was a minus-3 in game two, a minus-1 in game five, and a minus-3 in game six. And he was the Blues’ best forward!
Once again, the Blues’ best regular season veterans failed to step up when the playoffs started. Seven year veteran T.J. Oshie was nearly invisible for the entire series. He had two points, including the Blues’ lone goal in game six, and was a minus-3 in the series. Ninth year Captain David Backes had one goal and one assist as well…both in one game…and had ten shots in the six games. Seventh year Blue and ten year NHL veteran Alexander Steen had one goal and three assists, but only a single goal after game two.
The Blues veteran core, for the fourth year in a row, was exposed as a group that either can’t adjust to the increased intensity of playoff hockey, or doesn’t possess the urgency to step up.
Hitchcock is a demanding coach who has won a Stanley Cup. That group of players has played for three different coaches and has been able to win one playoff series in five playoff years since 2010.
The Blues needed Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz, Jori Lehtera and blueliners Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo to ascend to being their best players this season and post-season, and they did. Amazingly, though, they didn’t get enough help from the veteran core to overcome a very good, energetic and motivated Wild team. The Blues veterans didn’t show the type of urgency, motivation and intensity needed to win a playoff series.
When LaRussa arrived in 1995, he quickly realized that he needed people that knew how to step up and win in the post-season. So the Cardinals signed Ron Gant, who had been a big part of Atlanta’s success, Gary Gaetti, who had won a World Series with the Twins, and some of his old Oakland forces in Mike Gallego, Todd Stottlemyre and Dennis Eckersley. Lo and behold, the Cardinals won their division in LaRussa’s first season.
Vermeil recognized that veterans Dwayne White, Leslie O’Neal, Ironhead Heyward, Robert Jones and Lawrence Phillips were not going to be the answers if he wanted to win. He brought in guys like Adam Timmerman, Grant Wistrom, Robert Holcombe, Marshall Faulk, London Fletcher…guys who were self-starters and, in most cases, proven winners…and the Rams won the Super Bowl.
Many times, a lack of success permeates the culture of a sports team. Losing becomes a part of the expectation in the locker room. That happened with the Cardinals prior to LaRussa and the Rams prior to Vermeil. It’s not necessarily the players’ fault; it’s just a habit they’ve gotten into. The Blues core has gotten into the habit of failing at playoff time, and that’s not going to change until at least a portion of that core changes.
Blues General Manager Doug Armstrong can’t just blow up the entire team.
Backes and Steen have no-trade clauses and Patrik Berglund has a partial no-trade that kicks in after July 1. Barret Jackman will become a free agent, and Oshie can be moved at the Blues pleasure.
LaRussa was allowed to change the players with the Cardinals, and Vermeil was with the Rams. This Blues core has failed to step up for Andy Murray, Davis Payne, and now Hitchcock. The coach is fine. The problem here is a culture of losing in the playoffs that can only be changed if the players that have developed bad habits are switched out.
It’s time for Blues GM Doug Armstrong to make THOSE changes, not a coaching change.
Audio Below: Key Blues Players’ Futures Hinge on the Series vs. the Wild
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