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.
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.