It still feels like the season just ended, but with the draft and free agency already behind us, it's time to look forward to the 2016-17 season. We will preview every team in the NHL throughout August and take a look at what the new season may hold.
Team: St. Louis Blues
How they did last season: 49-24-9 (96 points), 2nd in the Central, 2nd in the Western Conference. Made the playoffs, lost in the Conference Finals to the San Jose Sharks in six games.
Notable acquisitions: G Carter Hutton, LW David Perron
Notable departures: C David Backes, RW Troy Brouwer, C Steve Ott, G Brian Elliott
When they will play the Caps: Nov. 23 in Washington; Jan. 19 in St. Louis
Analysis: It is rare to see a coach in waiting scenario in professional sports because they rarely ever work, but dammit if the St. Louis Blues aren’t going to try it this season.
Head coach Ken Hitchcock signed another one-year deal in May and promptly announced that the upcoming season would be his last. The Blues decided not to wait and tabbed Mike Yeo as the coach in waiting. He will serve as an assistant coach for the season and take over for Hitchcock next year.
The coaching structure for this team will make them one of the most compelling storylines of the season. Can St. Louis actually make this work?
Among the myriad of reasons why this setup usually fails is the rift it forms between coaches and players. Hitchcock and Yeo will be fine, provided they speak with one voice, otherwise Hitchcock becomes nothing more than a lame duck to the players. If some of the players begin to turn to Yeo instead of Hitchcock, this team could implode. Just one year ago, I wondered if Hitchcock could get fired if the Blues had a slow start to the season. Does he really have enough control of the locker room to ensure he keeps control even with the future coach on the staff?
This issue is compounded by the fact that St. Louis lost captain David Backes in the offseason. Perhaps the addition of David Perron will be able to make up for the loss of his offensive production, but in a year this team will need leadership more than ever, it’s the wrong time to have to replace the captain. And who gets to make that decision? Will it be Hitchcock who will only be there for another year or Yeo? It doesn't really make sense for Hitchcock to make that decision, but could there be any greater indication that Hitchcock is a lame duck coach than if Yeo gets to make the first major decision of the new season?
At least the situation in net finally has some resolution. After years of splitting the starting duties, the Blues traded Brian Elliott to Calgary, thus making Jake Allen the undisputed starter. The addition of career backup Carter Hutton is further proof that the keys to the castle will belong to Allen this season.
Allen appeared in a career-high 47 games last season, but how will he handle starting 55-60? And how will he handle being the starter in the postseason? In 12 career postseason games, Allen has registered a save percentage of only .902. Compare that to the .921 Elliott managed in the 2016 playoff run.
No one can question this team’s talent with players like Vladimir Tarasenko, Paul Stastny, David Perron, Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester. And, as good as Elliott was, there’s no reason to doubt Allen’s ability to handle the load as the top starter. Handling that talent, however, and getting it to the point where it can compete for a Stanley Cup is a tough job and it requires great coaching. Does the addition of Yeo really set this team up for success for the upcoming season or will it prove to be an unwelcome distraction that ends up dividing the loyalty of the players?
Season prediction: The structure the Blues have set up for this season has the potential to blow up in their face. What if this team lacks leadership with Backes gone? What if Allen is not able to handle the load as the No. 1 goalie? Can St. Louis rely on Tarasenko? Whatever problems this team may face, you trust a coach like Hitchcock to handle them...unless the team sees him as a lame duck coach.
Let’s face it, no one could label Hitchcock as a players’ coach and I don’t see the Blues rallying in a “win one for the Gipper” type of way. The team’s run in the playoffs last season suggests he still carries weight in the locker room, but it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the players revolt against him and turn to Yeo. Hitchcock and Yeo will have to handle the coaching dynamic perfectly or the Blues will implode.
Even without coach in waiting situation, St. Louis lost enough this offseason to make me think they will take a step back. Now the coaching situation hangs over this team like a storm cloud.
The management in St. Louis isn’t stupid. They knew the risks and they still chose to grab their coach before someone else could. I think they will do all they can to ensure this season goes smoothly publicly even if it means Hitchcock becomes little more than a figurehead. Internally though, there could be some problems and I am very skeptical that this will work. This team feels like a wild card team at best. Stanley Cup? Not a chance.
2016-2017 NHL TEAM PREVIEWS
— Boston Bruins
— Buffalo Sabres
— Detroit Red Wings
— Florida Panthers
Montreal Canadiens (coming Aug. 19)
Ottawa Senators (coming Aug. 20)
Tampa Bay Lightning (coming Aug. 21)
Toronto Maple Leafs (coming Aug. 22)
Carolina Hurricanes (coming Aug. 23)
Columbus Blue Jackets (coming Aug. 24)
New Jersey Devils (coming Aug. 25)
New York Islanders (coming Aug. 26)
New York Rangers (coming Aug. 27)
Philadelphia Flyers (coming Aug. 28)
Pittsburgh Penguins (coming Aug. 29)
Washington Capitals (coming Aug. 30)