ST. LOUIS — The Blues abruptly fired coach Ken Hitchcock on Wednesday, 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 the 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, which is the worst team mark in the NHL.
Yeo said Allen is the team’s goaltender for now and for 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 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 called Hitchcock a future hall of famer who moved the Blues franchise “light years forward” in his five-plus years.
Goaltending coach Jim Corsi was also fired, and his duties will be handled by assistant GM and Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur and Ty Conklin, the team’s goalie development coach.
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.
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 midseason.
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.”