Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Payne, players finally understanding each other

Recent weeks have given Blues, coach time
to get to know one another extensively

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As difficult as it was for Davis Payne to take over a new team, the Blues' coach made the most of a challenging situation.

One day, Payne, 39, was orchestrating his strategy for the Peoria Rivermen, the Blues' American Hockey League affiliate. But in the span of 24 hours, he was promoted to head coach of the parent club when the Blues decided to fire head coach Andy Murray.

Payne didn't even get the chance to step onto the ice with his new team to conduct a full-scale practice. Well, he did -- sort of.

Payne was whisked into town, introduced to the players, spoke with the media, took to the ice for a morning skate and was behind the bench on that Jan. 2 night against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"Obviously when a new coach comes into the middle of the season, it's tough because he never really had his chance to put his stamp on things with not having a lot of practice time, so it can be really tough," forward B.J. Crombeen said of Payne. "He's coming into a real good job. He's a strong communicator. I think everyone feels comfortable with that he's preaching."

Since his inception, it's been a pretty hectic schedule for a first-time NHL coach in Payne.

But when the team took time off for the Winter Olympics and reconvened six days before the Blues would resume the NHL schedule, Payne and the players were given consecutive days to spend time together on the ice, work on things, getting to know one another better from player to coach and vise versa, implementing a system with more in depth detail.

"With the schedule this year, there's not a lot of times where we get three or four days in a row to practice and where we get worked on," Crombeen said. "Usually when we're practicing, it's usually just kind of a quick thing where we freshen things up and keep things loose and stuff like that. It's nice to actually have some time to learn exactly what Davis is preaching and to really get to know him and what he wants us to do and vice versa.

"I think it's been good. I think if you look at our games coming out of the break, we obviously felt more comfortable in the systems and what we were doing. Obviously, our last game wasn't where we wanted it to be, but we're looking at this time to regroup and go back and take it one game at a time."

Some may argue that practice gets old and fruitless, but in this case, the benefits have been rewarding.

"There's different various things he's been working on us with from offensive zone time played to this week, we've been really concentrating on coming back and sorting things out in our defensive zone," Crombeen said. "Obviously, that was the problem in our last game. It's something we're really trying to work on. I think if we can get that down and play from a defense first standpoint, we've showed we can score some goals lately. Hopefully if we can defend well, we can attack from that position."

There is only so much video sessions can do. Actual execution was what has been missing.

"Obviously, video is a great tool because he can show you exactly what you were doing and where you're going," Crombeen said. "There's no two-way about it, so it's great with that. But then you get on the ice, you get a bit of hands-on teaching and you get to actually experiment and try and see what it's really like. He's been real good with mixing it up and keeping it fresh in both areas."

After playing three games on the road out of the gate, the Blues have had four more off-days to spend time on the ice with their new coach. Yes, he is a new coach any way one wants to cut it.

But the results are certainly noticeable. The Blues are scoring goals in bunches. They seem to have a more organized defensive structure and goaltending has become more consistent.

"I think he's definitely starting to figure out guys and their tendencies and putting them in certain roles," goaltender Chris Mason said of Payne. "We've been playing well here before the break and all-in-all, the road trip was a pretty good one here. I think we're definitely getting more important with each other.

"He's definitely communicating his message to us. In practices, we've been working on specific things that's he's implementing and the style of play that he wants to do. ... We've had a great opportunity to practice those things."

Isn't there an old saying that says practice makes perfect? In the Blues' case, there is no need to be perfect, just developing chemistry with one another and having a solid means of communication with the coach.

"I feel like there's a good understanding," forward David Backes said. "There's obviously things we haven't been able to implement without the practice time. With the caliber of players we have, you can pretty much talk about it and put it into action in a game. It's not out of the ordinary. We've been able to do that, but to get these practice days, there's a few things we've been able to touch up, make sure we sore them up in the games and we'll see how well it works on Long Island.

"Obviously, there's a lot of guys in this room that didn't have any other coaches but Andy. To have a new coach and to feel that new relationship is a new process. We'll see how it works out for the rest of the year."

Even though the understanding is becoming more clear as time passes by, Payne says the learning never ends.

"I think that's an ongoing process. I don't think that ever stops," he said. "I think we continue to give the message of certain areas of our game that we want to continue to evolve and certain areas of our game that we want to make sure are sharp. I think as we go through the process and the different lines of communication open up between myself and the group, smaller groups and individuals, we get a better understanding that there's some give-and-take there as far as what expectations are from coach to player, player to coach, groups, the whole team in its entirety."

The Blues are 13-9-4 since Payne has taken over and are in the thick of the playoff hunt.

Not only has the process been trying to mold a team together under a new system, but both parties have done an admirable job in focusing on the task at hand, and that's reaching the postseason.

Because all the extra practice is making things as close to perfect as can be.

"I think as we have these opportunities, it does kind of broaden our ability to have an understanding of what we're trying to get at," Payne said.

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