The Blues have built the framework for a winning program in the ultra-competition Western Conference.
But the project remains incomplete. The Blues are good enough to play the defending Stanley Cup champions to a virtual standstill, but not quite good enough to beat them.
They earned respect from their rival but they did not advance. The Kings set the standard in the NHL these days and the Blues don’t quite measure up.
So now the hockey operation goes back to work. Here are some thoughts about the task at hand:
Ken Hitchcock is still the right coach for this team. When the Blues fell into some funks during the lockout shortened season, we all wondered if message fatigue was setting in. But this team finished the season with an impressive push and then delivered a big effort against the Kings. The Blues fell just a bit short, so the same coach with a refreshed roster could take a big run next spring.
Doug Armstrong must resolve his goaltending situation. Brian Elliott gave the Blues a chance to beat the Kings, but he did not elevate the team. He wasn’t quite good enough, especially with Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick on the other side. So what is a general manager to do? Jaroslav Halak was not happy watching the playoffs as the back-up. Then again, management was concerned about Halak’s inconsistency and inability to stay healthy. Rookie Jake Allen, the mid-season lifesaver, is an X-factor. The sensible call is to move Halak and go with Elliott and Allen. But Armstrong is a bold leader, so nobody should be surprised if he looks outside and bids for a veteran like Ryan Miller.
The team nucleus appears to be a bit stale. Crossing off veterans like Andy McDonald, Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner seems easy enough, but what about David Perron, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie? They have been around for a while. They have become perennial also-rans wearing the Note. Fans are clamoring for change and that prospect doesn’t scare Armstrong. On the other hand, Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Dmitrij Jaskin could assume bigger roles next season and freshen up the group -- just as Adam Cracknell and Chris Porter did this season.
For more on the Blues, check out my post on STLToday.com.
The Blues took their first step toward Stanley Cup contention by just reaching the playoff bracket, which was no small feat during this lockout-shortened season.
As Los Angeles Kings coach Darryl Sutter notes again and again, games were “crammed down the throats” of players during the condensed schedule.
The Blues took their second big step by starting the postseason with a stellar performance. They were a buzzsaw for much of their 2-1 overtime victory over the Kings Tuesday.
So far, so good – but now the Blues must raise their play again and again to keep going. They must build on their success by achieving more success. They must reach previously unseen levels of performance.
This team is one game into process. Will the Blues morph into a serious Cup threat? Or will this team plateau well short of the goal?
All Game 1 provided was a starting point and some reaffirmation that the Blues have potential.
“We’ve played a lot like this . . . in the last month,” coach Ken Hitchcock said during his post-game media session. “We did this against Chicago. We did this against Vancouver. We did this in Minny twice. We’ve played a lot like this. Maybe not as physical or as emotional – that’s what playoffs are. But we’ve been playing at least every second game like this for over a month now. This is the way we’ve been playing.
“That’s why, when I said to you folks ‘we’re confident,’ we’re playing as well as we’ve played all year. We’re playing that way right now.”
But . . .
“All that does is give us an overtime win,” he said. “That’s how good the hockey club we’re playing against is. So we’re going to have to find a way to keep getting better and better as this series moves on, because we know in that room, they will.”
For more on the Blues, check out my post at STLToday.com.
It's safe to the say the Columbus Blue Jackets won't be a factor in the Western Conference playoff race this season.
They are 3-13-1 and frozen in a state of organizational paralysis. There is no digging out of such a hole in this conference.
Otherwise, just six points separate the teams standing fourth to 14th on this side of the NHL. Former Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock confronted that competitive balance after replacing Davis Payne as head coach of the St. Louis Blues.
“Even though we’ve gone 3-0-1 in the last four hockey games, we haven’t made up much ground,” Hitchcock said. “We have to deal with that reality. It’s going to be this compacted.
“What’s really surprised and thrown a wrench into it is some unsung teams have really had great starts and look like they are not going way. It has thrown 14 teams in the pack instead of 11 or 12. It’s going to make it even more difficult.”
Check out this story for more on the early success Hitchcock is having in St. Louis.
A lot of fantasy hockey players gave up on Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak this season when staggered to a 1-6 start.
Halak's statistical ratios were terrible and then-coach Davis Payne shifted much of the workload to back-up Brian Elliott. But then general manager Doug Armstrong fired Payne and hired Hitchcock -- who immediately restored Halak's No. 1 standing.
