Well, spend a billion dollars, and not make the playoffs, this was bound to happen.
The winningest and longest-serving coach in Blues history, Joel Quenneville, was fired Tuesday afternoon, taking the fall for a team that has won just seven times in the 26 games since New Year's Day.
"I felt as an organization we had to make a change," Blues general manager Larry Pleau said. "We weren't happy with the way things were going and I wasn't convinced that it was going to change. ... This morning, I thought it was necessary."
Pleau installed assistant coach Mike Kitchen as head coach, Kitchen's first head coach position after 15 years as an assistant with Toronto and the Blues. Quickly nixing any thought of an "interim" tag, the Blues signed Kitchen to a contract that extends through the 2005-06 season.
Through seven years as Blues coach, Quenneville guided the team to 307 wins in 593 regular-season games. In the 1999-2000 season, the Blues won the Presidents Trophy, which goes to the team with the National Hockey League's best record in the regular season. The next spring, Quenneville guided the Blues to the Western Conference finals, only to lose to eventual Stanley Cup champion Colorado.
That was as close as the Blues came to the Cup under Quenneville, and Pleau empathized Tuesday in a brief conversation with the coach, who was fired for the first time in his career.
"When you're with someone for 6 1/2 years it's hard," Pleau said. "I told him that I'm disappointed we didn't finish together what we started together - which was to win the Stanley Cup."
Few believe Quenneville will be out of a job for long, though it may take until summer. Pleau said he expected Quenneville's "phone to have already been ringing" with calls from suitors. It is believed that the New York Rangers would be chief among the teams interested.
This was the last season of Quenneville's contract, the closest he has ever come to the end of a contract. Pleau said Tuesday that before and during the season, he had considered extending Quenneville's contract and that he "might have made a mistake" by not extending the deal. "It was a decision I made at the time," said Pleau, who got a two-year contract extension at the beginning of the season.
Pleau, a model of patience whenever weighing a large decision, mulled over the decision to dismiss Quenneville over the past month. Since the middle of December, when the Blues had the best record in the Western Conference, the Blues have been in a free fall - plummeting out of the playoff picture and through their worst stretch in 20 years. Since New Year's Day, when Quenneville became the eighth-fastest coach in NHL history to reach 300 victories, the Blues have lost 15 games. They have just four victories in their last 16 games.
Losses to Detroit and Chicago over the weekend sealed Quenneville's fate.
"We have high expectations," Blues president Mark Sauer said. "This is the same team that went 20-6 to start the season. Last weekend was not acceptable to anybody."
The Blues went through an extended winless stretch before beating Calgary on Feb. 5, just before the All-Star break. They were winless in nine, losing eight and tying one. If the Blues had lost at Calgary on Feb. 5, Quenneville probably would have been fired the next day or during the break, sources confirmed Tuesday.
After the win over Calgary, the players presented him with the team's Hard Hat Award, a honor given to the person who worked hardest for the victory.
It had never been given to a coach, and it was a public show of support, several players said Tuesday. Several said Quenneville is "the fall guy" for the players. Additionally, players expressed a sentiment that they should be embarrassed going to practice today because they cost Quenneville a job, they got him as a scapegoat.
"They should be thankful none of their families have to go through what (Quenneville's) does," a member of the organization said.
The Blues came back from the All-Star break and promptly lost to two of the best teams in the league, Ottawa and Colorado. When they defeated the league's worst team, Pittsburgh, in overtime, it was time for Quenneville to pass out the Hard Hat. Privately, he wondered exactly how to do it.
After the game, he gave a rare post-game speech.
Chris Pronger, who said he can count on one hand the times Quenneville has given a post-game speech, said: "We were all very emotional. He was emotional. We were emotional. Here was a home stand we had to get some wins and that was one we needed."
Quenneville then handed the Hard Hat to goalie Chris Osgood.
The Blues won twice more, playing their best game in months against Tampa Bay a week ago at home, but the trip to Detroit dredged up recurring problems. Through the skid, Quenneville had sought several ways to motivate the players. He skated them hard. He changed lines. He lectured them. He changed lines. He publicly criticized them. He changed lines.
At Detroit on Friday, he benched two stars, Keith Tkachuk and Pavol Demitra for most of the third period.
Still, at Chicago on Sunday, the same uninspired play defined the Blues, and ultimately cost them the game in overtime. It was the way the Blues lost in both of those games that led Pleau toward Tuesday's decision. Ownership, sources said, left the decision up to Pleau.
"Again, I just felt it was time for a change," Pleau said. "Our second and third efforts weren't there. We're all to blame. I know it seems like the coach gets the blame in this situation, but we're all to blame."
Kitchen will make his debut Thursday at Colorado, where he once played with Quenneville as members of the Colorado Rockies. More of a disciplinarian than Quenneville - who was widely regarded as a player's coach - Kitchen takes over a team whose management still demands the "ultimate success".
The expectations have not changed, Sauer and Pleau said.
Award nominees announced by the NHL on Thursday, ahead of the awards ceremony in Vancouver on June 22: CALDER MEMORIAL TROPHY (outstanding rookie): Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames....