By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The Mike Yeo era unfolds Thursday when the Blues (24-21-5) host the Toronto Maple Leafs (23-15-9) at 8 p.m. (FS-MW, KMOX 1120-AM).
Yeo, the 25th head coach in franchise history, was named coach on Wednesday after the Blues fired Ken Hitchcock.
Yeo, 43, is in his first season with the Blues after spending most of the past five seasons as coach of the Minnesota Wild. He was fired by Minnesota on Feb. 13, 2016.
Yeo went 173-132-44 with the Wild, including 46-28-8 in 2014-15 that was the second-best in franchise history. He guided the Wild to three appearances in the playoffs, and they advanced to the second round in 2014 and 2015. He was also an assistant on the Pittsburgh Penguins when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009.
Yeo was hired to be associate coach this season before taking the reigns for the 2017-18 season, but with the Blues waking up today on the outside looking in at the Western Conference playoff race; they trail the Calgary Flames by two points for the second wildcard and three behind the Nashville Predators for third place in the Central Division.
"I'm excited. I'm excited for our group and excited about the challenge," Yeo said. "We wake up this morning and find ourselves sitting outside of a playoff spot. I think there's a lot of belief inside our locker room and I know that tonight will be a tough challenge. We're not just going to make a change like this and things all of the sudden will be better. We're going to have to make them better and if there's anything we can take out of this, it'll put that in their minds that we're the ones that we're the ones that have to make it better and we have to start doing that tonight.
"... The one thing I'll say is you forget just how many different directions you get pulled in. You think you're just going to come to the rink and coach and then you realize there's a lot more to it than that. But yeah, it's good."
Yeo said the challenges the Blues face won't require any changes on the ice, at least for the moment. He won't alter the lineup tonight but will change accordingly as he sees fit.
"I think it would be pretty foolish to try to make some big changes," Yeo said. "There's a couple of little things that we've talked about, that we've identified. For me, our practice days are when we're going to try to change some of the habits or try do some things a little bit differently. This time of the year, we don't have a lot of practice, and the fact that we're playing so many games, when it comes time to drop the puck, we're just going to focus on that. We're going to focus on some of the real key fundamentals that were in place when 'Hitch' was here that we need to have. I said this yesterday, that we don't have to make big changes here. 'Hitch' has had a plan in place that's been successful and with a few little tweaks here and there and a few habits that we can try to bring in, I think that we can get right back on top of things."
The Blues have had one practice and a morning skate with their new coach. Now the onus is on them to try and shake out of a slump in which they've lost five of six overall and six of the past seven at Scottrade Center.
"Obviously now the pressure's on the players and that's the way it is," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "When things happen like that, they happen because you're underachieving and not performing the way the expectations are. As far as change, honestly, it's just day to day around here; it's not that different. Everyone else is still here. So from that standpoint, it's not that big of an adjustment or anything like that. Having said that, it's only been one day, but if you look at the overall situation, we're the ones that have to go out there and play and the end result depends on us. We haven't been doing the job lately and hopefully this is a wakeup call for everybody and turn it around."
Yeo has been happy with the response so far.
"Yeah absolutely," he said. "I think, again, it puts a big mirror in front of us and it helps us all recognize and kind of re-focus as far as what our job is, what our task, and I think the players have recognized that."
The Blues have to get back to doing the little things necessary that turn into big results rather than exposing themselves to the big gaffes of recent games.
"You want to do little things, you're not going to obviously change everything overnight," center Paul Stastny said. "(Yeo) knows it, I think there's just a few little things that we want to tweak. Once we get that done, then we can kind of move over with those adjustments. It's just a new voice, it feels like day one of a new training camp kind of. I think everyone's kind of nervous and excited at the same time.
"... You felt it yesterday in practice. It was kind of a weird day, just...it was just a somber day I think. You never want to see anyone let go, it's always tough. It sits on our shoulders, it sits on everyone's shoulders so everyone feels responsible for that. At the same time we've got to move forward because we're in a playoff race, every game matters for us. When we play at our best, we're worried about what we do and not what our opponent is (doing)."
Changes to the coaching staff will be minimal.
The only change will come with assistant Steve Thomas in the role of special teams.
"Steve will help me out a little bit with the power play now," said Yeo, who plans on continuing his work with the forwards and power play units.
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The Blues will honor Original Blue Bob Plager tonight with the retirement ceremony of his No. 5.
The ceremony begins at 6:30 p.m.
Plager, 73, will join Al MacInnis (No. 2), Bob Gassoff (No. 3), brother Barclay Plager (No. 8), Brett Hull (No. 16) and Bernie Federko (No. 24) in the rafters tonight, and that should definitely give the Blues a jolt, if the coaching change doesn't.
