By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- As Davis Payne begins his initial training camp as head coach of the Blues, he can carry with him a favorable trait many rookie coaches don't have the luxury of bringing with them.
Payne, who was brought in to take charge of the Blues after the firing of Andy Murray a season ago at the midway point, does have those 42 games under his belt. It was a trial run of sorts.
And after Blues management was impressed with the dress rehearsal in which Payne went 23-15-4, a two-year contract was offered to the 39-year-old native of Kamloops, British Columbia. Management was certainly impressed by the precocious development of Payne's coaching abilities.
Now moving forward, as Blues general manager Doug Armstrong put it, "He's got his hands on the wheel. It's his group now; it's his team. I know he's excited about the players that we have here.
"(We're) excited for Davis quite honestly even though it's his first real camp."
Blues camp for 2010-11 doesn't officially open until Sept. 17, but it didn't stop Payne from looking back fondly on the trials and tribulations of being an NHL coach and looking ahead with a positive vision that the coach hopes is a bright future.
"It was an understanding to trust my own instincts," Payne said of last season. "There's lots of information and there's lots of knowledge and you really have to use your staff, you have to use the management group, you have to gather all that information and listen to those ideas and opinions and at the end of the day, kind of close the door and make the decision and trust that the instincts are the way we want them to go."
Payne's climb to the top has been rapid and smooth. He graduated from Michigan Tech and played in 22 games for the Boston Bruins in an eight-year playing career that spanned 464 games, in which he collected 324 points (155 goals, 169 assists). He was originally drafted by the Edmonton Oilers in 1989.
After a stint with the Pee Dee Pride of the East Coast Hockey League, Payne became coach of the Blues' ECHL affiliate, the Alaska Aces in 2003 and was the ECHL coach of the year during in 2006-07.
Payne was named head coach of Peoria on July 8, 2008 and immediately guided the Rivermen to a 43-31-2-4 mark that culminated in a postseason berth after a two-year hiatus.
The rise continued when Payne took over for Murray on Jan. 2 as the Blues labored around the .500 mark at 17-17-6 and were struggling to find their identity after a playoff berth the previous season.
"To have reassurance that those instincts work and the players follow them and follow them with good passion and good drive towards great team hockey is the biggest thing for me when I reflect upon that 42 games. (That) was what registered the most," Payne said. "Stuff comes at you fast, there's a ton of information, the schedule's changing. There's lots of pulling here and there on your timelines. But to take a moment to step back, breathe and think about your decisions and trust them, it was probably the biggest thing going forward."
It didn't hurt Payne's cause that the players also endorsed his tenure.
"I think he made an effort to really try and get to know the guys and have that communication open," defenseman Erik Johnson said. "He was very good in that regard. All the guys were very comfortable with him, so I think that was important."
Besides some leisure time spent this summer fishing, Payne has been busy preparing for what will be a transitional camp and season for the Blues, who have a mindset of returning to the postseason and getting back on that climb of being in the upper echelon of the Western Conference.
Payne spent time discussing what to expect from current and former coaches and GM's, including former Dallas/Philadelphia/Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock. They've all provided pivotal advice on the life and times of being an NHL coach.
"There's been a ton of time put in searching out ideas or searching out things that guys used in the past that worked and didn't work," Payne said. "The most important part for me is understanding this is a training camp, the 10th year I'll be running a training camp. Certainly not at this level, but the building of a team, the establishing of a work ethic, the establishing of standards is not new to me. It's something when I look back at the last 42 games, it was something I always felt that was missing based on these guys getting an understanding of how we as a team will react to certain situations that will go on during the year.
"Last year obviously with the Olympic year, there was a tough schedule there and a lot of practice time that you didn't have the opportunities to put these types of things in place. Getting there from Day 1 and establishing how we react, how we perform, how we prepare for each practice, for each session, for each exhibition game and for October 9th. It's really a planning out of how we're going to establish those standards, how we're going to talk about them, how we're going to have our leaders talk about them, how we're going to make sure how young guys know that this is an all-inclusive process."
When the Blues announced the signing of Payne, it was a sign of solidarity and utmost confidence, especially given the quick turnaround of the deal after the completion of the season. Payne was awarded his deal within days of season's end.
"He's young, he's got energy, he's got communication skills," Blues President John Davidson said. "We feel really good that he's from within, we feel real strong about that. ... We hope that it's going to be a Doug Armstrong-Davis Payne relationship for 15 years. ... We feel that this young man has a great opportunity to be a long-term coach."