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The challenge for Yeo? Make better use of Blues’ speed

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Let’s face it, no matter what Mike Yeo does as head coach of the St. Louis Blues, no matter what changes he makes after today’s firing of Ken Hitchcock, no matter how well he motivates his players, the team isn’t going anywhere without better goaltending.

More than halfway through the season, Jake Allen and Carter Hutton both have save percentages below .900. Those two are the prime reason the Blues are barely clinging to a playoff spot. They are the epitome of the Harry Neale quote: “Goaltending is 75 percent of your hockey team. Unless you don’t have it, then it’s 100 percent.”

Now, you could certainly blame the general manager, Doug Armstrong, for not finding Allen a suitable backup after Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Hutton, 31, has never put up particularly good NHL numbers. He was decent last season in Nashville, but in a very limited role behind Pekka Rinne.

Allen is the starter, though, and he has to be better, plain and simple. That’s why the Blues also fired goalie coach Jim Corsi today, replacing him with Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin. The hope is that Brodeur and Conklin can connect with Allen and somehow help him rediscover his form.

At the same time, Yeo will try to get the Blues to play faster and more aggressively — first, in their own end, and then on the attack.

“We want to be a team that’s structured,” Yeo said today, “but we want to defend quickly, we want to defend aggressively, and with that, I think what we’ll see is us having the ability to showcase our speed and our ability to get to the offensive zone and on the attack a bit quicker.”

If we can forget the goaltending for a moment, let’s focus on the phrase “showcase our speed.” Because the past few years, the Blues have been more big and heavy than fast. That was their identity. They were hard to play against. When they hit you, it hurt.

And then David Backes and Troy Brouwer left.

Looking back, there’s no doubt that the departures of those two veteran forwards changed the Blues’ identity.

Just ask Armstrong.

“I think what we’ve seen in the NHL this season is that it’s still a man’s league, and you still have to get to the hard areas to score,” he told the Post-Dispatch a couple of weeks ago. “But I think you have to play to how your roster is built. You don’t replace a Backes and a Brouwer with another Backes and Brouwer at a younger age, or if you do, we didn’t have those guys in our group.

“I don’t think you can ask Robby Fabbri to play the way David Backes did. I just think it’s unrealistic. So our coaches’ responsibility is to use their expertise to find different ways to play. We have to find different ways to get the same results. I think you need a good balance and we’re trying to find that balance.”

That responsibility now falls to Yeo. Perhaps he’ll be a better fit with the current roster than Hitchcock, who had success with the big-and-heavy Blues but didn’t get the same results with a speedier, more skilled group.

Again, though, the Blues first and foremost need better goaltending. They cannot be losing games, 7-3, when they only surrender 18 shots, which is exactly what they did a couple of weeks ago to Washington.

Yeo made clear today that Allen is the Blues’ goalie of the present, and also the future.

So expect Allen to get the start tomorrow against the high-scoring visitors from Toronto.

It won’t get any easier after that. On Saturday, the Blues host the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then it’s on the road for five games.

Related: Armstrong rips into Blues after firing his ‘best friend’

Trouble for Ducks: Lindholm and Vatanen need major shoulder surgeries, will miss months

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Not a great week for the Anaheim Ducks.

After being eliminated in Game 6 of the Western Conference final — the toughest loss of Ryan Kesler’s career, apparently — the Ducks broke more bad news on Friday as GM Bob Murray announced d-men Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen both require torn labrum surgery, and will be out an awfully long time.

The timeline on Lindholm is 4-5 months, while Vatanen’s recovery will extend beyond that because his injury was more serious.

Looking at the calendar, four months would run Lindholm up to the end of September, meaning he’d miss a good chunk of the preseason. If it’s five months, he could miss the first three weeks of the regular season.

Murray didn’t even put a timetable on Vatanen, only saying it would be longer.

This adds to what was already going to be a pretty stressful summer in Anaheim. As we wrote earlier, Murray has some big decisions on his hands.

Vatanen and Lindholm are huge parts of the team. Both averaged over 21 minutes per night this season, and both broke the 20-point plateau. They’re also locked in long term — Lindholm at $5.2 million annually through 2022, Vatanen at $4.8M through 2020.