In his first game for Hitchcock, Halak delivered a 3-0 shutout.
“When the coaching change happened so fast, we just need to look in the mirror and ask yourself if that is the best you have?” Halak said afterward. “Everybody dug in tonight and everybody did their best. Hopefully we play the game where we left off."
Check out this story for more on Hitchcock's coaching debut in St. Louis.
Back in the day, Ken Hitchcock taught Brett Hull to be a better two-way players during their time together in Dallas.
Hull helped Hitchcock win a Stanley Cup with the Stars. Now Hitchcock's latest coaching stop has him in St. Louis as the new Blues coach.
The Golden Brett believes Hitchcock will implement a winning style with his new team.
“I’m not so sure the game has changed all that much from ’99. I do agree that the game is bigger and it’s faster," Hull said. "I don’t think the style that we played in ’99 would be that far different than what he is going to put in. A lot of puck support, a lot of puck possession, don’t turn it over.
"That fundamental theory is no turnovers means they don’t have the puck, which means they don’t get chances against. That’s the most important thing. Cut down the chances against, in his mind, and you’re going to have a chance to win every night.
"I don’t know if he is going to open up a little, but when we played, there wasn’t a lot of freedom to use the middle of the ice because that’s where he thought all the turnovers are.”
Here are some more assessments from Hull on the Hitchcock hiring.
As noted earlier, the Blues want to win this year. That is the primary reason GM Doug Armstrong opted to fire head coach Davis Payne and hire Ken Hitchcock, who won a Stanley Cup with the Stars.
Armstrong and Hitchcock developed a good working relationship while both were in in Dallas. There is a nice comfort level for both.
Once of Hitchcock's biggest challenges will be to get better goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, who has been a bust to this point of his Blues career.
Hockey News columnist Ken Campbell had this take: “On paper, the Blues have a team that should not miss the playoffs, even in the ultra competitive Western Conference. But the team Hitchcock left shouldn’t be the bottom feeder in that conference either. That’s the funny thing that seems to happen when you don’t get very good goaltending from the guy you’re relying upon most to stop pucks for you. Both Steve Mason in Columbus and Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis have been dreadful this season and they both have to take their share of the culpability for their teams’ early season woes. Now the question is, why would a team that seems to be screaming for a coaching change allow Hitchcock to go to a division rival for nothing more than the ability to get off the hook for the rest of his contract, particularly one that needs a coach such as Hitchcock more than ever at the moment?”
Here is what some other hockey media types had to write about this move.
The Blues organization approached the 2011-12 season with an increased sense of urgency.
With franchise ownership in limbo, general manager Doug Armstrong sought near-term improvement by adding veterans Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Elliott, Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins. He sought to push team back into the playoffs and ultimately deeper into postseason.
That urgency fueled last season’s blockbuster trade of Erik Johnson and Jay McClement to Colorado for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk.
And that same urgency led to a coaching change just 13 games into the season.
Exit Davis Payne, who failed to deliver postseason glory with an injury-riddled team last season. Enter taskmaster Ken Hitchcock, a battle-tested coaching lifer with Stanley Cup credentials.
Why did the Blues make this surprisingly quick change? Two factors sped up the decision-making process.
Is the hammer ready to fall in Columbus? Is Ken Hitchcock ready to make his Blue Jackets coaching return, in place of the overmatched Scott Arniel?
Is Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton ready to replace Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson?
The Blue Jackets are in the midst of a 5-22-8 slide, dating back to last season. Hitchcock is still cashing checks from the franchise from his earlier coaching stint.
He has been seen consulting with team president Mike Priest and owner John P. McConnell. The Blue Jackets may get No. 1 center Jeff Carter (cracked foot) back soon and the team may see that as a potential turning point.
Arniel realizes he is on thin ice.
“It makes for some sleepless nights,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “It drains on you. You don’t ever want to be in this position. But I’ve been in this game (long enough to expect it). You have to find solutions. You just have to stay with it. You just can’t roll over and play dead. You just find a way to get up each day and meet the challenge and find solutions.”
The players realize the stakes as well.
“Coaches don’t have much security,” forward R.J. Umberger told the Dispatch. “As players, any time there is a coaching change, for the most part you feel like you failed that person. You don’t want to drive a coach out or anything like that, and that’s not what’s going on here. But we just have to win games. That’s the bottom line.”
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