ST. LOUIS — A system that works. Consistency. Effort. Execution.
These are words that have been used to describe the St. Louis Blues in the past year and change.
Since Jan. 7, 2019, the Blues have boasted the league's best record (69-26-15), as well as posting the Western Conference's most regulation or overtime wins (67) and best goal differential (plus-74). They won the 2019 Stanley Cup and are gearing up to make yet another deep playoff run.
For the franchise's head coach, this chance likely felt like a pipe dream just five years ago.
Craig Berube only had one previous head coaching job in the NHL before his promotion to interim head coach on Nov. 20, 2018. After spending parts of seven seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers as a player, Berube was named the Flyers' head coach on Oct. 7, 2013. Peter Laviolette was dismissed as the team's coach after a 0-3-0 start, and Berube was given his first shot as the main bench boss after serving as an NHL assistant and an American Hockey League head coach for over seven seasons.
Berube's tenure with Philadelphia began with a 42-27-10 record, catapulting the Flyers to a third-place Metropolitan Division finish. Unfortunately for Philadelphia, they met with the eventual Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers in the first round and were ousted after a hard-fought seven-game series.
The season proved to be a success, though. The Flyers amassed 94 points since Berube took over, and the club saw seven players finish with 20 or more goals.
However, the next season didn't go quite as planned for Berube and the Flyers. The club missed the playoffs and finished with a 33-33-18 record, which was sixth in the Metropolitan. The team had just 10 road wins and averaged the 27th-worst penalty kill (77.1%).
Despite a 75-58-28 overall record with Philadelphia, Berube was dismissed by general manager Ron Hextall on April 17, 2015.
"You really have to decide, is the coach the right coach for your team now," said Hextall at the time of the decision. "If the answer to that is no, you need to move on. I'm not going to hedge my bet here and say OK, I see a great coach that I can put in play, so I'm going to make this move. If you don't think it's the right head coach, you've got to move on, and that's what we did here."
There were a slew of challenges that Berube faced in his second season in Philadelphia and was unable to overcome. Most notably, power forward Scott Hartnell and minute-eating defenseman Kimmo Timonen were absent from the lineup during 2014-15, and due to salary cap issues, no replacements were added. Goaltender Steve Mason finished with a losing record but finished the season third in save percentage (.928) and seventh in goals-against average (2.25). This points to a direct issue with offense, as the Flyers finished 21st in goal scoring and had just seven players score 10 or more goals.
Second chances don't always come for coaches. It did for Berube, and he made the best of it.
Taking the League by Storm
Once the Blues decided to part ways with head coach Mike Yeo, it was Berube's job to fill. The interim head coach inherited a 7-9-3 club that entered the campaign with Stanley Cup aspirations. Early indications were that Berube's philosophies and style had little to no impact, as the team posted just a 9-10-1 record through their first 20 games under Berube.
Whether it was a matter of time for the roster to fully grasp Berube's system, or a change from Jake Allen to Jordan Binnington in net, the club had a historic turnaround to close out the 2018-19 season. The Blues soared up the standings, recording the best record in the NHL from Jan. 7 to the end of the regular season (29-9-5). In that time, they allowed just 92 goals, which was third best in the league, and the power play ranked fifth in the league (22.6%). They also tied the Boston Bruins with the least amount of shots against per game (27.3).
Berube's suffocating system took a stranglehold on the rest of the league. The Blues became a heavy hockey team that made opponents fight for every inch of the ice and did not allow for easy passage through the neutral zone. Not only did the Blues find their scoring touch, but their forechecking became a widely superior strength over anyone else in the NHL, increasing their offensive-zone time and not allowing teams to rush up the ice.
And when opponents actually did make it to the offensive zone, Binnington was there to shut the door.
"I think when I took over, overall, it takes a little bit of time to get the confidence and believe in what you're trying to do, the whole team," Berube said after the Blues recorded their tenth consecutive victory in February 2019. "And that's what takes a little bit of time sometimes, but right now, they bought in and they're all doing a good job and we're all on the same page. When you're all on the same page and working for each other and playing for each other, good things happen."
Berube's efforts earned him a nomination for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year. Although he lost out to New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz, his accomplishments did not go unnoticed by his superiors.
“Craig made an enormous impact on our team when he took over last November,” Armstrong said after signing Berube to a three-year contract extension last summer. “He restored our identity and provided our players with a clear sense of direction.”
The Model Coach
There's no better proof a head coach is pushing the right buttons than winning a league championship (especially the way the Blues accomplished this feat last season). However, look no further than the team's captain to describe what playing under his head coach is like.
