Saturday, April 17, 2010

Blues fail to live up to high expectations

Interesting summer awaits owners, management
for squad that failed to make the playoffs in 2009-10

ST. LOUIS -- The Blues' charge to the postseason last year came to fruition because of a remarkable string of victories, including a 9-1-1 finish.

Even though they were swept out of the Western Conference quarterfinals by the Vancouver Canucks, expectations were elevated based on what the Blues were able to accomplish.

But another slow start to the 2009-10 season put the Blues behind the eight-ball. And although another furious finish was coming together just as it did last season, the Blues' mad dash to the finish line came short of those expectations and the playoffs fell out of reach.

The Blues, who were 41-31-10 (92 points) in 2008-09, finished just two points shy of that mark as 2009-10 concluded with a 40-32-10 mark. Record-wise, the seasons were parallel, but the end result was much different.

As the Blues head into the summer looking to make that step back to postseason limelight, it's easy to reflect back and wonder why this team couldn't take the next step and not get back into the playoffs. It's also easy to ask why they couldn't get in and win a series or so and compete for the ultimate prize. Second-guessing is a fan's prerogative.

The Blues virtually brought back the same lineup they had a season ago, then added injured players Paul Kariya (hips) and Erik Johnson (torn ACL/MCL) to that same lineup. Eric Brewer (back) came back after missing virtually all of last season as well. They also signed a reliable backup goalie in Ty Conklin to solidify the position.

This should have been a better team, right? David Backes even had mentioned a select few times that this team was better than the one that reached the playoffs.

So what did go wrong for the Blues?

Well, for starters, their defense of the home turf was borderline dreadful for much of the season. The Blues did finish with a flurry, winning six in a row at Scottrade Center and nine of 11, but finishing 18-18-5 here simply wasn't good enough.

Included in those dreaded home losses was a trio of games in which the Blues led by three goals (all 3-0) and lost each and every one of them. Protecting late leads was not one of this team's top traits.

The Blues also had a problem -- particularly in the first half of the season -- scoring goals. As Blues President John Davidson pointed out while the players were having their exit meetings Wednesday, if the Blues scored at the pace they did in the second half, they would have been sixth in the league in goals. But they were nowhere near that clip early on. They finished with 225.

They started poorly once again, having to play catch-up in a Western Conference that was obviously going to be extremely challenging this season. To put things in perspective, seven of the eight playoff teams in the West had 100 points or more.

It cost Andy Murray his job 40 games into the season, a guy who just seven months before his firing was a Jack Adams Award finalist for coach of the year.

So the Blues, who sold out 33 of their 40 home dates here (one home game was played in Sweden), must deal with the questions everyone wants to know: was this season a step backwards? Was it a failure?

"A step back ... it's a tough pill to swallow because that's almost like you regressed in your battle against an illness, or you took a step back in your education or something like that," said Backes, who dropped off of a career-high 31 goals in 2008-09 to 17 this past season but improved his assist mark from 23 to 31. "A step back ... I don't like that terminology. I'd say that if we're in the Eastern Conference, we're in. I think you just saw a lot of Western Conference teams beating Eastern Conference teams and that's why you needed 95 points to get in in the West. We should have beaten more East teams, I guess."

Maybe they should have had more of a sense of urgency in the first half, when they were 17-19-7 in the first 43 games. They played the last 39 games at a 23-13-3 clip.

"It's frustrating because you always want to go forward," said Johnson, whose 10 goals and 39 points led all Blues defensemen. "Any time you take a step back, it's not a good thing. We know we've got a lot of work to do and we can expect a lot more from ourselves, that's for sure.

"You can't be OK with losing points early on and then expect to make them up later. We really need to take care of business early and all year and not get behind the eight-ball."

Backes added, "It's focus, not only as a team but definitely personally. We need to make strides and not have that slow start. These strong finishes are obviously well-received and something that a lot of teams would like that trend. ... If we have more points (in) December when we're gearing up for the last few months of the season and we make that stretch run, we're going to like our momentum going into the playoffs. It just comes down to those dog days of November, December and making sure we're getting the job done when other teams are taking points from us."

So as the Blues head into the hot summer months, will they return for training camp in September with lots of question marks? Who will be back among the unrestricted free agents? Will the Blues go in a different direction in goal? Which restricted free agents will the Blues tender? Which ones will get contract extensions? Who, if anybody will the team pursue when the free agent market opens up July 1?

Davidson had plenty of answers when he met with the media Wednesday.

"When all the dust settles -- and it hasn't yet -- we'll get together," he said when first asked about the UFA's the Blues have to deal with. "... There's no immediate rush to figure that out. This will be done over the next number of weeks. ... We have to figure out what we think we should do to try and make ourselves a better hockey club next year. ... It's an early timeframe right now to see if we're going to do this with Paul (Kariya and this with Mase (Chris Mason). They both have their own options, and that they're free agents July 1st. We'll make our own internal decisions as to what we're going to try to do. Then we'll approach their agents and talk to them as we march along here. There's no rush to do that right now."

