St. Louis Blues Once Again Make An Early Exit
COMMENTARY | The St. Louis Blues have been heavy favorites for the past two seasons to go all the way and win the Stanley Cup. Both years, the Blues have made a hasty exit from the playoffs, not winning a series. Fans and commentators were excited this post-season when the Blues faced off against the Minnesota Wild. Many thought the Blues would have a tough series but would prevail in the end. That is until small mistakes began to add up and the offense crumbled.
History did, in a sense, repeat itself once again.
Hitchcock to Blame?
People are contemplating the future of head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has been with the club for four seasons. Hitchcock has without a doubt turned the St. Louis Blues from a team that was mediocre to a team that consistently wins. The Blues fight for the top spot within their division each season under Hitchcock and usually come away victorious.
What is it about the playoffs that cause the Blues to fizzle? Is it lack of leadership behind the bench? Does Hitchcock change his coaching style for a playoff series? I really do not think that his whole coaching strategy changes once the playoffs begin. I think that Hitchcock has been a strong leader for the team, but when a team gets a reputation for not being able to win a playoff series, that will worm its way into the minds of the players and make them begin to doubt their abilities to win.
Should he have stayed with the rookie goaltender Jake Allen when the cracks began to show? Was Allen the best choice later in the series when his confidence was shaken? Probably not, however, goaltender Brian Elliott has had his own issues within a playoff series.
We can sit back all day and ask the “why did he…?” questions. The truth of the matter is this; Ken Hitchcock has experience that has been proven effective in regular season play. He has been a solid coach behind the bench and has earned the respect of his players. All the “backseat” coaches out there have no true grasp of what it is like to motivate, teach and guide professional athletes while building a cohesive unit that can win hockey games.
Backes and Oshie Not Producing
Many are wondering if the backbone of the team needs to be dissected. Team captain David Backes and Olympic hero TJ Oshie are both outstanding players during regular season play. Throughout the playoffs, though, they are not known for producing for their team.
Backes is a smart player who has the ability to motivate his team and lead them through a successful season. Once the playoffs begin though, he fades away into the background and his leadership ability becomes questionable. Backes is a strong personality within the St. Louis Blues organization and within the St. Louis community. Fans love him and support him, but could it be time for him to part ways with the Blues? Has Backes done all he can for the Blues? There is no doubt that his talent could carry him far, but he may not be able to do it in St. Louis.
Oshie is without a doubt a fan favorite and is also active within the St. Louis community. He stole the hearts of fans during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and has been riding on that high ever since. He is a player who knows how to set up plays and make things happen during the regular season. Oshie is a leader within the locker room and his teammates look to him to lead them. Again, like Backes, Oshie fades during the playoffs. You have to wonder if Oshie has grown as much as he can in St. Louis and if he would succeed on a different team under different leadership.
Look at Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull. Both of them were fan favorites in St. Louis and produced well in the regular season, but could not help the Blues in the post-season. Once they left St. Louis, both Shanahan and Hull found success and Stanley Cup rings. At this point, Blues fans are screaming at the screen and calling me nasty names, I am sure, for even hinting that Backes and Oshie may be finished in St. Louis. But when you look at how both Oshie and Backes performed during the regular season versus the playoffs and then figure in how they played during the Winter Olympics under different leadership, it makes you wonder…
Questions about the Goaltending
Rookie goaltender Jake Allen came into the playoffs with confidence and a team that protected him well. When it was all said and done, that confidence was severely shaken and his offense had deserted him. Should the blame of losing the first round be placed on Allen’s shoulders? Absolutely not, while he showed cracks in his confidence, his team failed to produce offense and there were the dreaded empty-net goals that Allen could do nothing about.
Why did Hitchcock stick with Jake Allen instead of going with veteran All-Star goaltender Brian Elliott? It could have been a question of if Elliott could deliver after being benched for so long. It could also have been that Hitchcock was trying to show his confidence in Allen by keeping him in there. The disappointment of an early exit from the playoffs does not rest squarely on the shoulders of goaltending this time.
Outplayed By a Better Team
Sometimes, it is hard to face the truth and all the analyzing of plays and second guessing decisions is not going to change the fact that a team can simply be beat by a better team. It is always hard to say which team is the better team. In my opinion, the better team is the one that created offense while sticking with their solid defense and not taking unnecessary or just plain stupid penalties.
The Minnesota Wild, no matter how painful it is for me to say, played the better, or perhaps smarter, game. There were glimmers of greatness from the Blues in the series and if they could have pulled it together and been consistent would have been the victors, or better team. However, those glimmers were few and far between. The Wild remained consistent and dug deep to scratch out wins, they also had a few lucky breaks with several empty-net goals.
All in all, the Blues had a great season that showcased several of their assets: Vladimir Tarasenko, Jake Allen, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Alex Pietrangelo just to name a few. It also highlighted their weaknesses, Steve Ott being a weak link and the defense as a whole was a confusing mess most of the season, especially with the trade of rugged defenseman Roman Polak prior to the start of the season.
The Blues are still evolving and building and have come another step closer to being a true contender in the playoffs. No, this was most certainly not their year, but the good that came of it is that Jake Allen now has playoff experience and will be better equipped to handle the physical and mental aspects of the playoffs next year. And just maybe the Blues will be the better team next year.