ST. LOUIS, MO. - In a brief statement, the St. Louis Blues announced today their plans regarding the Blues’ American Hockey League (AHL) plans for the 2017-18 season.
“The St. Louis Blues will not renew our primary affiliation with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves past the 2016-17 season. We will associate with the Vegas Golden Knights and supply players to the Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate next season.”
The Knights, who begin play in the NHL next season, and Wolves announced a five-year partnership beginning in 2017-18.
As far as a new coaching staff, despite starting with coach Mike Yeo midseason, the Blues are going with a fresh, new staff for Yeo to work with moving forward.
The Blues are not bringing back assistant coaches Ray Bennett, Steve Thomas, Rick Wilson and Ty Conklin next season.
Yeo did ask Wilson to return but Wilson chose not to be away from his family any longer. They are in Dallas, where Wilson will be a candidate to join Ken Hitchcock's staff with the Stars.
All four joined the team before coach Mike Yeo took over for the fired Ken Hitchcock in the middle of the season — some of them years ago. Bennett spent 10 years on the staff and Conklin had been with the Blues since 2013. Thomas and Wilson were both hired last June.
"Talking to Mike, I felt and we discussed it, having Mike start his first full season with a fresh staff I think will rejuvenate the organization and it also gives Mike a hand in picking his coworkers right from scratch," Armstrong said. "With the situation where we are now, I thought the timing was right. We're just continuing to build foundation, and I think for Mike to have the best chance for success, I want him to have full control over the people that he's going to choose to work with."
General manager Doug Armstrong said he and Yeo would work together to fill the vacancies.
Yeo, who finished 22-8-2 after replacing Hitchcock on Feb. 1 and led the Blues to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs this season before losing in six games to Nashville, has a select group in mind.
"The first place I think we need to look is Chicago with the guys down there and the job they've done, but what it comes down to really is sort of a vision of how I see the staff playing out and then filling it in with the right pieces," Yeo said. "In my mind, I've got a pretty good sense of the qualifications and sort of the resumes of the people that we're looking to bring in. Now just begins the process."
It will start with Wolves coach Craig Berube and his assistant coaches Darryl Sydor and Daniel Tkaczuk.
"I think all three of those guys did a very strong job for us this year in the American Hockey League, not only winning the division and advancing into the second round of the playoffs but also the development when we brought up a (Magnus) Pajaarvi, we brought up a (Ivan) Barbashev, we saw real improvement, not only in their physical part of the game but their preparation and mental part of game was at a level where we were very excited about, so I think all three of those guys did a fantastic job," Armstrong said. "Mike and I have talked and all three guys are in consideration to be discussed in some form or fashion for Mike's staff, but we're not just going to limit it to that group right now. What we're going to do is see if they are the best guys after a thorough review, that's who we'll go with, but we want to talk to those guys but we also want to keep mind open to different people."
Berube, who led the Wolves to a 44-19-8-5 record which was good for the second-most points in the AHL (101), is a former coach with the Philadelphia Flyers and has made it known he'd like to coach in the NHL again but may have to go the route of an NHL assistant before getting another shot.
"We haven't really gone down there," Armstrong said. "I think when we hired Craig last year to work with our organization, he had opportunities to go as an assistant coach or an associate coach last year in the NHL but felt that what he had gone through in Philly, he thought maybe getting back and running the bench in the American Hockey League was something he wanted to do and he and I will discuss that. His ultimate goal was like all assistant coaches to make sure is one day be an NHL head coach and Craig is no different. He;s got that experience. We'll have to discuss that with him and more importantly, I think Mike has to discuss that with him on Mike's philosophies. We all have areas of strengths and weaknesses. What I want to do is for Mike to be able to accent the areas where he might believe that he's not quote as strong and maybe Craig or Darryl or Tkaczuk or someone else can do that. I have nothing but praise for what Craig Berube did and if he and Mike feel like he's the right fit, then I have no issues with that."
With the Blues' futility on the power play in the playoffs (a league-worst 2-for-30), someone with a specialty in that area will certainly draw interest.
"Honestly, I'd rather not get too deep into it because the people that might be interviewing obviously have a chance to read this stuff and I want to be able to ask questions that they're not prepared for, but certainly when you're building your staff, you look at guys that can challenge you as coach, that can bring up new ideas, that can hold a strong opinion, hold players accountable when you're not around, and obviously the ability to work with special teams unit is going to factor in as well here," Yeo said.
As for an AHL affiliation, Armstrong said the Blues tried to get another destination in place for the 2017-18 season but nothing developed, so in the meantime, they will work with Vegas, send their prospects to Chicago and look to have a permanent home in place for 2018-19.
Armstrong said there won't be any sort of competitive disadvantage with housing prospects, as long as it's for one year.
