Rutherford: Doug Armstrong’s roster, not Craig Berube’s coaching, is the root of the Blues’ issues

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ST. LOUIS — There are coaches you have no choice but to fire because of the circumstances, but Craig Berube wasn’t one of them.

Forget the Stanley Cup in 2019.

A team wins the Cup every season, and even when it’s the franchise’s first like it was for the St. Louis Blues, eventually those teams’ coaches get let go.

This was bound to happen at some point.

But not 28 games into the 2023-24 season. Not two months after general manager Doug Armstrong was asked if this was a playoff team and replied: “I’d love to get third place” in the Central Division. Not when the No. 1 reason the club’s record is 13-14-1 in mid-December is because players on long-term contracts aren’t performing.

This was an executive issue and an execution issue — not a coaching issue.

The problems didn’t start when the Blues couldn’t score at the start of the season or when they got blitzed by the San Jose Sharks. They began when Alex Pietrangelo wasn’t re-signed, and player after player was brought in to try to build the roster back up, which led to a lineup that was never as good as it once was and finally caught up to them last season. They continued against Detroit on Tuesday when the Blues couldn’t defend the front of their net, nor hang onto the puck on a six-on-four power play that turned into an empty-net goal and a 6-4 loss to the Red Wings.

It was the Blues’ season-high fourth straight defeat, and they have dropped five out of six, including recent losses to Columbus and Chicago — both at the bottom of the NHL standings.

It certainly wasn’t the right direction, but few would’ve believed that Tuesday’s game could be Berube’s last with the Blues.

On Tuesday afternoon, TSN’s reputable Darren Dreger touched on the topic during “Insider Trading.”

“There’s growing discontent and frustration there at all levels,” he said. “The team just isn’t responding the way that management and ownership expected that they would to this point in the season.

“This Blues team is not that hard-checking team that the organization is accustomed to seeing. So, the players either adjust and change, or management — in this case Doug Armstrong — is going to have to step in. And if they don’t change, if there isn’t an adjustment, you could see a very good coach, Craig Berube, on his way out.”

Sure, the Blues have had time to get things turned around, but it would only be a matter of hours before Armstrong stepped in and Berube was replaced by AHL Springfield coach Drew Bannister on an interim basis.

BREAKING NEWS: Craig Berube has been relieved of his coaching duties and a new interim coach has been named. #stlblues

DETAILS ➡️ https://t.co/NHh9g2JTnt https://t.co/NHh9g2JTnt

— St. Louis Blues (@StLouisBlues) December 13, 2023

Before the news broke late, I spoke with Blues defenseman Torey Krug at his locker Tuesday night and asked about the possibility of the team moving on from Berube.

“I didn’t even know that that was a topic of conversation,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an issue with the message. I think, frankly, we have to perform better. We have guys that just need to step up. Whether you think you’re deserving of a bigger role or you have a new role this year or you have guys who are trying to have bounce-back years, you’ve got to perform, and at the end of the day, it falls on us as players to perform.

“Yeah, (Berube) is trying. You can only poke the bear so many different ways in order to get a response. Like I said, it all falls on us as players to perform better.”

Yes, it was Berube’s job to get them to perform, and you can point to a lot of areas where that wasn’t happening.

The penalty-killing unit had another short-handed goal Tuesday, and with its NHL-leading eighth of the year, officially passed the much-maligned power play that has seven.

Jordan Kyrou, who had 37 goals last season, is still stuck on five goals in 2023-24, and his relationship with Berube has often been said to be tense.

Could Bannister be the guy who can unlock some areas and players?

Well, it worked in Edmonton, where Kris Knoblach replaced Jay Woodcroft and the Oilers have now won eight in a row. And it seems to have helped in Minnesota, where John Hynes took over for Dean Evason and the Wild have won five of seven.

But two things: No. 1, both Edmonton and Minnesota had higher expectations coming into this season. The Oilers were a preseason pick by many to contend for the Stanley Cup. The Blues weren’t in that category. No. 2, what had Woodcroft and Evason ever done? They hadn’t won a Stanley Cup or nearly 300 games in the NHL, like Berube.

Again, that doesn’t guarantee you anything, but if he was the guy Armstrong was comfortable having as coach at the start of the season, what changed? The Blues are seven points behind Winnipeg for third place in the Central Division, which Armstrong said he would love to get, and 54 games remain in the regular season.

There’s only one reason I can see that Armstrong made this decision, and you have to go back to something he said in October.

“I’m not (as) concerned about where we fit in the standings, quite honestly, as, ‘Do we build that foundation back to where it was in the past and can we start building something to put us in the same spot where I view Colorado and Dallas now, with experienced players that have the pedigree and the perception that they should be winning championships?’” he said at the time. “We have been there for the better part of a decade. We’re not there today, and my goal was to build this foundation to get back there as quick as possible.”

Evidently, Armstrong didn’t think Berube was the coach who could get that foundation back to where it was.

That’s fine.

You’ll remember it was Armstrong who didn’t think Mike Yeo could get the Blues to the Cup, and in 2018, he replaced him with Berube, who got the job done. Bannister could come in, and while the club isn’t anywhere poised to win a championship in the near term, perhaps he’s the one who starts the building. If not him, perhaps it’s the team’s permanent hire, whenever that happens.

But even if that turns out to be the case, there’s a strong case to be made that Berube was not the problem. Those problems will still exist on Thursday when the Ottawa Senators and Vladimir Tarasenko come to town.

Hopefully, for the Blues’ sake, it won’t be a situation like Tuesday against Detroit, when ex-Blues Robby Fabbri and Jake Walman scored and Ville Husso got the win in net. Heck, the Red Wings didn’t even need David Perron, who was watching from the press box as he served his six-game suspension.

It was a reminder of the turnover on a roster that Armstrong is responsible for — a roster that’s now not nearly good enough, and as a result, the GM has elected instead to bring in his fifth head coach.

(Photo of Craig Berube during a game against Columbus in early December: Ben Jackson / NHLI via Getty Images)

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