ST. LOUIS — The Blues abruptly fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Tuesday night, cutting short the veteran’s final season in St. Louis and putting coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo in charge of the underperforming team months earlier than planned.
General manager Doug Armstrong announced the change one day after the Blues’ fifth loss in six games.
“We don’t lose with pride,” an emotional Armstrong said at a news conference. “I don’t think that we’ve given our best effort, and Ken, ultimately, he’s paying the price with all our failures, starting with mine.”
The 65-year-old Hitchcock was in his sixth season as Blues coach. They went 248-124-41 and made the playoffs in each of his five seasons, reaching the Western Conference final last spring. But St. Louis went just 5-8 in January and at 24-21-5 was mired in eighth place in the Western Conference entering the day.
“We’ve let our group become independent contractors,” said Armstrong, who informed Hitchcock of his decision Tuesday night after a 5-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. “It’s a losing brand of hockey, and Ken’s paying the price for it.”
Hitchcock took the fall for the Blues’ underachieving season, which had a lot to do with goaltending struggles. Goalies Jake Allen, Carter Hutton and Pheonix Copley have combined for an .887 save percentage, the worst team mark in the NHL.
Yeo said Allen is the team’s goaltender for now and the future. He said he doesn’t expect to make wholesale personnel changes right away, beginning with the Blues’ game Thursday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“We all have to dig much, much deeper than what we have,” Yeo said. “Effort is going to be something that is talked about day in and day out.”
Calling the change a “rebirth,” Armstrong fought back tears while calling Hitchcock a future Hall of Famer and his “best friend.” Yeo said he felt terrible replacing Hitchcock at midseason but that he accepted the responsibility of turning the season around.
Armstrong said Hitchcock took the news hard.
“He was defiant to the end,” Armstrong said. “There was no ‘kumbaya’ last night. He was angry.”
Armstrong said Hitchcock moved the Blues franchise “light years forward” in his five-plus years.
Hitchcock has coached 20 NHL seasons with the Dallas Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Blues. He won the Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999, and his 781 career regular-season victories are fourth all-time, one shy of Hockey Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour for third. Hitchcock has said he’s interested in continuing to coach elsewhere after this season.
Fired by the Minnesota Wild last February, Yeo was added to Hitchcock’s staff in the offseason to be his successor beginning in 2017-18. After their first practice under Yeo, players said the firing was a wakeup call.
“For us, it’s hard,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “You never want to see that happen to anyone. But it seems like we need to shake things up a bit and we’re all obviously very confident in Coach Yeo and what he’s shown us so far. …
“It’s going to be a bit of a fresh start for us going forward, but as players we have to look at ourselves in the mirror, too. This isn’t just a coaching problem. This is something we have to fix in the locker room, and we’re all in this together.”
Allen said hearing the news of Hitchcock’s firing was difficult.
“I thought he did a great job for us. He’s one of the best coaches of all time,” Allen said “Yeah, sometimes he was hard on guys. That’s why he’s so successful.”
There have long been hints of complaints that Hitchcock was hard to play for, too demanding. Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, in his first year as captain, disagreed.
“I never heard any frustration with it,” Pietrangelo said. “The last time I checked we had the best record in the last four years in the regular season and we made it to the Western Conference finals.”
Yeo’s team has a new look after last season.
David Backes, who spent 10 years in St. Louis, is now in Boston. Goalie Brian Elliott was traded to Calgary. Troy Brouwer, the Blues’ second-leading goal scorer in the playoffs last spring, signed with Calgary. Steve Ott, after two-plus seasons with the Blues, went to Detroit.
But the Blues still have plenty of talent, including All-Star winger Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk and captain Alex Pietrangelo.
Hitchcock is the third coach to be fired this season following Gerard Gallant of the Florida Panthers in November and Jack Capuano of the New York Islanders in January. Three of the past eight Stanley Cup champions have made a coaching change at midseason.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said he was saddened his friend had been fired.
“Sometimes as coaches we get too much credit and we get way too much blame,” he said. “When you’re demanding with players, they don’t like it at the time, but when you go away or there’s a change and they come back 10 years later and they go, ‘You had it right. I was all wrong.'”
Hitchcock and Gallant immediately become candidates for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who begin play next season but could hire a coach at any time.
“If he wants to coach, teams would be crazy not to call him,” Armstrong said of Hitchcock. “Now does he want to coach? I don’t know.”