It was a little bit surprising when the St. Louis Blues fired coach Davis Payne earlier this month. The Blues were 6-7. Not great, but certainly not horrible.
It was even more surprisingly when GM Doug Armstrong hired Ken Hitchcock as the new coach, since the rumors had Hitchcock taking over in Columbus.
Armstrong obviously didn’t have much faith in Payne, but he also gave the St. Louis Post-Dispatch an interesting reason for the Hitchcock import:
The reality is, this is a business and we have a number of players that are going to want huge economic rewards over the next 18 months and we need to know what we have in these players. You want to make wise investments and I thought having an experienced coach would give us a better opportunity to know exactly what we had.
In other words, Armstrong felt Davis wasn’t doing enough of a job kicking the tires of guys like TJ Oshie, Chris Stewart, Carlo Colaiacovo, Alex Pietrangelo, and Patrik Berglund, none of whom are under contract past 2013.
It’s a smart move by Armstrong. GMs need to be patient, but too much patience can lead to bad contract situations.
With Payne, Armstrong couldn’t tell if it was the players or the coaches who weren’t performing. With Hitchcock, he’s getting a clearer picture. The Blues are 7-1-2 under Hitchcock and are looking better. Oshie has three goals in that stretch. Defenseman Pietrangelo has two goals under Hitchcock. This data gives Armstrong a clearer picture of where coaching challenges end and talent (or lack thereof) begins.
It’s something more GMs should consider. How can GMs sign players to contracts when they’re not sure what the problem is with their franchise? The Islanders are a great example of this, tearing through coaches, but never establishing if coaching is the issue or if it’s the on-ice personnel (to be fair, the larger Islander issue is management, but even poor management creates on-ice issues that could complicate how to most effectively evaluate players).
I’m not sure Payne needed to be fired, but I respect that Armstrong was thinking long-term with the move. It was decisive, which is always a great quality to see in a GM.
Hopefully, Armstrong will get to stick around after the Blues are sold. Brett Hull is supposedly looking to join the investment group looking to buy the Blues and Hull is also supposedly looking for a role in the organization.
His time as co-GM in Dallas was an Islander-esque train wreck, so Blues fans have to be positively horrified at the damage he might cause in St. Louis. For instance, Sean Avery’s contract ends at the end of this season.
I’d love to see how Hitchcock might kick those tires.