"It's awesome," Bouwmeester said. "Any time teams do that, you're part of that stuff, it's bigger than what's just going on here. Sometimes you get focused on on what's going on right now and every game's so important, but when you get a chance to see a guy like that who's been here for as long as the Blues have, that's really cool, not only for when he played, but it goes beyond that, for what he's done for hockey in St. Louis. I think it speaks for the city that he's stuck around that long, the honor is probably overdue and you know it's going to be special for him and his family. He's a guy that when you talk to him, he's got so much pride in being part of the team still, he's worn a lot of hats over the years with the organization. There's a lot of teams that don't have guys like that around. As a current player, to get to talk to those guys, we all that one thing in common, you played, even though it was very different eras. But it's fun to talk to those guys . They always have an opinion or a perspective on something."
"Yeah, I'm just really grateful to be a part of it," Yeo said. "Meeting Bobby and obviously following him through my life, he's a good old Northern Ontario guy so that's great. It's fun to be a part of a special night like that. That's why I'm up here and I'm so humbled just to be here today because it's such a proud organization with so much history with the players, with the coaches, so to be a part of that now is real special."
Stastny, who grew up in St. Louis, appreciates the talker Plager is more than anything.
"For me it's more the stories," Stastny said. "Since Day 1, he was one of those guys you've seen when my dad was playing, at alumni events or Christmas skates, at the practice rink all the time. I've been around him for a while. When you talk St. Louis, you think about him because he's always around. No one has a bad word to say about him. What he did on the ice, what he did off the ice I think just speaks volumes. It's exciting for him to get honored and have his jersey next to his brother.
"Fifty years, it seems like such a long time but at the same time it seems like yesterday the way you hear these stories. It's how active he is, how much energy he brings to a room. Like with all his stories, I think everybody kind of pays attention and half the time you don't know if he's lying or if he's telling the truth. You come out of the story looking at each other wondering if half of it's true and half of it's not. Fifty years and going strong speaks of him and speak of the town and how much of an impact he's had on it."
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One focus for Yeo seems to be finding the proper playing partners for right wing Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues' biggest scoring threat.
As Yeo said, he won't change anything for the game at the outset, but will do so when he sees fit.
Tarasenko leads the Blues in goals (22), assists (27) and points (49).
"He'll play (with the same linemates)," Yeo said of playing with Jaden Schwartz and Jori Lehtera. "He was a dominate player last game. I thought 'Schwartzy' really added a lot to that line. (Tarasenko) got the one goal, but he easily could have had about four or five last game. So, again, we'll start there. We won't be afraid to bounce things around. But there's so much change and we're trying to implement a couple of new ideas for tonight that we felt to come in here and blow up all the lines and just try to create something off that, maybe it's not the time. We'll see how it goes tonight, it doesn't mean that we won't change things but we'd like to have some kind of consistency if we could.
"... The Lehtera line created an awful lot of offense and the (Patrik) Berglund line created an awful lot of offense. Our fourth line, we need 'Barby,' from what we understand, the scouting reports that we get and what he can bring, we need him to try to help us get to some semblance of what our fourth line was and then 'Stas-Steener' and David Perron obviously have a big role as far as playing against top lines and not only being strong defensively but creating offense while they're doing that too."
But Yeo will play his minute munchers (Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo) together -- for now.
"Yeah, for now. Again, this stuff is going to play itself out," Yeo said. "We don't want to make a bunch of changes today and we'll see how it goes. These are the conversations you have everyday.
"Something that is very important to me, and I said this before, we have to make sure we're surrounding 'Vladi' the right way. He's got to take care of his game, that's his job, but it's our job to make sure we're surrounding him the right way and that will be one of the first conversations we have every day when we come to the rink."
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Lehtera will play in his 200th game.
Pietrangelo has four points (one goal, three assists) the past three games, including a goal and two assists Tuesday.
Schwartz has seven points (one goal, six assists) the past five games.
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The Blues' projected lineup:
Alexander Steen-Paul Stastny-David Perron
Jaden Schwartz-Jori Lehtera-Vladimir Tarasenko
Robby Fabbri-Patrik Berglund-Nail Yakupov
Scottie Upshall-Ivan Barbashev-Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson-Kevin Shattenkirk
Joel Edmundson-Colton Parayko
Jake Allen will start in goal; Carter Hutton will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Robert Bortuzzo and Dmitrij Jaskin. Kyle Brodziak (foot) is on injured-reserve.
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The Maple Leafs' projected lineup:
Zach Hyman-Auston Matthews-William Nylander
James van Riemsdyk-Nazem Kadri-Mitchell Marner
Leo Komarov-Tyler Bozak-Connor Brown
Matt Martin-Ben Smith-Nikita Soshnikov
Martin Marincin-Nikita Zaitzev
Jake Gardiner-Connor Carrick
Matt Hunwick-Roman Polak
Frederik Andersen will start in goal; Curtis McElhinney will be the backup.
Healthy scratches include Frank Corrado, Josh Leivo and Frederik Gauthier. Morgan Rielly (ankle) will be a gametime decision.