‘Some­thing had to give’

NHL coach­ing carousel spins as playoffs ap­proach

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY JONAS SIEGEL

St. Louis Blues goal­tender Jake Allen was floored when the only NHL coach he has ever played for was fired on Feb. 1. Ken Hitch­cock’s dis­missal was a stark re­minder of just how pre­car­i­ous life in the pros is, even for one of the most suc­cess­ful coaches in league his­tory.

“It’s tough for us to lose him, but I think we’ve all wo­ken up a lit­tle bit,” Allen said re­cently. “I’ve shaken the cob­webs off and even though it was un­for­tu­nate cir­cum­stances it hap­pens.”

The Blues are one of five teams to have al­ready fired their coach this sea­son — it hap­pened three times last year — the At­lantic divi­sion-lead­ing Mon­treal Cana­di­ens join­ing the fray on Tues­day when Michel Ther­rien was re­placed by Claude Julien, who was dis­missed him­self ex­actly one week ear­lier by the Bos­ton Bru­ins.

Cana­di­ens gen­eral man­ager Marc Bergevin said his team needed a “new en­ergy, a new voice, a new di­rec­tion,” be­liev­ing he’s found those things in Julien, a Stan­ley Cup win­ner with the Bru­ins in 2011.

Best-case sce­nario for Mon­treal is that Julien jolts a stut­ter­ing team just as Mike Sullivan did with Pitts­burgh last sea­son. The Pen­guins didn’t just win more un­der their new coach, they evolved into an en­tirely dif­fer­ent team that was con­sumed by speed and skill en route to a fourth Stan­ley Cup.

A mid-sea­son coach­ing change also spurred the Pen­guins’ third Cup seven years ear­lier with Dan Bylsma, oddly enough, tak­ing Ther­rien’s spot in Fe­bru­ary.

The Blues, now un­der Mike Yeo’s watch, could re­peat such a feat in the com­ing months.

St. Louis had the third-best record in hockey last year and made it all the way to the West­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal. But they stum­bled through the first half this year, hurt in par­tic­u­lar by Allen’s strug­gles in goal. The club went from hav­ing the No. 1 goal­tend­ing in the league sta­tis­ti­cally to 30th at the time of Hitch­cock’s fir­ing.

Tellingly, the Blues won backto-back games just once over the fi­nal two months of Hitch­cock’s ten­ure.

“It was frus­trat­ing for ev­ery­one — coaches, play­ers, ev­ery­body,” 33-year-old de­fence­man Jay Bouwmeester said. “It was just kind of like you want to turn it around, but it wasn’t hap­pen­ing. We were in­con­sis­tent with our play and that’s the bot­tom line. Some­thing had to give and that was the road they went.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate any time it hap­pens, but it’s done and you move along.”

Pegged to take over for Hitch­cock after this sea­son any­way, Yeo is among three as­sis­tants to slide into top du­ties this year, join­ing Doug Weight with the Is­lan­ders and Bruce Cas­sidy with the Bru­ins. Pan­thers GM Tom Rowe re­placed Ger­ard Gal­lant, mak­ing Julien the only out­side hire.

Fa­mil­iar­ity can be an ad­van­tage to both play­ers and their newly pro­moted coach.

While not an as­sis­tant on the Pen­guins staff when he re­placed Mike John­ston in De­cem­ber 2015, Sullivan had been di­rect­ing the team’s mi­nor league bench, mak­ing him fa­mil­iar with those like Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhn­hackl, Bryan Rust and Matt Mur­ray, who all played suit­ably big roles in Pitts­burgh’s Cup win.

Bouwmeester said a com­fort level had al­ready been es­tab­lished with Yeo when he slid in for Hitch­cock, re­mov­ing the need for that po­ten­tially awk­ward re­la­tion­ship-build­ing phase. The vet­eran de­fence­man, now play­ing for his ninth NHL head coach, said Hitch­cock com­manded re­spect in the Blues room with un­par­al­leled prepa­ra­tion, but Yeo, for­merly the Min­nesota Wild head coach, was “a dif­fer­ent voice”.

The Blues won six of their first seven games un­der Yeo, outscor­ing the op­po­si­tion 22-8 with Allen and backup Carter Hut­ton com­bin­ing for three shutouts. The Is­lan­ders and Bru­ins have seen sim­i­lar up­swings while the Pan­thers had been tread­ing wa­ter un­til re­cently when the club started to win more with key tal­ents like Alek­sander Barkov and Jonathan Hu­berdeau fi­nally back from in­jury.

Still with a strong grip on the At­lantic, mean­while, Mon­treal is look­ing to re­dis­cover un­der Julien that which fu­elled a 13-1-1 start. Medi­ocre since mid-Novem­ber, the club has strug­gled to score, es­pe­cially in re­cent weeks, and Carey Price has also dropped off.

AP PHOTO

St. Louis Blues head coach Mike Yeo watches his team dur­ing prac­tice Feb. 1 in St. Louis.

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