Keenan's Reign Comes to an End
By Jim Iovino, Ace Reporter
A sigh of relief could be heard throughout the Blues' clubhouse and the entire city of St. Louis after the announcement of the firing of Blues head coach Mike Keenan on Thursday, December 19. With Keenan's tight grip on the day-to-day operations of the Blues, many within the organization felt powerless and the fans of St. Louis found themselves without a voice. And until Keenan's departure, neither thought to have any hope of getting back the old Blues team that they knew and loved.
Keenan originally left the New York Rangers because he wanted a chance to be the head coach and general manager of his own team. When the Blues offered him what he wanted, Keenan jumped at the offer. And as soon as he arrived in St. Louis, Keenan made no mistake about showing the city who was in control of the Blues franchise. He was. But unfortunately, Keenan made irrational moves, pissed off players, fans and owners alike and destroyed any focus or direction the team had made in its previous 27 seasons in the NHL. What was it Napoleon said after his unsuccessful attempt at taking over Russia and his loss of 450,000 troops in the process? "Do over?"
Keenan's attitude with his team changed day-to-day. Players were often benched if they didn't perform up to the standards Keenan wanted, although his players seldom knew what those standards were. Even star players were granted no liberties or shown no mercy under the strong arm of "Iron Mike." Brett Hull's feuding with his head coach started during Keenan's first training camp in St. Louis. During camp in September of 1994, Hull argued with Keenan and asked to be traded. While that didn't happen, several of his high-profile teammates also asked to leave town, and their wishes were granted.
Hull's centerman at the time, Craig Janney, got off to a rocky start with Keenan from the get-go. Janney, who is known around the league as a "soft" player, was benched opening night of the 1994-95 season, asked to be traded soon after and found himself in San Jose by March. There was no secret that Janney wasn't Keenan's type of player anyway. Teammate Kevin Miller also asked to be traded early in the 1994-95 season and was dealt to the Sharks as well in March.
Players came and went throughout Keenan's tenure as head coach and general manager. Keenan made 24 trades (and even more call-ups, demotions and releases) during his two and a half years in St. Louis. Only two players have remained with the Blues throughout Keenan's regime; Hull and Al MacInnis.
The following is a comparison between the roster which Keenan began with in 1994 and the one he left behind at the time of his firing.
Preseason roster for 1994-95 season:
Forwards - Craig Janney, Peter Stastny, Guy Carbonneau, Brendan Shanahan, Kevin Miller, Esa Tikkanen, Phillipe Bozon, Dave Mackey, Basil McRae, Vitaili Prokhorov, Tony Twist, Brett Hull, Denny Felsner, Igor Korolev, Kelly Chase. Defenseman - Al MacInnis, Steve Duchesne, Doug Lidster, Murray Baron, Rick Zombo, Tom Tilley, Daniel Laperriere, Terry Hollinger, Bill Houlder. Goaltenders - Curtis Joseph, Jon Casey.
Roster at time of Keenan's firing:
Forwards - Pierre Turgeon, Craig MacTavish, Peter Zezel, Harry York, Jim Campbell, Jamal Mayers, Geoff Courtnall, Tony Twist, Stephane Matteau, Scott Pellerin, Mike Peluso, Brett Hull, Joe Murphy, Brian Noonan, Steve Leach, Rob Pearson. Defensemen - Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Igor Kravchuk, Marc Bergevin, Trent Yawney, Libor Zabransky, Ricard Persson. Goaltenders - Grant Fuhr, Jon Casey, Jamie McLennan.
Keenan inherited a St. Louis team with little depth in 1994 due to a lack of top draft picks and erratic spending on high-priced free agents, but when looking at the current Blues' roster, the lack of depth is still there. And Keenan's team currently has the third-highest payroll in the league. A lot of that has to do with Keenan's bad habit of signing players to big contracts and then either trading them away in a dispute or releasing them outright. Dale Hawerchuk is a good example. Keenan signed the free agent to a big contract despite the fact that no other teams were really interested in the aging veteran. Then, when Hawerchuk's play did not live up to expectations, Keenan had to bite the bullet and deal Hawerchuk to the Flyers for Craig MacTavish. If that wasn't enough, Keenan even had to pay part of Hawerchuk's contract.