If the Ducks decide to protect seven forwards and three defensemen for the expansion draft, the defense will definitely be worth watching. Lindholm will be protected for sure, and Shea Theodore and Brandon Montour are each exempt. But that only leaves two spots for Vatanen, Kevin Bieksa, Cam Fowler, and Josh Manson.

Bieksa, 35, has a no-movement clause, so unless the Ducks find a way to get around that, they’ll need to protect him. (Chances are, they’ll seek a way around it, either via trade or buyout or just convincing him to waive.)

Fowler, meanwhile, only has one year left on his contract before he can become an unrestricted free agent. There are already reports that extension negotiations are going well but, after the season he just had, with 39 points in 80 games, the 25-year-old won’t be cheap to re-sign.

Yes, there is the option to protect four defensemen and four forwards. But Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Ryan Kesler all have NMCs, and the Ducks won’t want to expose Rickard Rakell or Jakob Silfverberg.

Add it all up, and the Ducks will certainly be worth watching this offseason.

In a surprise, Blues name Steve Ott assistant coach

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Pretty wild last few days for St. Louis on the coaching front.

After gutting Mike Yeo’s staff of four assistants, then hiring hiring Darryl Sydor, the Blues went totally off the grid on Friday by announcing longtime NHLer Steve Ott would become Yeo’s new assistant.

“Steve was a competitor on the ice as a player and I expect him to bring that energy in this role,” Yeo said in a release. “He was highly respected as a player and a person among his teammates and I believe he will be a huge asset to our staff.”

The decision caught many off guard given Ott, 34, has no prior coaching experience and was playing as recently as last month, suiting up for Montreal in its opening-round playoff loss to the Rangers.

Ott is familiar with the Blues organization, having played there for three seasons.

“I am very proud of my playing career and will devote the same work ethic to my coaching career,” said Ott. “The Blues organization is very special to me and my family and I’m excited to take the next step in my hockey career with this franchise.”

Blues GM Doug Armstrong signed Ott to a three-year deal. It’s fitting that Armstrong was the one to engineer this move, as he’s been behind unorthodox coaching moves in the past. Last summer, he defied convention by hiring Yeo as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant, with the understanding that Yeo would inherit the head man position next season.

It didn’t go exactly to plan. Armstrong fired Hitchcock in February, accelerating Yeo’s ascension.

Kesler calls Game 6 loss to Nashville the ‘toughest’ of his career

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Ryan Kesler has lost some big games in his career.

He was on the United States team that lost to Canada in the gold-medal game of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

He was on the Vancouver Canucks team that lost to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final.

But apparently neither of those losses were as bad as the one his Anaheim Ducks experienced on Monday.

“This was the toughest loss of my career,” Kesler said of losing Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to Nashville. “This stings. It still stings. We left everything out there.”

Kesler had a particularly tough game, finishing minus-4 in the 6-3 loss. In the series, he only had one assist, failing to score on any of his 19 shots.

At 32 years old, Kesler is running out of time to win his first Stanley Cup.

And perhaps that’s why this latest loss was especially tough for him. The Ducks had a great chance to eliminate the Predators once Ryan Johansen was lost for the series, and then they would’ve faced either Pittsburgh minus Kris Letang or the underdog Ottawa Senators.

That’s gonna sting every time.

Related: Johansen wishes he was there to shake Kesler’s hand after Predators won

Fisher returns to Preds practice, but still not cleared

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Given the injuries Nashville’s sustained at center this postseason, Mike Fisher‘s presence at today’s practice was a welcome sight — regardless of his availability for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

“I feel pretty good,” Fisher told NHL.com after practicing for the first time since May 18. “I skated a few days here. Still not cleared, but it felt good to get out there with the guys.”

Fisher was knocked out of the Western Conference Final in Game 4, after taking a Josh Manson knee to the head. That, combined with the loss of Ryan Johansen to season-ending thigh surgery, whittled Nashville’s center depth down to Calle Jarnkrok, Colton Sissions, Vern Fiddler and Frederick Gaudreau.

Even though Fisher is pointless through 14 playoff games, his return would still be massive. In addition to serving as team captain, he was averaging just under 17 minutes per night prior to getting hurt, while winning 52 percent of his faceoffs.

He said his undisclosed injury feels “a lot better than it was a few days ago,” adding that his goal is to return for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday.

Fisher took minimal contact at today’s skate, and worked on a line with James Neal and Harry Zolnierczyk.