LeBrun: Extreme NHL streaking, why coaches take the blame and more with Blues GM Doug Armstrong

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In the immortal words of Frank the Tank: “We’re going streaking!”

New slogan for the St. Louis Blues this season?

They were 3-0 to start the season, then lost eight straight (all in regulation) and now have pulled off seven consecutive victories.

Do you think KFC is still open? OK, enough with the “Old School” lines.

But seriously, how do we make sense of such a streaky team or the number of other streaks going on across the NHL this season — from Calgary and Edmonton to Chicago and Pittsburgh?

“I personally see a lot of that around the league right now,” veteran Blues general manager Doug Armstrong told The Athletic on Wednesday morning. “The dynamics of the league have changed, where the detailed part of defending leads and clock management are not what they were in the past.

“I think with younger players, the skill level has never been higher, and the game management has probably taken a step back.”

It’s a fascinating way to think about what we’re seeing. No question, the NHL is a younger league than in the past, and I would argue it’s also more loaded with skill, but to Armstrong’s point, it’s also the kind of skill that thinks offense first in many cases before the defensive part gets honed.

“It’s great for the fans,” Armstrong said. “It’s always exciting. But it’s a different brand of hockey.”

As he says, people of his vintage aren’t quite used to it. And I’m with him there, as a 50-year-old hockey scribe. This isn’t the NHL I started covering 28 years ago (and that’s OK). There’s a certain way hockey people have always been used to when it comes to puck management to protect a lead, etc.

“The team that I enjoy watching the most this season, and I was lucky to see their first game of the year, is Boston,” Armstrong said. “I saw them play Washington. The Bruins are so structured and they’re so detailed and their best players are their best puck-management players. They’re just a joy to watch.

“Because they play to get the lead, and then they play to extend the lead, and they also play to make sure they don’t give the other team hope. And that’s a rarity right now in the game.”

And, again, as Armstrong said, this all leads to a fun brand of hockey to watch for fans. No question about it.

“It is entertaining,” he said. “A two-goal lead used to be: ‘Turn the lights out.’ And I understand players wanting to make it a three-goal lead. But when it doesn’t go that way, it’s a one-goal lead and then you’re just an empty-netter away from being tied.

“I see veteran players now getting sucked into that vortex.”

Fascinating thoughts from a GM who has been around a long time. And I mean, there’s no turning back the clock. The direction of the NHL is about youth and skill, and that’s what the fans want, justifiably so.

But a little more controlled game management would be nice for the coaches and the managers, to be sure.

Which gets us to the Blues, who after losing eight straight games have completely turned around their season and set an obscure NHL record in doing so.

It was back on Nov. 1, after the fifth straight loss, that Armstrong met with his team, then with the media in St. Louis, and put the pressure on to turn things around.

His message was direct and didn’t leave any room for confusion: The players were going to decide if the team was still a contender or if the GM should start tearing it apart.

“I thought it was two-fold,” Armstrong said as to why he spoke that day. “One, when we had lost five in a row. I really felt that the media that cover our team and quite honestly the coach and our players were tired of talking about it. And I think the message that the media were getting from the coach and the players was the same every day. So I just thought I would give them a break for a day.

“But the other one was, and it wasn’t a fire and brimstone or threat, it was just more the reality that you see teams go through cycles and our hope is to extend our decade-long cycle of good play and playoff hockey another year or two or three; but ultimately the players tell you when they don’t have it in them anymore.”

The meeting with the players wasn’t a dressing down, either.

“I’ve been around where you raise your voice. This wasn’t that,” Armstrong said. “This was more of a reality check on a team that we thought was going to be good, that was good last year, that right, wrong or indifferent, we made decisions over the summer and we had to either perform or not perform.

“But the feeling was, there was a lot of belief. I have a ton of belief in our players. They’ve made my career a blessing for the last decade. And I owe it to them to give them the opportunity to see where they’re at. And to their credit, they’ve taken it.”

The other thing Armstrong did at the time was totally back his head coach, Craig Berube. And I know it’s easy to say, “Well, what else is he going to say?” But this felt really genuine at the time, that he didn’t believe there was a coaching issue.

It’s something that I appreciated seeing, because in so many cases over the past few years, you see coaches lose their jobs because, in a flat-cap environment, it’s easier than making in-season roster moves.

Armstrong was adamant in backing his coach, who helped deliver the franchise’s first and only Stanley Cup in 2019.

“What I was trying to get ahead of is that if we did lose another two or three in a row, that’s always the lowest-hanging fruit for people to talk about, is the coach,” Armstrong said. “And I wanted to just try and eliminate that, at that point, because we did lose another couple.

“Over the last number of years, the lowest-hanging fruit (around the NHL) has been the coach. I believe in Craig, I think Craig has done a good job. But I believe in the players, too. So the whole hope was that we’re not going to make a coaching change — I don’t want to make any player changes, either. We just want to win.”

So much hockey is still left in what has already been such a whacky season for this Blues team. But for the time being, the players have answered their GM: They’re not done being a contender.

(Top photo of Brandon Saad: Dilip Vishwanat / Getty Images)

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