"He's intense, demanding," Alex Pietrangelo told stlouisblues.com last February. "But he also understands when the boys need a mental and physical break. He's been really good at managing us in games from behind the bench and managing days away from the rink.
"He expects a lot. I mean, he expects you to keep getting better every day, regardless of how many games we've won lately or how many in a row we've won. Every single day, he wants to get better. He's demanding that of us, but it's made us a better team."
As far as the perception outside of the locker room, Berube shined at a time last playoff in which many coaches would have faded.
Game 3 of the Western Conference Final between the Blues and San Jose Sharks was a wild one, to say the least. After a difficult battle that saw both teams deadlocked after 60 minutes, the Sharks scored in overtime in what was one of the most controversial non-calls in recent NHL history. Sharks winger Timo Meier flagged the puck down with his hand and sent it to teammate Gustav Nyqvist, who delivered to defenseman Erik Karlsson. He made no mistake and beat Binnington to give the Sharks a 2-1 series lead.
The Blues swarmed the officials, who skated off the rink much to the dismay of an entire city. It was a non-reviewable play, as the hand pass is a judgment call by NHL officials, and can only be called in real time (the NHL has since corrected this oversight).
Binnington broke his stick along the boards, Brayden Schenn was seen screaming at the officials as they left the ice and the Blues' locker room was incensed with the media after the event. The post game press conference with Berube, though, was a different feeling altogether.
"It's difficult to lose in overtime, the playoffs, anytime," Berube said. "You've got to move on. The team's got to move on. We've all got to move on from it and get ready for Game 4. Really, that's all you can do. We played a solid hockey game, but we were on the losing side of it. And there's nothing we can do about what happened. We've just got to move on."
Berube would have had every right to curse the officials and the NHL for allowing what transpired. Plenty of coaches have rightfully taken that route, but Berube's leadership and resolve to just focus on the next game and what his team could control set a tone for the remainder of the series.
So how did the Blues fair after that? Fourth-line center Ivan Barbashev scored 35 seconds into Game 4 en route to a 2-1 win to tie the series, then the Blues went on to outscore San Jose 10-1 in the next two games to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
Compare Berube's mindset to Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, who complained about the Blues' aggressive play and unpenalized hits on captain Joe Pavelski, as well as top forward Tomas Hertl. Sharks players followed suit with DeBoer's narrative. Star Logan Couture also questioned the officials after leaving a Sammy Blais hit unpunished, saying that this allowed the Blues to "do it again" after hitting Hertl on a questionable play later in the series.
Players often march to the beat of the coach's drum; there's no series that proves that better than the 2019 Western Conference Final.
Continuing to Chug Along
Berube continues to pile up the wins, as he has amassed 78 regular season victories as the Blues' coach. This already ranks him eighth on the franchise's all-time wins list, which is just 32 behind world-renowned coach Red Berenson for seventh.
The Blues are able to do this without key players in the lineup, as well. Jay Bouwmeester, Colton Parayko, Alex Pietrangelo, Oskar Sundqvist and Blais have all missed time this season, while superstar sniper Vladimir Tarasenko was limited to just the first 10 games and has been out since.
The Blues currently sit atop the Western Conference standings with 90 points and are just six points out of first overall in the entire NHL. Tarasenko is set to return from surgery soon, too, providing the team another winning asset to go for a title defense in the 2020 postseason.
For the players, there's nothing more to be learned about Berube's strategy and philosophy. It's about execution and sticking to a system that has proven to work down the stretch.
"When you keep the same group together, systems are almost second nature to you after a while," Pietrangelo said recently. "You're not always having to harp on the systems stuff. It's more just the minor details to kind of get your brain firing again, but for the most part, all of us know how to play the game within Chief's systems since we've been here for so long. It makes it a little easier."
What a difference five years can make for a guy.
Unlike his first stop in the NHL, Berube is achieving long-lasting success in St. Louis. His players are responding to his methods, and his relationship with the roster as a whole has been nothing but positive.
The franchise's first Stanley Cup-winning head coach has seemingly worked miracles with this roster, taking them from worst to first and keeping them there, despite plenty of hurdles in that span of time.
And he's not done yet. With his system in place, the Blues enter the final stretches of the 2019-20 season with an itch to play well into June yet again.
Jeff can be heard weekly on Lets Go Blues Radio, the original St. Louis Blues podcast. You can find the show on Apple or Google Podcasts, Spotify or letsgoblues.com!
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