It has been 12 years ago now since the St. Louis Blues won their one-and-only President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular season – and that season ultimately ended in major disappointment when they were one-and-done in the playoffs, losing in the opening round to the upstart San Jose Sharks. The Sharks were like that once upon a time – not a perennial Stanley Cup contender, but a team that regularly picked off more highly celebrated regular-season teams.
Blues’ coach Ken Hitchcock is a historian – specialty: U.S. civil war – but he also knows how regular-season achievements don’t always translate into playoff success. (In the 25 years since the NHL introduced the President’s Trophy, the regular-season champs went on to win the Stanley Cup seven times, most recently in 2007-08, by the Detroit Red Wings).
Thanks to largely to parity, it has happened only once in the past eight seasons. Even after Thursday night’s 2-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, the Blues look as if they’re in the driver’s seat to claim the regular-season title and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, which would be no mean feat considering they started the year an undistinguished 6-7. Hitchcock took over from Davis Payne at that juncture and presided over a turnaround that sees him as one of multiple legitimate coach-of-the-year candidates alongside Ottawa’s Paul MacLean, Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, Florida’s Kevin Dineen and New York’s John Tortorella.
The man who hired Hitchcock was Blues’ general manager Doug Armstrong, who had a history with him dating back to their years together with the Dallas Stars. So there were no surprises when Hitchcock came aboard. Armstrong knew exactly what he was getting, an organized, demanding coach, who was not afraid to learn and adapt and exploit whatever the NHL rule book of the time will allow a coach to exploit.
St. Louis is the No. 1 defensive team in the league, and spreads its scoring out over three lines, with David Backes nominally leading the way, but with David Perron and Andy McDonald (sadly, injured again vs. the Hurricanes) essentially their best natural scoring talent.
In an era punctuated by far too much gushing hyperbole, Armstrong makes an interesting and honest assessment of his team’s recent successes, as playoffs approach.
“I think Ken’s done a great job,” said Armstrong, “but it’s almost now where it’s grown bigger than the real story and the real story is the players and the work they’ve put in. The real story to me is how they take his game plan and execute it.
“You can be a great coach, but if your players don’t execute the plan, it’s not going to matter.”
No, coaching only gets you so far. In the end, you need motivated players to succeed, and you also need players with high hockey IQs that can absorb the coaching lessons and put them into practice. St. Louis is relentless at both ends of the ice. Hitchcock gives his players the green light to go to the attack when they have control the puck, figuring the era of three-on-twos is dead, so the only way to get an odd-man rush anymore is to make it a four-on-three. Ultimately, that requires defencemen with mobility and puck-handling skills, but with enough sense to know when to go up - and when to stay back. And on those occasions when they make the wrong initial read, to have the skill level to get back in the play. It’s all tied together, and it requires five players thinking as a unit on the ice.
“They work so well together,” said Armstrong, of his team. “The neutral zone, it’s like seaweed.”
Yikes, a good analogy, but also a grim way of looking at how they play the game. Hitchcock was working as an advisor in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ organization, where he’d led the team to the one-and-only playoff appearance in franchise history, when Armstrong made the decision to bring him in. Armstrong did so, he says, after lengthy conversations with the team’s veteran core last summer convinced him they could handle a coach with a reputation for being tough on, and occasionally unpopular with, the players.
“When I talked to some of our veteran players - Alex Steen, Barrett Jackman, David Backes - there was a genuine feeling that they were tired of losing,” said Armstrong. “They wanted the group to go the next level. We basically made a commitment to them last summer: ‘We’ll do our best in the summer; you prepare to do your best in the winter.’”
The Blues signed a quartet of players in the off-season – Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Kent Huskins, Scott Nichol – none of whom were attracting a great deal of attention on the free-agent market. The total overall cost was less than what the Buffalo Sabres committed to Ville Leino.