Ken Hitchcock was fired as the coach of the Blues on Wednesday after the team lost Tuesday night for the fifth time in their last six games. (File)

By Rob Rains

Doug Armstrong fired one of his best friends, Ken Hitchcock, as the coach of the Blues for one simple reason – he couldn’t fire the players.

Armstrong, the Blues general manager who hired Hitchcock in November 2011, made it clear during a news conference Wednesday morning that firing Hitchcock was one of the toughest decisions he has ever made.

Armstrong just felt he had no other choice, with the Blues drifting along, having lost five of their last six games and barely hanging on to a wild-card playoff spot with just over two months left in the season.

There was no doubt Armstrong places the blame for the team’s inconsistency on the players, not on Hitchcock, who he referred to as “a Hall of Fame coach.”

"I think we've let our group become independent contractors," Armstrong said. "One of the things I've learned about being around St. Louis is the Cardinals. They don't have independent contractors; when they do, they get rid of them. We have a situation now where I trust these guys and I believe in them. But I have a sense of independent contractors.

“When you see independent contracting going on on the ice, whether you're a fan or not, it's easy to see. What we have to do is we have to become a team again. We have to take pride in doing things for each other for the betterment of the team. I see when we win how guys react when they don't get what they want. I see when we lose how guys react when they get what they want. It's a losing brand of hockey. And Ken is paying the price for it."

Armstrong had to fight back tears as his spoke with the media.

“We just haven't played well enough,” Armstrong said. “At the end of the day, we were winning games and we'd look like a really good team, but part of what we've done now is ... I'm not sure if I'm going to make a lot of sense right now, but we don't lose with pride. It just felt like we were hit and miss, night-in and night-out. I think we need to demand more of ourselves. Our record is not indicative of what we thought [we'd have]."

Hitchcock guided the Blues to the Western Conference final last year, but the team let David Backes and Troy Brouwer go in free agency over the summer and have struggled in almost every facet of the game this season. Hitchcock, 65, was fired after 781 career wins in his 20 seasons in the NHL, one away from tying Al Arbour for third on the career victory list.

Tuesday night’s loss dropped the Blues’ record to 24-21-6.

Hitchcock announced after last season that this would be his final year coaching in the NHL and the team hired former Minnesota coach Mike Yeo as the “coach in waiting.” That wait ends now, with Yeo taking over behind the bench starting with Thursday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

In addition to Hitchcok’s dismissal, the Blues also fired goaltending coach Jim Corsi. Goaltending has been one of the team’s biggest problems this season as they rank last in the NHL in saves percentage. But it’s not the team’s only problem.

"I think the culture's changed a bit and we have to regain the culture," Armstrong said. "We have to regain wanting what's best for the Note on the front, not the name on the back."

The Blues’ 5-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night was their fourth consecutive home loss in regulation, the first time that has happened since they lost six such games in a row in 2006.

Yeo, 43, who spent five years as the coach of the Wild, directed the team’s practice on Wednesday.

“It's hard,” said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk afterward. “You never want to see that happen to anyone, but it seems like we need to shake things up a bit."

More shakeups might be coming if the team’s performance does not quickly improve. The trading deadline is a month away, and players such as Shattenkirk – a free agent after the season – could be on the move.

Asked what his message to the players was on Wednesday, Armstrong said, “The spotlight’s on you.”