Ken Hitchcock (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)
Expect major changes to the Blues franchise if they crumble and lose in Game 7 versus Chicago, bombing out in the first round again.
It's deja vu, except it isn't.
Many powerhouse St. Louis Blues teams have disappointed with shockingly early playoff exits in the past five seasons. They got swept by the Los Angeles Kings in Round 2 of the 2012 playoffs; led L.A. 2-0 in the series only to lose in the first round in 2013; led the Chicago Blackhawks 2-0 only to lose in the first round in 2014; and bowed out to the No. 7 seed Minnesota Wild in six games in the first round of 2015.
A loss at home to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 tonight thus wouldn't blow our hair back. At this point, early-round disappointments feel like second nature for the Blues. There's a difference this time, however. The stakes are higher. Important heads stand to roll if St. Louis buckles under the pressure once more and loses a series it led 3-1.
The most obvious target falls on coach Ken Hitchcock's back. Hitchcock doesn't automatically deserve to shoulder blame for a Blues defeat in Game 7, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. The fact is, a loss tonight would mean five straight seasons with no more than four playoff wins. That's a chalky pill to swallow for a team never finishing with a regular-season points percentage below .625 over that span, winning two Central Division titles. It's simply easier and faster to replace a coach than to uproot major player personnel, so if St. Louis drops Game 7, it's almost certainly Hitchcock's final game there.
Hitch's "feud" with star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko over Tarasenko's power play deployment in Game 6 was overblown, sure. As reported by ESPN's Craig Custance, Hitchcock said he was merely trying to manage Tarasenko's minutes, as his shifts are energy-sapping sprints, and Hitch said he loves Tarasenko's passion. At the same time, fingers could end up pointed at the coach if the Blues bow out, claiming he couldn't find a way to get his star player on the ice for what turned out to be St. Louis' lone power play of Game 6. They trailed by one goal at that point.
When Hitchcock retires, he'll be rightfully heralded as an all-time great bench boss. He won a Stanley Cup with Dallas in 1999. He's fourth on the NHL's career wins list, trailing only Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville and Al Arbour. Hitchcock is an innovative, adaptive coach, known for researching how to connect with young players. He once told me he goes out of his way to listen to their music just so he can relate to them better. But five straight early exits eventually starts to feel like wasting valuable years with a Stanley-Cup-contending core, and the axe will likely fall on Hitch as a result. The one-year extension he signed before this season made it clear the Blues placed him in win-now mode. He was fine with that, as he likes the way short-term deals keep him hungry given his age. And about that age – he's 64. It's entirely possible a Game 7 defeat results in a mutual parting of ways between him and his friend, Blues GM Doug Armstrong. Maybe Hitchcock is ready to retire or at least take a break.
Hitch isn't the only one potentially suiting up for a franchise swan song in Game 7. What about captain David Backes, set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer? He has logged big minutes for the Blues in the series, he's been a beast on faceoffs, and he remains a heart-and-soul leader with an attractive blend of size, smarts, two-way ability and scoring touch. Backes, however, will command a raise on a contract carrying an average annual value of $4.5 million. He's more likely to cost upwards of $6 million, and that's a bit scary given how much of a beating Backes' body has taken already. He turns 32 next week, and it's arguably an "old 32." His best years are not ahead of him. He has never led the Blues past the second round of the post-season. Jaden Schwartz is due big money as a restricted free agent this off-season and has to be the top priority. Will there be enough cash left to retain Backes – and do the Blues want to retain him?
There's a case to be made the Blues don't have to be "Backes' Team" going forward. His exact skill set would be difficult to replace, no doubt, but the emergence of dynamic youngster Robby Fabbri has been something to behold. Totally different player from Backes, of course, but Fabbri was drafted as a center. He could wind up back there. At the very least he's earned a top-six role. The future Blues belong to Fabbri, Schwartz and Tarasenko.
On defense, Kevin Shattenkirk bears watching, too. He's been the subject of trade scuttlebutt all season, namely because he'll earn a massive pay hike when his contract expires next summer. As a right-shooting defenseman with outstanding puck-moving ability, Shattenkirk should secure at least $6 million per year on the open market. Now that Colton Parayko has emerged as a viable right-shot defenseman ready to elevate into a permanent top-four role, Shattenkirk is more expendable. It wouldn't be remotely surprising to see him dealt this off-season, and a Game 7 defeat could further motivate Armstrong to make a change.
Lastly, what about goaltending? Brian Elliott was a world beater this season. From a rate stats standpoint, he was as good as any netminder in the league. He entered the Central Division semifinal matchup with Chicago carrying an .897 lifetime playoff save percentage. He looked like he'd gotten over the proverbial hump to start the series, allowing four goals in the first three games, but he's allowed zero, two, two, three, four and five goals in succession, trending the wrong way, albeit he's needed more help defensively. Is it still right for the Blues to roll with Elliott and Jake Allen as a crease battery next season? Especially when an expansion draft could leave one of the two unprotected a year from now? Allen is 25 and Elliott 31. Gun to your head, which one do you keep as your long-term starter? It stands to reason Elliott would make a logical summer trade candidate, especially since he's a year away from unrestricted free agency, whereas Allen will be an RFA and still under team control next summer.
So the Blues will feel immense pressure on home ice tonight, even more than normal, as they try to make like the San Jose Sharks and exorcise a playoff demon. A loss will force St. Louis to ponder significant changes. And Hitchcock, Backes, Shattenkirk and Elliott are the names to bookmark.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin