Ken Hitchcock (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
The St. Louis Blues had their most successful season under Ken Hitchcock, but that isn’t going to stop him from trying to improve his club. Hitchcock said he hopes to adopt associate coach Mike Yeo’s neutral zone system to make the Blues harder to play against.
The past season was the most successful the St. Louis Blues have had in the modern era, but coach Ken Hitchcock isn’t satisfied with stalling out in the Western Conference final. That’s why Hitchcock is turning to new coaches Mike Yeo and Rick Wilson in hopes of making changes to the Blues’ style of play ahead of the new campaign.
Following an off-season of change that has seen St. Louis say farewell to some key players, Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Jeremy Rutherford that the most notable alterations will be made to the way the Blues play in the neutral zone. The departures of David Backes and Troy Brouwer make the team smaller in stature — something Hitchcock acknowledged — but the hope is tapping into Yeo and Wilson’s system from their time with the Minnesota Wild will make up for the loss in size. It’s the first time Hitchcock has done something of this scale in St. Louis, he said.
“This is the first time in five years that there’s going to be a significant change in a part of the system that we play,” Hitchcock told Rutherford. “We’re able to cherry-pick what (Minnesota) did. Their team was built the same way that our team is going to be built this year, not really big on size, but a bunch of puck-hunters.”
Hitchcock told Rutherford that Yeo and Wilson have explained their style of attack through the middle of the rink in detail and the belief is it can help the Blues log more neutral zone takeaways. That’s a scary thought given St. Louis and Minnesota were already stellar defensive teams that ranked 13th and 14th, respectively, in takeaways this past season per NHL.com. If Yeo’s system improves the takeaway numbers for the Blues, St. Louis could be one of the most difficult teams to play against. That’s saying something with the defensive prowess Hitchcock’s club already possesses.
During the 2015-16 season, the Blues ranked ninth in the league in shot attempts against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, allowing 27.8 shots to get through. The Wild, who said goodbye to Yeo and Wilson this past season, fared similarly with 27.7 shots against per 60 minutes. If the combination of Hitchcock and Yeo’s defensive philosophies can gel, that bodes well for the Blues this coming campaign. That’s not to mention it could provide a boost for goaltender Jake Allen, who is set to begin his first season as a full-time starter following the trade of Brian Elliott.
But it shouldn’t be too shocking Hitchcock is willing to make a change following a successful campaign.
The trip to the Western Conference final this past season marked the first time in four seasons the Blues had made it out of the first round of the post-season, and that came following an off-season in which Hitchcock said he was planning to change the attack style of his club. Upon signing a one-year deal to return to the Blues for the 2015-16 season, Hitchcock said the team needed to get back to a “reckless” style of play.
“We’ve got more skill than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Tom Timmermann in May 2015. “But skilled, careful hockey doesn’t win. You’ve got to play reckless. We need to get back to the reckless play we had before. That’s what Doug and I talked about. You can do it and still be responsible. But we’ve got to get back to reckless play. We’ve got to ask more people to be involved offensively and defensively.”
Maybe the reckless attacking approach didn’t represent a massive change, but the underlying numbers showed a moderate increase in possession over the past season as the Blues finished seventh with a 52 percent Corsi for percentage. Defensively, St. Louis also saw a drop of 0.15 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5.
Making the modification to style of play this off-season, though, could have a bigger impact down the line than this coming season. This is Hitchcock’s final year as coach of the Blues. It’s not often a team knows that their current coach will give way to an assistant or an associate on a given timeline, but the plan is for Hitchcock to retire at season’s end and for Yeo to step in as the bench boss. Instilling Yeo’s system into the players and the organization should make the transition easier.
Hitchcock’s ability to recognize the need for change is what has made him a successful coach over the course of his career, and that he’s bringing in some of Yeo’s systems before the former Wild bench boss even takes over in St. Louis is a promising sign for the future.
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