"I would think if it extended past this season it would be," Armstrong said. "Part of my comfort level is A) my relationship with (Vegas GM) George McPhee. He and I have talked extensively on the benefits of this relationship. When you look at the American Hockey League, you look at the veteran rule and the number of players you're allowed to have over a certain age. Vegas isn't starting with a new group of players, the players they draft this year, if they go the major-junior route, it's hard to get those 18-year-olds right into the American Hockey League now so I think it's really quite honestly a competitive advantage for Vegas and us to join forces. We could put some of our better prospects into their environment and also the experience I've had with watching expansion drafts in the past, they're going to get a lot of quality players and they're not all going to get to play for Vegas at the same time. I think they're going to have a really good group of veteran players. I think we can supplement them with their younger players. Now if this was to move past next year, then that would be a competitive situation that we'd really want to hone in with our ownership group. In all honestly, we saw this coming and we looked at some different opportunities to maybe get our own affiliate for the 17-18 season. It wasn't there, so we're now full throttle to make sure that we have something for 18-19, but we see a really good synergy with Vegas because of their birth into the NHL and now the American Hockey League needing maybe some younger players and the positive is that Wendell Young, who had managed Chicago for a number of years, is familiar with some of our younger players. Hopefully when he and George talk, he can give good recommendations on some of the players George and I decide on sending there."
It was reported on Nov. 30 that Kansas City will be a destination for the Blues in the future, perhaps as early as the 2017-18 but now that possibility remains hopeful for the 2018-19 season.
"I don't want to really get into the areas that we've talked to out of respect that they may have worked or they may not have worked or may not have worked but may have worked in the future," Armstrong said. "I'm going to keep that behind closed doors.
"... We were hoping to have it done this year so it's not something we're starting from ground zero on today. We have had some irons in the fire but they didn't take hold. We talked to a couple groups about coming in for this year; it didn't happen, but we really have to put that at the forefront of our thought process. We hope to have something done that will (have) 31 NHL teams next year and 31 American Hockey League affiliates."
The Wolves didn't part ways with the Blues without Chicago owner Don Levin offering some parting shots at the Blues. In an article on chicagobusiness.com, Levin said his partnership with the Blues was "a painful relationship for periods of time.
"St. Louis would like to see their guys win but wouldn't put any effort into doing it," Levin told the publication, saying Wolves players signed to AHL contracts produced more on the ice than those signed to Blues contracts. "They didn't do what we expected them to do, and it was difficult."
Armstrong didn't have a response to the comments other than to wish the Wolves luck in the future.
"No, I think I'll just let Don speak his mind," Armstrong said. "From our point of view, we appreciated our time with the Wolves and we wish them nothing but the best."
Let it be known that Blues prospects or property (Kenny Agostino, Wade Megan, Andrew Agozzino, Vince Dunn, Samuel Blais, Barbashev and Morgan Ellis led the Wolves in scoring during the regular season, and Agostino, Blais, Agozzino, Chris Butler, Dunn, Adam Musil, Jordan Schmaltz, Petteri Lindbohm and Ty Rattie were the team's top scorers during the Calder Cup playoffs.
So working with another NHL team filtering two sets of players into one AHL team for next season, the Blues will be left with some that don't have room to play there.
"We've talked to other organizations about assuming some of our players," Armstrong said. "I don't think that's going to be an issue just because of the veteran rule. If we have very good propects or a prospect or players that can fill another roster, probably a third or half of your American League roster, I don't want to say fill-in players but players that are there to accent your youth group. You're always looking to bring in players from different leagues anyway, so I think we'll be able to for one year to peace meal our group together but we're all hoping this isn't the case a year from now."
The Blues have made it known that they'd like to have their assistants in place by the NHL Draft, which is slated for June 23-24 in Chicago.
Assistant GM Martin Brodeur will continue to spearhead the search for a goalie coach and developmental coach within the organization to replace Conklin.
"We hope to have everything done by the draft," Armstrong said. "I think that that's a common theme. We have our development camp right after, and then obviously I want Mike to recharge his batteries in July, so I'm hoing we can press this through and we can get this done by the draft; we can have some meetings at the draft. I also think it's important for the coaches to get to the draft and meet the rest of the staff also. Our goal would be by the draft. I don't see a reason why we won't be able to reach that goal.
"What we've asked Marty to do is compile a list of candidates and he'll bring a smaller group to Mike and myself and then the three of us will then meet with these guys. We've asked Marty to take the lead on it but ultimately, those candidates will interview with Mike because Mike has to work with these guys on a daily basis."
The team surged down the stretch to finish 46-29-7 and claim the third spot in the Central Division. The Blues reached the second round of the playoffs, where they were eliminated by Nashville in six games.
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