St. Louis Blues Can Blame Covid, Not Coaching For Recent Downturn

St. Louis Blues head coach Craig BerubeMandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
St. Louis Blues head coach Craig BerubeMandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

One thing fans are great at, St. Louis Blues or otherwise, is finding someone or something to blame. You do it, I do it, we all do it.

We can’t accept that another team might just have been better or got hotter or had a goaltender more on their game. No, it’s usually a certain player or players on your team need to be traded or the coaching staff has to go, or something of that extreme nature.

Thus, the most recent idea floating around – it has existed since the playoffs, but picked up steam lately – is that Craig Berube is not fit to coach the current group of players. Talk about a rough profession where you can guide a franchise to it’s first and only Stanley Cup and have people ready to run him out of town a little over 24 months later.

While most coaches realize they are hired to be fired, this is still a harsh criticism. While there are things Berube and his staff could do better, the ire of fans is misplaced. Coaching is not to blame for the downturn in team success.

What is to blame? The Blues were affected by the covid pandemic, that’s what.

For some reason, there is this oversimplified explanation that all teams had to deal with it, so it’s not an excuse. That’s garbage.

You put 10 people in the same situation and you’re likely to get 8-10 different reactions. Humans are not lab rats. They all have different ways of handling different stresses and challenges.

That’s a small scale example. When you start talking about 23-30 players, plus coaching staff, all crammed into a bubble or denied their usual habits, you’re going to alter behaviors, which can negatively affect performance.

The money a professional athlete earns does not shield them from the mental health issues so many have endured during the era of covid. It has been a great leveler.

Were there teams that dealt with the bubble better? Undoubtedly.

While there are some that don’t think any of the champions since the Blues won are true champs, the bottom line is those teams have endured things unlike any other team. They’ve been separated from their family, friends and the fans and even teammates and still managed to get through it.

The Blues, unfortunately, could not. Yet, it’s understandable.

Think back on the team that won in 2019. No offense, but they did not win based on talent alone.

That team was not the most talented Blues team ever and not even the most talented team in the NHL in 2019. They won based on will, effort, team chemistry and cohesion, talent and, of course, great goaltending.

The Blues were also healthy. They had all their main guys hitting on all cylinders and were missing almost nobody in the playoffs. They lost Robert Thomas during the Final, but it was endurable by then.

The Blues had all that going for them into 2020 as well. We easily forget that the Blues were in the top spot in the conference when the world shut down.

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In spite of a long term injury to Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues took a next-man-up mentality and trucked through most of the league. Then, a pandemic changed everything, but apparently we aren’t supposed to believe that had an affect?

Going into the bubble, the players just did not have the right mind set. They clearly put no effort into the round-robin portion of the tournament, thinking they could just flip a switch and hit playoff mode once the actual series began.

Even more worrying, Jordan Binnington admitted that he had gone into full offseason mode once the league shut down. While it’s understanding that ice time was impossible to come by, there was every indication the NHL was going to finish their season in some form. So, it was disconcerting that the team’s goaltender made no effort to stay in game shape mentally or physically. You could tell based on his poor performance against Vancouver.

The Blues are also a team that feeds off arena energy. Even in 2019, they were a better road team than home team, but the fact remains they got a huge boost from playing in front of fans, whether Blues or otherwise. Playing in empty, cavernous arenas threw them off their game in ways they could not expect, nor would likely admit.

Similarly, 2021 offered no respite at the start. Fans saw things as somewhat back to normal for the players, just with fewer games during the regular season, however that was not the case.

There were protocols in place that made things even more unfamiliar than in the bubble. Since players were allowed to leave and be elsewhere, they were not allowed to gather together much.

There were no entire team meals where the whole roster could be together. On road trips, where it is always stated how that forms bonds between players, guys were forced to stay in their hotel rooms or have small gatherings in approved locations within the hotel.

Imagine being someone like Torey Krug, or even Justin Faulk. Though Faulk had been with the team longer, both guys were still in a situation where they’re trying to fit into the locker room.

That’s intimidating during any situation, much less one where you can’t even hang out or get to know the guys. It’s basically practice and games and maybe some teamwide text chains. That’s not exactly the best way to build team chemistry.

What is Berube supposed to do? This nonsense of a coach needing to flip tables and scream in people’s faces is outdated. You cannot do that 82 games a year and expect it to work.

Along those same lines, I’m not sure where this notion that Berube is some simpleton came from either. Beyond the poor performance during a pandemic, fans have decided that Berube wants nothing but big, hulking defenders and nothing but checking forwards.

The team’s defensive core changed, but the forwards were predominantly the same. So, why is it that fans believe Berube is not capable of coaching players with skill or speed?

He coached the same group of forwards, other than Jordan Kyrou, in 2019. While Berube does seem to favor bigger defenders, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want skill too.

Berube has preached pushing forward as a five-man unit since he became head coach. The Blues have often been near the league lead in offense produced by defensemen under Berube.

Berube was also a fantastic coach in the AHL, where he had to deal with skill guys who just needed some seasoning to take the next step. He would not have had success at that level if he was trying to stifle young talent by forcing them to be something they were not. That would stunt their development and not look good for his future job opportunities.

So, the idea that Berube cannot coach this current group is asinine. The Blues did not perform. It’s plain and simple.

Look at the final four teams in the NHL in 2021. Tampa had a fantastic offense, but all four made it to the semifinals based on being physical, tough to play against and getting in on the forecheck.

All those things were what the 2019 Blues did. The Blues did not forecheck as well in 2021 and almost not at all during the bubble of 2020.

The Blues went after hits with no purpose, which put them out of position to gain the puck. They were also decimated by injuries.

St. Louis lost more man-games than almost any team in 2021. They tried to have a next-man-up mentality, but when they went through a stretch where you literally finished every game without at least one player, it’s almost impossible to overcome.

Couple that with the leadership lost when you lose Jay Bouwmeester, Alex Steen and Carl Gunnarsson, and you’re in a tough spot. Taking all that into consideration, it’s actually a great coaching job just to keep the team from falling apart.

To think Berube is trying to force this team back into some 1970’s style where goals are an afterthought is ridiculous. Berube is more than capable of taking this very group back to the promised land if they play the way they can.

If you’re one of those people saying all teams had the same conditions, remember that mentality the next time you get upset about something at work. All your coworkers are under the same conditions and they’re not all worked up.

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The bottom line is that covid ruined the Blues last couple seasons. If St. Louis gets a full 82-game season and still looks a shell of themselves, then we can talk about coaching being an issue. There is nothing any other coach could have done differently to alter 2020 or 2021 for the Blues though.