This season alone, the Blues' payroll includes $2.27 million toward contract buyouts of players Keenan released and another $2.4 million for former players like Hawerchuk who were traded to other teams. The Blues can now add another $7 million or so into those figures for the payoff on the rest of Keenan's contract, which was supposed to last until 2001.
But while money is key, it is not the big reason Keenan is out in St. Louis. Even more important is the strong relationship between the Blues franchise and the community that Keenan strained and almost destroyed entirely. After a warm welcome, Blues' fans soon soured after watching Keenan's cold attitude and seemingly insensitivity toward them and their favorite players.
Perhaps the two biggest stars that Keenan exiled from St. Louis were goaltender Curtis Joseph and left wing Brendan Shanahan. Both are all-stars, but neither were liked much by Keenan. However, perhaps in Keenan's defense, the departure of both players had more to do with money than performance. Joseph was dealt due to contract problems with the team. Shanahan was also traded after upper management asked for the payroll to be cut.
But the fact remains: Keenan traded away many solid players in St. Louis and got little in return. Joseph was essentially traded for Shayne Corson. Corson never provided the leadership he was supposed to and was dealt this season for Pierre Turgeon, who is not a leader in any right and has never proven himself in the playoffs. Steve Duchesne, a gifted offensive defenseman, would have fit in nicely with many teams around the league looking for the final piece of a championship puzzle. Duchesne could have brought a lot more in return than the second-round pick Ottawa gave up for him (Keenan has gone on the record saying he couldn't afford to get players in return because of the payroll problem in St. Louis...whatever).
But of all the deals he made, the Shanahan trade really hurt Keenan's relationship with the fans of St. Louis. Shanahan's popularity in St. Louis matched, or perhaps went beyond, that of Hull, who still remains with the team. Shanahan's charming personality and his willingness to open himself up to the city made him quite popular with the fans. However, Shanahan and Keenan began their bickering when Keenan played mind games with Janney, who was one of Shanahan's best friends on the team. Things went downhill from there. Shanahan's departure to Hartford in exchange for unproven defenseman Chris Pronger let fans down and started rumors swirling of Keenan's demise. After the trade, Keenan was booed on home ice and trashed in the papers, which isn't a good way to create good PR with fans.
And then there was Wayne Gretzky. Like Napoleon had done many times throughout Europe, Keenan stormed Los Angeles and came away with its prize possession. But after all of the fanfare displayed and prospects traded away, Blues fans, like Napoleon's troops, were left out in the cold. Because of all the turmoil between Hull and Keenan, and because the end of his career might not have been too fun if he played for Keenan, Gretzky passed on the offer to stay in St. Louis and left to play with Mark Messier in New York.
Keenan's credibility took a severe blow when Gretzky opted to end his Blues career after just 31 games. If one of the greatest players of all time doesn't want to play for Keenan, who would? After giving up a significant chunk of the Blues' top prospects in order to get Gretzky, Keenan, Blues ownership and the fans were left with nothing but No. 99 jerseys on the 50 percent off racks.
This season was more of the same for Keenan. He brought in more of his favorite players (Mike Peluso), but it was still the same old Keenan-coached team. The Blues weren't winning, players fought with the coach and franchise lost even more direction than before.
Some will say Brett Hull is responsible for the firing of Mike Keenan. But in reality, it is Keenan himself who is to blame for his early exit. Keenan has not adapted to the times. In an era of big free agents, he didn't spend his money well. In an era of players' coaches, he didn't handle situations well.
And in an era where the choices are win or be fired, Keenan is unemployed.
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