Craig Berube won a Stanley Cup in St. Louis. Does it matter for the Maple Leafs?



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Craig Berube won a Stanley Cup as head coach of the St. Louis Blues in 2019. The question for the Maple Leafs, the team that just hired the 58-year-old: How much should it matter for them?

Winning a Cup is obviously a huge accomplishment, one that eludes most coaches, even the great ones. But history suggests that it almost never happens again with another team. Almost never might even undersell it.

It’s basically Scotty Bowman, maybe the greatest coach of all time, who coached teams in Montreal, Pittsburgh, and Detroit to Cups (nine in all), and a couple of coaches from the 1930s and ’40s. (Peter Laviolette, who coached the Carolina Hurricanes to a Cup in 2006, has a chance to join the club if he can take the New York Rangers there this spring.)

That doesn’t mean Berube can’t or won’t coach the Leafs to a Cup. It’s just that the rationale for hiring him should go way beyond that. Because history tells us that a championship in the past isn’t an indicator of a championship in the future, not for a head coach.


The Blues were the second NHL team where Berube served as the head coach. His first gig: Replacing Laviolette as Flyers coach three games into the 2013-14 season. That squad, led by the likes of Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, and Scott Hartnell, lost a seven-game first-round series to the Rangers. They missed the playoffs a year later, costing Berube his job.

Berube’s next chance in St. Louis started with a bang when he took over for Mike Yeo in November and spurred a remarkable turnaround that ended with that Cup, the first ever for the Blues franchise.

It’s hard to know what to make of that Cup as far as Berube is concerned. Jordan Binnington was the story of that run, coming out of nowhere to backstop the Blues in goal. Exactly half of St. Louis’ wins that postseason were by a goal. Their special teams were mediocre — a 16.3 percent success rate on the power play and 75.4 percent on the penalty kill.

The Blues led all teams in five-on-five shooting percentage. They outscored teams by 16 goals at five-on-five – winning almost 60 percent of the actual goals and only about 49 percent of expected goals (a trend that would persist).

St. Louis looked poised to repeat the following season. Only the Boston Bruins had a better record when the pandemic shut down the 2019-20 campaign. When postseason play resumed, the Blues were beaten in six games by the Canucks.

Alex Pietrangelo left for Vegas that offseason. The Blues were swept in the first round of the playoffs the following season and won only one more round under Berube the rest of the way — a six-game first-round victory over Minnesota in 2022. The Blues won only one round in the playoffs after the Cup run.

Berube’s career playoff winning percentage of 46.6 percent ranks 18th among active NHL coaches (just in front of Sheldon Keefe in 20th).

It’s hard to ignore the Blues roster in all that: It got weaker and weaker (increasing the scrutiny on GM Doug Armstrong). After Pietrangelo came the departures of Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron, Vince Dunn, Jaden Schwartz, and Vladimir Tarasenko. Binnington came back down to Earth.

The Blues had a top-five power play from 2019-2022 and then plummeted as top contributors like Perron, O’Reilly, and Tarasenko moved on. The Blues were second-last in the league when Berube was fired (seven goals on 83 chances) and 22nd the year before that.

They scored almost 23 percent of the time the rest of the way under Berube’s replacement, Drew Bannister.

That should be a little troubling for a Leafs team that unraveled on the power play this past season — and in playoffs past.

Is Berube the guy to turn it around? Will more talent in Toronto than he had to work with in St. Louis do the trick? What, well, tricks will he come up with to prod the stars to score more on the power play when it matters? What stars will even be around?

Then, there’s the penalty kill, another central element of the Leafs first-round exit (and others before that). And there, again, the Blues were so-so at best – 20th when Berube was dismissed and 30th in the season prior. They finished higher than 12th only once, a fifth-place showing in the 2021-22 season.

Can Berube spark the Leafs into scoring more goals in the postseason? That was obviously a huge part of what came undone for the Keefe-led teams.

What’s odd about that 2019 run for Berube’s Blues? The quality of the chances they generated at five-on-five were pretty blah – 2.16 expected goals per 60 minutes, which ranked 12th among playoff teams and would have ranked 29th that regular season.

And yet, the Blues actually scored 2.58 goals per 60 minutes, first among playoff teams.

It was the beginning of a trend that would continue throughout Berube’s tenure in the regular season. Again and again, the Blues scored more than it seemed like they should have.

Blues five on five scoring (per 60 mins)

Season Expected Actual Difference

2018-19

2.68

2.55

-0.13

2019-20

2.28

2.56

0.28

2020-21

1.98

2.24

0.26

2021-22

2.50

3.00

0.50

2022-23

2.33

2.68

0.35

2023-24

2.71

2.49

-0.22

That squeezing of chances feels like an encouraging sign for a Leafs team that’s frequently done the opposite when it matters – scored less than expected.

A little more disconcerting, on the other hand, was the Blues losing the territorial battle under Berube.

St. Louis ranked 29th with an expected goals mark of about 45 percent when Berube was fired in December. Only the league’s rebuilding squads – the Ducks, Blackhawks, and Sharks – fared worse. They weren’t much better a season earlier – 27th with an expected goals mark of 44.5 percent.

They were outshot at five on five in each of Berube’s final three-plus seasons.

Was that tactics, personnel, or, more likely, some combination of both? Will it lead to lesser results in the regular season? Better results in the playoffs?

The Leafs will be counting on Berube’s ability to inspire his players, but also challenge them in a way that arguably came too late under Keefe, a first-time NHL coach when he took over for Mike Babcock in 2019. In firing Keefe, GM Brad Treliving said the team needed a “new voice” and in Berube, the team will have someone with the credibility of a lengthy playing career of more than 1,000 games, in addition to more than 500 games behind the bench.

Berube is likely to bring more spontaneity to the Leafs. Unlike Keefe, prone to analyze and maybe even over-analyze every decision, Berube likes to play a hunch.

It remains to be seen how he’ll adjust to the attention and scrutiny that comes with being head coach of the Leafs where one comment or misstep can become a three-day firestorm. Or how/whether the more skilled players on the team will respond to his prodding.

That seemed to be the origin of his apparent clash with young Blues star Jordan Kyrou. Berube wanted better defensive play from Kyrou.

He won’t have to worry about that kind of thing with Auston Matthews, and Keefe may have done all the heavy lifting on that front with William Nylander.

The kind of teams – big and heavy – that Berube excelled with in St. Louis would seem to align well with the kind of teams Treliving seems to want to build. Whether that’s a good thing or not will be the question. Berube is Treliving’s fifth coaching hire in a decade as an NHL GM.

He and the Leafs are counting on Berube to lead them where Keefe could not, over the mountain and into that exclusive coaching club.

(Photo: Fred Kfoury III / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)



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