If Blues fans are looking for that big splash in the UFA market, don't hold your breath. Davidson was firm in his rationale when asked about spending big dollars on an impact goal scorer, even though there is a limited number of them if they hit the market on July 1.

"I look at us, and we'd love to find that prolific goal scorer, but we're not in a position to spend $10 million dollars a year ... we're not going to do it," Davidson said. "We might as well just get that out right now, we're not going to do that ... at all. It's not-sensible for us right now. A) it's just too expensive, and B) the growth pattern of our club is going in the right direction. I know we had a terrible first half in a lot of ways, but the second half, it got us back on track. We have to continue to grow like that, to put us in position of when is the right time to try and add something that's really going to make us a better club."

Davidson then veered a bit, saying, "I should backtrack a little on that $10-million dollar thing. If there's something that ever made sense to us, we'd certainly look at it, but there's things that don't make sense with that. We're with a hockey club here that you have to deal with what we have to deal with. I can't go to our ownership and say -- I'm not going to mention names because people are still under contract -- but this guy could come here and he may want $12 million dollars up front and then $8 million dollars a year for the next seven years. That's irresponsible to our franchise to do that at this point and time anyway, from my point of view."

As much as fans may not want to hear it, the Blues are not going to alter their course of action and start spending lavishly as they did pre-lockout. That philosophy didn't work then, and it hasn't worked to this point.

This won't be an easy summer, despite team owner Dave Checketts saying that this will be an "ambitious" summer. Blues fans, who have been patient with the process as this current ownership group and management team will head their fifth season here, are looking for instant gratification.

So they will continue to build with the likes of T.J. Oshie, Backes, David Perron, Patrik Berglund, Roman Polak and so forth.

"We've got a lot of good things going for us," Davidson insists. "You don't want to sign somebody that might cripple your organization ... if a free agent wants to sign an eight-year contract to take him into 40 years of age, we're not going to do it. That's irresponsible for me to even consider that in this market place. It's crazy.

"If you look at each team that's won the Stanley Cup the last few years, every one of them has core players that they've drafted and grew up within their own organization and has taken some time. ... You look at (Alex) Steen (a restricted free agent), he's 26 and he bloomed this year. It takes time for young people to get to where you need them to be. Our guys are basically two years in. We've been here four years. It took two years to get the guys ... here. I think that's fair to say, and if not, you tell me. We had to find a way to draft them, we had to make trades, we got picks and we drafted them, and then you wait for them to get here. Ian Cole isn't even here yet, (Lars) Eller's just getting here. We've had Perron now for three years; he was fast-tracked, but now he's starting to show. A 20-goal scorer is pretty good. We'll see where it goes after that. Berglund's only 21 ... he's a kid. He's got to get stronger. Polak is now starting to show. He's been here a bit now, he's starting to show. Backes, the same thing. Oshie, a little bit older when he got here, so he was more prepared for it. I think he's going to be a real benefit for us as we go forward."

The Blues also have decisions to make on up-and-coming players such as Cole, who left school early to pursue his pro career, Eller, the team's top pick (13th overall) in 2007, Alex Pietrangelo, the team's top pick (4th overall) in 2008, Jonas Junland, a restricted free agent among other decisions.
"Eller had a real good year as a rookie. we'll look at him, but I don't know," Davidson said. "You could see here he's got skating skills, he needs to get stronger, he got knocked off the puck, he couldn't win a lot of battles on the boards at the NHL level. He did some at the AHL level. He knows what he has to do. He needs 15 pounds of let-me-get-stronger before he becomes a regular here.

"Ian Cole's very good. He surprised me. When he played the last seven or eight games, this guy was good, really good. With his style of play, he may surprise some and put pressure on people, which is good. With Jonas, there's a chance. His contract's up. We have to talk to him about it. He didn't embarrass himself here at all, played pretty well. He, too, has to get stronger. This is a man's league here with big, big people and a long season."

The solution here could be that the Blues -- should they want to get a 30-, 40-goal scorer -- may have to explore trade options. They can trade from a position of strength, which would be their blue line.

"You don't see many hockey for hockey trades," Davidson said. "What you see is a lot of trying to move salaries to open up. You'll see some of that at the draft so that they can open up the road for them when it comes to July 1st, or you see it at the trade deadline for teams that are gonna miss or whatever.

"I think that what could be somewhat interesting is if you have strength in some area of your franchise and another team doesn't, but they have strengths in an area that you need, maybe there's a fit. ... We're going to sniff around and see if that's something that's going to make any sense. I can't say it's going to happen, but that's part of our job in exploring those areas."

No matter what the Blues do, Johnson is already getting the pot stirred up. Fans may make him remember these words:

"We're going to make the playoffs next year," said Johnson, who is one of the RFA's the Blues have to resign. "That's our goal. There's no way around it at all. We're going into this summer hungry and disappointed that we're not playing right now. I think you're going to see a really determined bunch like you do every year with a lot more to prove."

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