St. Louis Blues: Why Craig Berube Succeeds Where Others Failed

St. Louis Blues head coach Craig BerubeMandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports
St. Louis Blues head coach Craig BerubeMandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports /

There’s one particular phrase that St. Louis Blues fans have heard over and over in the past decade or so. At this point, many of us are sick of hearing about “buy in”.

Yet, by now, it’s a phrase so ingrained in our lexicon that it might as well be tattooed on us somewhere. You’ve got to buy in.

So, why have players seemed to buy in with Craig Berube more than others? They’ve all preached about playing a certain way and buying in to a certain style, so why has Berube seen such results?

It mainly boils down to how he handles players. Berube is able to handle each player in their own way as opposed to a one-size fits all approach.

For example, while Berube has a Stanley Cup to his name, it’s arguable whether or not he is a better coach than Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock has a Cup as well, and has had reasonable success everywhere he has been.

Both of them are hard-nosed, old school coaches. Young players have to earn their respect before they are handed the keys.

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The main reason Berube’s decisions have worked out a little better than Hitch’s is that he can deal with the player as an individual. That’s not to say Hitchcock never tried, but he often just wanted everyone to do it one way.

He wanted Brett Hull to play the same type of 200-foot game as guys on the fourth line. While it worked out – Hull won a Stanley Cup – Hitchcock also rubbed a lot of players the wrong way.

The same is true of John Tortorella. Tortorella has also won at most of his stops, but his style is even more gruff and you either adapt or get yourself out or he gets fired.

Mike Keenan won a Stanley Cup. He also rarely lasted more than a few seasons because he had to transport guys into each team he knew would bend to his will. Everyone else all but rebelled against him eventually.

Berube’s style is straight forward, similar to those others. He seems like he can last because it’s not so “my way, or the highway” as the others.

That’s because Berube can go to a player and tell them exactly what he needs from them in a certain role. It sounds like a small difference, but to an individual, it can make a world of difference.

For example, the reason Ivan Barbashev fit in so well with the Blues top line is not just a matter of adaptable talent. According to 101 ESPN, Berube told Barbashev he doesn’t need to provide offense like a normal top-line guy.

The Blues need him to get to the net and rush in on the forecheck. That’s all stuff he’s been doing on the fourth line, so the only difference is ice time.

The same is true of convincing a guy like Alex Steen to go to the fourth line. Steen knew he still had gas left in the tank and other players would have fought for a higher spot in the lineup more.

Berube sold the longtime forward that it would be best for him and the team. Less ice time meant he could go harder each shift, be more productive per shift and also prolong his career.

It originally looked like Berube was going to go too much in the Hitchcock direction with Jordan Kyrou. Whatever direction was given to the young forward in the offseason hit the right chords because Kyrou hit the ice running, playing a great Blues style without dropping any of his offensive abilities.

Sammy Blais started out as more of an offensive prospect. The Blues never flat-out told him he needed to become a human missile, but they did let him know the quicker path to the NHL was to play a certain way and he was all for it.

Berube has found ways to get these guys to fit in with top-nine positions when applicable, instead of banishing them to the fourth line. That was something few could understand with past coaches. How could you expect a player, you hope might be a top-six forward, to flourish when you’re putting them on the fourth line and asking them to play a fourth-line style of game?

Berube has figured out ways to talk to each individual and spell out what their expectations are. He still wants everyone to play the Blues style, which is supposed to be aggressive and heavy on the forecheck, but Berube finds a way to tweak their game without making it a completely different way to think.

Mike Hoffman has a lot more responsibility with the Blues than he had in Ottawa or Florida, but the Blues have not asked him to become a checker. They still want his primary responsibility to be shooting the puck, but also more aware of defensive responsibility.

St. Louis has not asked Makenzie MacEachern to score a bunch of goals, but like Barbashev, he has enough talent to fit in several different slots if necessary. Oskar Sundqvist can rotate from the fourth line to the second line and not miss a beat.

Something has to be said about the overall talents of those players in the first place, but it circles back to the instruction Berube gives them. He takes away the ability to overthink.

He’s not allowing a guy to think they have to do more than they’re capable of. He’s not asking a player that should hit sixth be a cleanup hitter and hit homeruns the way the St. Louis Cardinals have in recent years.

It sounds over simplified, but it’s actually hard to do. It’s very hard for a coach to truly know how to handle each player as an individual instead of just telling everyone this is how we do it.

That’s why Berube’s success has come so quickly. He did not have to get 18 players to buy into the exact same thing.

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He laid out what the team goal was, gave the entire squad a framework of what was expected for effort and then handed out roles to each player that would achieve all that. That’s the sign of a good leader and one that should not wear out his welcome as quickly as others.