The ultra-challenge in St. Louis with Mike Yeo heading there for one season as Ken Hitchcock’s heir apparent will be that awkwardness of everybody knowing that the Blues are eventually Yeo’s team.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong said it’ll be up to “Hitch” and “Yeozy” to make sure there are no mixed messages as the Blues continue to try to win now but set the table for Yeo in the future.
There will undoubtedly be challenging times, but I chatted with Hitchcock today and he’s confident that with the same goal in mind, the dynamic will work and this will be an incredible opportunity for Yeo to learn his new team inside out without the pressure of winning and losing.
In fact, it sounds like it was Hitchcock who was the one who really endorsed the hiring of Yeo. A couple weeks ago when I reported Yeo was in St. Louis meeting with the Blues, it turns out it was Hitchcock who picked the former Wild coach up at the airport, met with him for a couple hours and dropped him off at a lunch with Armstrong, Al MacInnis and Martin Brodeur.
“His curiosity on not technical items was very impressive,” Hitchcock said. “He wanted the information, he wanted to learn and I found that really intriguing.
“It’s two guys working together for the now and two guys working together for the future. The now for me is continuing to stay at or near the front of the Central Division, which is very challenging, and the future is leaving the franchise in great shape.
“And I think we’ve hit a home run.”
Yeo, 42, signed a four-year deal, the first of which will be as Hitchcock’s associate coach. Along for the ride is somebody both Hitchcock and Yeo respect deeply, former Wild and Dallas Stars assistant coach Rick Wilson.
Wilson signed a one-year deal and will obviously have a good chance to carry over to Yeo’s eventual staff. Wilson was alongside Yeo for five seasons in Minnesota and was in Dallas forever under Hitchcock and Dave Tippett. Together in 1999, Hitchcock and Wilson won a Cup.
Yeo and Wilson replace Brad Shaw, who’s currently interviewing in places like Columbus, and Kirk Muller, who returned to Montreal to be associate coach.
“Selfishly,” Hitchcock said, “we had a bunch of assistant coaches that challenged the head coach on a daily basis and challenged me hard. And it made me better and I didn’t want that to change. I know I get it with Wilz because he’s like a glove to me. He’s afraid of saying nothing to me. He doesn’t care what I think. But I needed other coaches to be able to do that and after sitting down with Mike, I felt very confident that Mike’s going to challenge me on a daily basis and it’s going to make me better and I really respect that.”
On Wilson, Hitchcock said, “He’s coached a lot of good groups of defensemen, did a lot of great work with the Wild I thought. He had a lot of young guys and he did a great job with those guys. And obviously, the job he did in Dallas is kind of almost legendary the way he had that group playing.”
Yeo had decent leverage. A finalist for the Calgary and Anaheim head jobs, Yeo wasn’t about to go to St. Louis on a one-year deal as an assistant without the commitment that he’d be the “Coach in Waiting.”
So if the Blues really wanted Yeo, they had to strike now even though so much can change in one year.
“This allows him a year to invest in relationships that are going to be long-term … and not have this overriding responsibility to have to win every hockey game,” Hitchcock said.
Yeo is a solid coach technically. The Wild was one of the most structured teams under his tutelage, but the Wild also suffered perennial midseason slides under Yeo. Hitchcock could help teach Yeo how to navigate through these tense situations.
There was also friction at the end of Yeo’s run. Yeo will get to watch Hitchcock, who should pass the late Al Arbour and become the coach with the third-most wins in NHL history next season, for a year to see how he deals with tough situations and big egos. This being Yeo’s second job, he’s bound to be better. In Minnesota, hired as the youngest coach in the NHL, Yeo aligned himself with the vets and that never changed.
I do think the youngsters eventually resented that the vets seemed to get away with murder when they messed up, but the kids were either demoted or scratched when they fouled up. Also, Yeo coached a team with a bunch of vets on super-long deals. That created a dynamic that meant they were guaranteed certain top-6 or first-unit power-play roles without Yeo having much flexibility in my opinion.
Now Yeo heads to St. Louis with a total clean slate.
This whole situation reminds Hitchcock of early in his career when he went to Dallas and got to work with Bob Gainey.
“I was really fortunate as a young coach when I went to Dallas because I worked with Bob Gainey, and Bob had been a coach and he was the coach and he helped me through a lot of landmines,” Hitchcock said. “Looking back at things, without the help of Bob, I don’t know that I get to coach in the league for a long time. I think I can really help Mike manage the landmines, manage the hurricanes and tornadoes that come about your team. Sometimes there’s conflict, and I can help Mike manage through that stuff and see how it’s done. We have some defined parts of our preparation and our review that are unique to our team, and I want to pass on all of that information to Mike so I can become him become the coach of the St. Louis Blues.
“You have to be comfortable when you’re not in control of everything. Those things I can help him with. I feel my experience and my knowledge will help him. … I think I can learn a lot from Mike and I think my experience can help Mike become a better coach.”
Hitchcock said what he loves about Yeo is the fact, “Mike’s been an assistant coach, he’s been a head coach at the AHL level, he’s been a head coach at the NHL level. He’s only 42, but he’s paid his dues. He understands the position of assistant coach, so there’s a respect factor there for the head guy and he’s comfortable in that role. That was important for me because in the hierarchy of the team, it’s important there’s an order there.
“Mike’s a really young guy who wants to have long fruitful career as an NHL coach. I think this is a win-win for both of us. We’ve earned this ground and we don’t want to give up one inch. Not one inch. But also, the stewardship of the franchise, it was really important to us. Doug wanted and I wanted to have someone in place so we can continue to stay near the top of this division.”
Asked if this is really his swan song, Hitchcock said, “This is my last year of coaching. That’s how I’m thinking. You’re never 100 percent, but when you get to be an older coach, you have to stay up to date, stay current. My guide has always been, ‘Am I willing to put in the work when nobody else is watching?’ The minute I stop doing that, I feel that I’m going to go backward. I’m more than willing to put in the work this summer, and it starts this weekend, but I wasn’t prepared to do the same after next summer.
“I don’t want to level off. I’d rather get out.”