Why the Blues circled back to Drew Bannister as head coach, and what it means for the retool

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If Drew Bannister felt the least bit slighted that the St. Louis Blues were looking at other coaching options, he never let on.

Even after producing the 12th-best points percentage in the NHL from mid-December to April, the Blues’ interim coach knew he wasn’t guaranteed anything. But when general manager Doug Armstrong said following the regular season that the team’s search would continue, a guy who could have gotten a gig elsewhere stayed patient.

Then over the weekend, Bannister got that news that he’d been hoping for: He was offered to stay on as the 27th head coach in franchise history, signing a two-year contract with the club.

“It can be a stressful time, but I felt by the end of the year that I had done a lot of positive things with the players and with the team,” Bannister said. “It was certainly disappointing the way it ended up for us, but overall I was happy with the strides that we made. I felt I’d done as much as I possibly could at that time and now it was just go through the process with Doug, and the rest of the management staff, and (get) the answer that I got in the last couple of days.”

But is Bannister the answer for the Blues?

It’s fair to wonder. If he was the right coach, why didn’t Armstrong make this move at the end of the season? Since April 19, when he said that Bannister remained on the Blues’ shortlist, the optics were such that they’d only circle back to him if they couldn’t find a better candidate.

Does that mean the Blues settled? One could perhaps view it that way, but you have to consider the circumstances: where the club sees itself with regard to competing in the next couple of seasons and who was available?

Armstrong has said on numerous occasions that while he wants the Blues to be in the playoff mix, he wasn’t looking for a Stanley Cup-caliber coach at this point.

He was monitoring coaches who were in the postseason, which led to a lot of speculation about the Boston Bruins’ Jim Montgomery. Overlooking the fact that Montgomery, a former Blues assistant, has a year left on his contract, it made a lot of sense because of his relationship with players who are still on the roster and ties to the area. But Boston advancing past the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals likely squashed that possibility if it ever was one.

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Bannister’s hiring came just three days after the Bruins’ 2-1 overtime win over the Maple Leafs in Game 7 on Saturday.

When asked about the timetable of when he wrapped up his due diligence, Armstrong replied, “I would say the last couple of days,” which will lead a lot of fans to connect the dots.

It’s not like Montgomery, or any other options, were ever sure things. But despite the optics, the GM had to do his homework and let things unfold before making his decision.

“Time is an asset,” Armstrong said. “I tried to be as honest as possible at the end of the year that that list that started out long had gotten very short after what I saw with Drew, but it was still a list. I wanted to — with no emotion, no wins and losses — just take time to reflect.”

And it’s not like the Blues were going to be disappointed if they landed back at Bannister.

After the end of the regular season, Armstrong took the step of having individuals from his inner circle interview Bannister to see if they would cement what he was seeing and feeling.

Among others, Bannister met with Alexander Steen, who’s listed as a European player development consultant but has been taking on a much larger role on the staff, vice president of hockey operations Peter Chiarelli and senior adviser Scott Mellanby.

“We talked about different people and came back to Drew as being the proper candidate,” Armstrong said. “Things just kept adding up. I just keep talking to these guys about what we’re looking for, what we saw, what we want to see, and it just comes back to, if you have it right here, acknowledge that and move forward.

“You’re just looking at it like, ‘Is there any better out there? Is there something different that we’re missing?’ We just came back to: Drew had done what we’d asked him to do. We see progression. We see someone that’s earned the right to take the reins.”

The other advantage of retaining Bannister is the stability that he could provide the Blues during a period in which there will be a lot of transition.

“It weighed into it a little bit,” Armstrong said. “With Drew having a relationship, not only with the NHL players here last year but he’s been at development camp with some of our younger players, I think it adds another layer to what we’ve been doing, and I think that’s going to be positive for us.”

Still, Bannister acknowledged that those relationships will need further nurturing now that he’s the full-time head coach, and he’s going to make that a priority this offseason.

“You have to have good relationships with younger players and older players to be able to hold them accountable, and for them to understand the reasoning,” he said. “That’s something for me moving forward that I’ve got to continue to work on, so when it comes that time, the ‘why’ behind it is a lot easier to have those conversations.

“Building trust with them is No. 1, and I really believe in getting to know the person away from the rink and spending time not really talking about a ton of hockey until we have to do so. So a lot of phone calls with the players, and whenever I can meet up with them in the summer, I think it goes a long way.”

That would allow the Blues to hit the ground running in September, and with a two-year commitment from the club, the players now know that Bannister’s word carries some weight.

“As a player, there is some doubt moving forward what is going to happen with that person behind the bench, but in all honestly, our players did an outstanding job,” he said. “They were extremely respectful to the message that we were sending as a group and as a leadership staff.

“Certainly the process moving forward, we’re going to continue to build on that. I believe in what we’re doing, I believe in the group, and we’re going to continue building on that here in the future.”

In addition to the Blues bringing back Bannister, Armstrong confirmed that the rest of the staff, which includes Steve Ott, Mike Weber, David Alexander and Michael Babcock, is expected back, too. All were already under contract for the 2024-25 season.

“When I was going through this process with Drew, he was excited about working with these guys again,” Armstrong said. “I want him to work with his staff and make sure he knows exactly what he needs. If he wants to add to that (staff), we’re certainly open to it as an organization.”

Bannister said he was “ecstatic” to have them returning, too.

“The circumstances that I came into, they welcomed me, they had my back, and I think it’s important for me to have their back,” he said. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg here. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. I value the relationships that Mike Weber and Steve Ott have with the players. I think that’s important, that we have that in the dressing room.”

Some Blues fans are surprised, even shocked, that the entire staff will be behind the bench next season. Some believe that sticking with Bannister is uninspiring and that not making any changes is a sign that the organization will not be focused on improving the roster this offseason and competing sooner than later.

Is that true?

“If you were to bring in a coach with 1,000-plus games that’s looking for a Stanley Cup on his resume to end his career, there’s different organizations that are further along (toward) that,” Armstrong said. “What we’re trying to do is bring the proper coach in for us, but not saying that we don’t expect to be successful and have a good year.

“A lot of it is where you’re at in your organization. Where we’re at, we want to win. There’s no question we want to win. I thought (Bannister) did a very good job in a difficult situation last year, and now having a full training camp and two-year term to put his stamp on this team, we’re looking forward to that.”

Often while Bannister waited to hear the Blues’ decision, he used the word “we” when referencing the future of the Blues. Now he’s officially part of that “we.”

“I believe in myself and the process that I’ve gone through for almost nine, 10 years now as a coach,” Bannister said. “When I talk about ‘we’ and ‘us,’ I think it’s important for a coach, we’re a little bit in the background, and it’s about the players and the organization and the fans. So it’s important to point out the fact that it is ‘we’ and ‘us.’ It’s not about me. But for my development, I’m proud of where I am. Certainly there’s a lot of work to be done moving forward, and I want to continue to grow as a coach.”

(Photo: Josh Lavallee / NHLI via Getty Images)

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