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November 10, 2011
Zamboni Tracks
No Longer Blue

by Ryan Wagman

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St. Louis Blues

Fired head coach Davis Payne. Named Ken Hitchcock as Head Coach, through the end of the 2012-13 season (Nov. 6, 2011)

Columbus Blue Jackets

Traded a 2012 fourth round draft pick to the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for C Mark Letestu (Nov. 8, 2011)

Early in the Blue Jackets' 9-2 shellacking at the hands of the Flyers on Saturday night, fan expectations that the organization would fire coach Scott Arniel, if not also giving the heave-ho to GM Scott Howson, shifted from very high to a God-given right. The Blue Jackets had finished the 2010-11 season on a low note, winning only three of their last 21 games. Although momentum in sports is a nebulous concept, the team picked up right where they left off, earning only a single point in the first eight games of their 2011-12 season. Stoking the flame of this growing wildfire was the continued presence of former coach Ken Hitchcock, still on Columbus' payroll, around the club. Many considered it a foregone conclusion that Hitchcock will return to the bench, and Arniel will return to a more suitable level, perhaps the AHL.

With five days between the embarrassing Saturday loss and the team's next game at home to Chicago, many assumed that the change had a few days to work itself out. As awful as the Philadelphia game was, five of the squad's losses were in one-goal games. As little as his team was scoring, there was only so much Arniel could do with Steve Mason, as of this past weekend the worst player in the NHL as measured by GVT, coming in at an awful -11.7, a full 5.5 GVT worse than the runner-up. Ironically enough, that runner-up was Jaroslav Halak, the masked man of the St. Louis Blues.

As Mason was dragging the Blue Jackets to depths previously reserved for horror movies, Halak had been almost single-handedly keeping the Blues closer to the draft lottery than to the playoffs, even this early in the season. In fact, the only thing keeping the Blues heads and shoulders above the Blue Jackets was the play of Brian Elliott. Signed to compete with Ben Bishop for the backup goalie role, Elliott had four quality starts in his first six turns in the Blues net including one shutout, securing the team 10 of their first 12 points on the season. In that same season-opening span, Halak could not achieve a quality start in any of his first six, finally keeping his team in the game on Saturday, when the offense paid him back for his early struggles and let him down in a 2-1 loss in Minnesota.

And so, with the eyes of Schadenfreude-hungry hockey fans and informed outsiders focused on Columbus, early Sunday morning, Blues GM Doug Armstrong was requesting permission from Columbus team president Mike Priest to have talks with the underemployed (but still on the payroll) Ken Hitchcock. Permission granted, in a matter of hours the man who had guided the 1998-99 Dallas Stars to a Stanley Cup triumph, a team which had Armstrong as an assistant GM and a young Jamie Langenbrunner on the second line, was the new coach of the St. Louis Blues. Meanwhile, Davis Payne, who had led the Blues to a record above .500 in his partial 2009-10 debut as well as his only full season last year, was now unemployed.

Even with the struggles of Halak between the pipes, the Blues have been an above-average team in terms of goals against, and not far from average in goals scored. More telling than goals, which in their small batches can be prone to the vagaries of chance, they were middle of the road in terms of shots taken and second in the NHL in shots-allowed per game. Being so far ahead of the curve in shots against while only in the anonymous middle in terms of goals allowed does point to poor goaltending and rotten luck, but the feeling on high is that the players were not giving it their all. When discussing the change in bench bosses, Armstrong was quoted in St. Louis Today as saying, "At what point do the players become responsible and not the coach? That time is today. The players are now responsible for (their) own actions. The players are now responsible for success of this team. It's up to our players to respond."

Following that thought to its logical conclusion, the players were not responsible under Payne. The thought now is that players who do not buy into the Hitchcock way will be jettisoned. Those would be the same players who were in the bottom six league-wide in both power play and penalty kill efficiency under Payne. The same players who exacerbated the power play problem by spending so little time with the man advantage (26th league-wide).

So if the responsibility prior to the coaching switch lay with Payne, what did he do wrong? It is hard to quantify with any accuracy the so-called "soft" factors he brought to the table, such as training regimen, locker room persona, and other vestiges of interpersonal relationships. On the ice, he can affect outcomes through player selection, both in terms of healthy scratches as well as ice time allotments. Bearing in mind the ringing skulls of both Andy McDonald and David Perron, Payne had less than the full stack assembled by Armstrong with which to employ. Both forwards were in the team top 10 in projected GVT/projected game. The player projected to have the most per-game value by VUKOTA (more than 35% more than the runner-up) was the previously derided Halak. Patrick Berglund, projected as a top-six producer by VUKOTA, has received more than 90 seconds of even-strength ice time per game less than the ancient Jamie Langenbrunner, acquired for third-line depth in the offseason. Other than that, players have been allotted ice time in accordance with their expected projections, at least at five-on-five play.

With the man advantage, the only (mild) surprise was the heavy time given to young Nikita Nikitin on the point during the seven games when he was actually in the lineup. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo, as expected, gobbled up most of the remaining time given to blueliners.

One could look to the choices made in the occasional game-ending skills competition, but the Blues have yet to go to the shootout this year, taking away that potential area for analysis.

In summary, there was nothing in the way he ran the game to suggest that the cause of the Blues' sub-par start had anything at all to do with their coach, barring the argument that he needed to play Brian Elliott, one of (if not the) worst goaltenders in the NHL last season, more often.

To the objective observer, there were no hard factors that should have led to Payne's dismissal. There had been speculation, voiced by Bob McKenzie, that Payne came close to the ax over the summer, only to be reprieved and kept on a short leash. With a new GM who took his position only months after Payne was given the job, it may have been inevitable. With a new ownership group who had upped the payroll by nearly $7 million (12.6%) over the past offseason, Payne may as well have been looking over both shoulders before being shoved directly in his chest directly out the door.

In several ways, the move to snatch Hitchcock at this time may have been inevitable. As mentioned, Armstrong was very familiar with the type of success that Hitchcock has had at the NHL level. Like many others, he must have also felt the Blue Jackets were close to making a bold change to their management structure, with Hitchcock the likely benefactor of such a shift. Although Armstrong needed permission to speak, it must have been a case of now-or-never to make the move. As he showed in last season's trade of former first overall draft pick Erik Johnson to Colorado—in one of the most shocking blockbusters of the year—Armstrong is nothing if not bold.

The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, remain firmly seated on their hands. With Scott Arniel still slated to stand behind the bench on Thursday, and Scott Howson still minding the till, they made their big splash in shipping a 2012 fourth round draft choice to Pittsburgh in exchange for C Mark Letestu, a former undrafted free agent pickup who has made himself into a nice fourth or even third line pivot, ranking as one of the top 25 in Timo Seppa's proprietary Ultimate Faceoff Percentage (UFO%), taking into account the context of the draw (accounting for home-road bias, five-on-five play and strength of competition). As this column has already used the old metaphor about rearranging deck chairs, this move can be summarized as a small bandage on a corpse. The Blue Jackets continue to bleed profusely.

Ryan Wagman is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Ryan by clicking here or click here to see Ryan's other articles.

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