The saying goes that head coaches are hired to be fired in professional sports. That seems to be especially true for erstwhile Blues coach David Payne, who lasted a mere 137 games with the Blues organization before getting the axe.
The 41-year-old was hired in the middle of the 2009-10 season after Andy Murray was fired. The team struggled the next season with injuries and lackluster goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, finishing with 87 points and outside of the playoff race. That must have shortened the coach's leash, because Payne lasted just 13 games into 2011-12 after the club stumbled to a mediocre 6-7-0 start.
Of course, 137 games isn't much to work with as a bench boss and 13 games is a positively minute sample of games in the NHL. Even the most well coached club in the league can go 6-7 over a 13 game stretch given the parity and randomness in the league. This is why coaches sometimes get sacrificed before the percentages.
If we take a look at the underlying numbers, they suggest Payne was an undeserving scapegoat for the Blues blase start to the season. The Blues had a lot of strong fundamental stats under Payne and it's entirely likely the club's results would have improved at some point as a matter of variance.
For example, the Blues sport one of the stronger shot differentials in the league through the early going, averaging 31 shots for per game and 26.8 shots against (+4.2/game). Only Detroit (+9.9) and San Jose (+7.7) have better per game differentials currently. Of course, the playing-to-score effect can sometimes inflate the shooting totals of lesser clubs that spend a lot of time trailing, but the Blues score-tied numbers are similarly strong: through the first 13 games of the year, the blues Corsi-tied ratio was .538, or 53.8%. The only semi-regular skaters with a sub-.500 ratio were depth defender Kent Huskins (.452) and third liner Matt D'Agostini (.467). In terms of shots on net alone, the Blues fired 121 pucks with the score tied while their opponents managed just 93, for a ratio of .565.
Those are better than average numbers, but the results didn't follow. The Blues winning percentage while outshooting the bad guys through the early going is just .222good for 25th in the league by that measure. So what was sinking the Davis Payne ship?
Goaltending and special teams were the culprits. Jaroslav Halak was acquired for a package including first rounder Lars Eller after his incredible playoff run with the Canadiens in 2009, but he has failed to be even mediocre since landing in St. Louis. His save percentage last season was a below average .910 overall, including a nominal .916 save rate at even strength. While many expected a bounceback from the former Canadiens backup given his previous success in Montreal, he instead struggled to an even greater degree to start the season. Halak's save percentage so far is a ghastly .822, due in part to a .914 ESSV% and an unsustainably low .808 while short-handed. Halak has played two games since Payne's departure which have actually improved his even strength save ratethrough 13 games, he appeared in seven contests and stopped just 89.5% of the shots he face at five on five. That's a lower rate than some starters have managed short-handed thus far.
Perhaps the only reason the Blues were within spitting distance of a .500 record under Payne is that backup Brian Elliott ironically stepped in to provide better than average goaltending through six contests, with a .949 ESSV%.
Thanks to Elliott's unexpected turn as a useful puck stopper, goaltending in aggregate wasn't terrible, and in isolation wasn't the only reason the Blues were mediocre. The second issue was the club's power play, which generated more than 45 shots per hour, but scored on just 7% of the shots they took through 13 games.
That's slightly lower than the average rate at which teams score at five on five in the NHL, meaning that pucks were bound to start going in at some point. As Gabriel Desjardins has noted in the past, future PP performance is better predicted by shot volume than shot efficiency.
The Blues weren't blowing the doors off while up a man under Payne, but their three lousy PP goals over the opening 13 games isn't truly indicative of their play nor ability either.
If we assume the Blues are an average PP team (18% success rate), their expected goal total under Payne (40 opportunities) is 7.2 or seven goals, four more than they managed.
If we also assume Halak is actually an average goaltender and move his ESSV% to .920 through seven starts, that would shave another four goals off of the Blues goal differential. Combined, a +8 GD doesn't seem like much, but in 13 games that can mean a significant swing in fortunes; particularly for a club like St. Louis whose goal differential when Payne was fired was just -4. If we exclude empty net goals against, the margin between goals for and against is even slimmer (-2).
Of course, the final nail in the coffin was the Blues penalty kill. St. Louis is currently operating at a 73.5% kill rate, good for only 28th in the league. This is due to a combination of bad luck and bad playthe Blues surrender the third-most shots against at four on five in the NHL (62.4/60), while their save rate is also below average (.831), mostly due to Halak's ghastly save percentage (.808) when down a man.
The median save rate on the PK in the NHL currently is .879. Again, assuming merely average goaltending, the Blues save another two goals against during Payne's tenure, bringing their expected goal differential up by approximately +10.
With average-ish goaltending and special teams, the Blues are a team with a +6 goal differential in 13 games to start the season. Combined with their results under Hitchcock so far (+3 goal differential), the Blues would have a GD of +9, good for second best in the Western Conference, and therefore likely a much more palatable record.
There's no telling whether that would have saved Payne's job for certain, but it's rare that organizations fire coaches when their teams are winning, so it's a safe bet. Perhaps someone in management was waiting to axe Payne in order to replace him with Hitchcock at some point this year, but clearly, the bounces helped make it an expedient matter.