The St. Louis Blues are where the Toronto Maple Leafs want to be – at the end of the NHL evolutionary chain, a battle-hardened group that is ready for playoff success.
While the Maple Leafs may have planted the same dreams in their fans with last year's brush with postseason progress and their strong run through most of the current regular season, a visit to the Blues' dressing room shows just how far apart the teams are, even if the Leafs were not in the midst of one of their periodic swoons. It also emphasizes the often-forgotten maxim that getting to this point takes time, hard work and a lot of hockey smarts.
Several hours before the Blues played the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Tuesday, the talk in the St. Louis room is all about structure, playing the system and holding each other accountable. The same words can be heard in the Maple Leafs dressing room but it's merely lip service. The Leafs can talk about playing the kind of defensive game head coach Randy Carlyle wants but most of them are still too young to have absorbed the hard lessons it takes to really dedicate yourself to that and the results are obvious. They were also evident long before the goaltending crisis hit.
"For us it's holding ourselves accountable at a high level," said Blues forward Steve Ott, who was added to the team at the trading deadline along with goaltender Ryan Miller as part of management's recognition this team is ready to contend for the Stanley Cup with as couple of tweaks. "We expect nothing else than to play at that ultimate level, to be very structured throughout the games. This is a big chance for us; you always want to be headed in the right direction going into the playoffs."
The Blues may have surrendered a total of eight goals in two losses on this road trip to the Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers but that was a byproduct of their slumping offence. They "cleaned up a few mistakes" according to head coach Ken Hitchcock and blanked the explosive Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0 on Sunday to take over first place in the Western Conference with 103 points.
Before the blip on the road trip, the Blues won eight of their previous nine games. They went into the Leafs game with 160 goals against in 71 games. Only the Boston Bruins, first overall in the NHL by a point over St. Louis before Tuesday's games, have allowed fewer goals against (153). With the addition of Miller, who was having an outstanding season with the worst team in the league, the Buffalo Sabres, before the trade, it is harder than ever to score on the Blues.
While Miller is a big part of that, so is the defensive game Hitchcock insists the Blues play in front of him. The going is always tough in their end of the ice.
Listening to Hitchcock talk about how he gets the entire team to embrace his philosophy again highlights the different spots the Blues and Leafs occupy on the development chart.
"To me, it's through your leaders," Hitchcock said. "I think when you address the big group it has no impact. If you go through your leaders it has a bigger impact.
"At this time of the season, really since post-Olympics, you've got to turn it over to your players and trust it. For me it's those guys got to take it over. If [the coaches] are doing all the work right now at this time of year you're in trouble."
The leaders are captain David Backes and alternate captains Barret Jackman, Alex Steen, Alex Pietrangelo and T.J. Oshie. All have between six and 12 seasons in the NHL.
"We've turned it over emotionally to those guys," Hitchcock said. "If there's a problem, like we talked about after the Chicago game [a 4-0 loss], we address it with the four, five guys that lead the hockey club and it's their job to fix it inside the locker room."
The problem is, it takes years to assemble that mix of skill and leadership. The current group of Blues started to come together under former president John Davidson and general manager Larry Pleau several years ago and that work was continued by current GM Doug Armstrong. Hitchcock was brought in Nov. 7, 2011 to get the team over the hump of playoff success, something that is expected to finally fall into place this spring.
The Leafs, of course, have been trying to do the same thing for almost as long, going back to 2008 when Brian Burke was hired as president and GM. But thanks to various organizational hiccups the Leafs are still putting the pieces together.
Their youth still works against having a core group of leaders among the players to demand accountability from each other but so do circumstances. Centre David Bolland and winger David Clarkson were expected to be important pieces in this regard. But Bolland was lost early in the season to a torn ankle tendon and just returned to the lineup. Clarkson is having a nightmare season since signing a rich contract with the Leafs and is still in no position to be a take-charge guy.
"You've got to build the right personalities," Hitchcock said. "I think everybody has those players and they're capable of doing that stuff. You just have to build that with them."