TORONTO — Change, it’s been said, is a constant.
The only thing that’s been constant since one of the most abrupt NHL coaching changes in recent memory has been the success of the St. Louis Blues. After firing head coach Ken Hitchcock last week and replacing him with assistant Mike Yeo, the Blues are 4–1 and have allowed just one goal in their last three games.
“It just seems like we’re doing the little things,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “It sounds cliché but that’s how we’re getting the puck out of our end. We’re going that extra little step for each other. There’s certainly been an emphasis, in the last four days, about that. That’s something we’d gotten away from but it started again in the last Toronto game and it’s carried over since.”
The Maple Leafs have bore the brunt of that extra step more than any other team, getting shellacked 5–1 the day after Yeo took over and, on Thursday night, struggling to match the Blues’ physicality in St. Louis’s 2–1 overtime win.
The Blues now find themselves in third place in the Central Division. With four of their next five games coming against teams out of the playoff picture, it's unlikely they plan on letting up.
To hear the Blues tell it, it’s been subtle changes that are leading to not-so-subtle results.
“Having Mike here for four or five months, it hasn’t been that different,” Pietrangelo said of the off-ice changes. “Obviously a different voice, a different guy coming in. But certainly seeing his face before makes that transition easier for us.”
Since the coaching change, the Blues have done a much better job at creating scoring chances. Small sample size, sure, but the Blues have registered 10.09 Scoring Chances For per 60 minutes, according to Corsica Hockey. That’s good for eighth in the league and up from 29th in the league, which they had been previous throughout the season. The Blues activated their defensemen into the team’s offensive push much more often on Thursday, another sign of their growing aggressiveness over the last week.
One defenseman who has been productive since the coaching change is Kevin Shattenkirk. He’s put up four points in the five games. The 28-year old has been dogged by trade rumors throughout the season and Thursday was no different as he faced the hungry media hordes in Toronto.
Nevertheless, Shattenkirk, like the rest of the Blues, is doing his best to stay grounded.
“It’s been a different year, that’s for sure,” said Shattenkirk. “It’s been a different situation for me. But it’s hasn’t been that stressful. There’s been a lot to worry about in this locker room. We’ve had our ups and downs as a team and that’s helped me to focus on what’s important. And that’s playing my best hockey for the Blues. Being in St. Louis helps a bit. We don’t get to experience the frenzy that you guys have got going on up here. I was prepared for it after last summer. Now that it’s become an everyday thing, you almost become numb to it. It’s a part of your routine.”
As much as the Blues are trying to preach the subtlety of the changes, the biggest recent turnaround has been the play of goaltender Jake Allen. Allen had struggled at times earlier in the season, enough to have the team leave him at home during a road trip.
But in his last four games, Allen has posted a .958 save percentage with three wins and notes that there’s more “commitment and discipline” within the team while they “do the little things.”
The small changes are going a long way and once again have the Blues in the Stanley Cup conversation. You don’t need to go that far back to see how a coaching change can spark an otherwise talented team struggling to find their way; the Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Mike Johnston in December 2015 and his replacement, Mike Sullivan, led the team to Stanley Cup.
“There really hasn’t been that much change on the ice,” said Shattenkirk. “Really, (Yeo) asks us to play with passion and pride. And that’s something we needed to find within ourselves. It’s never good when you see someone losing their job. And I don’t think there was anyone in here that was rejoicing when that happened. But it puts the responsibility on the players at that point to step up and do their jobs as well. It was time for us to step up as players. We hadn’t been doing it.”