By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Davis Payne just completed his first full season as the head coach of the Blues. After taking over for Andy Murray midway through the 2009-10 season, Payne is 61-48-15 in 124 career games after a 38-33-11 2010-11 campaign. Payne, 40, met with the media on Tuesday and answered questions about a variety of topics:
How good is this team at full strength?
We feel when we've got our guys in there at full capacity and full energy, we can play and that game is good enough. The challenge becomes how do you do it when you're not running on all full cylinders. That's the challenge. How do you put yourself in position time and time again to when less than 100 percent for any reason, you give yourself a chance to grab points; potentially an overtime or shootout extra point.
Some of those games that were close that didn't go our way that were kind of hump games to get ourselves into situations where we could create more momentum for ourselves or end a losing streak quicker, those are the ones we'd like to have back. There's a growth that has to go on there for all of us about how to control a game in the areas you can control regardless about your lineup or energy situation is. There are different ways to do that. We've got to do a better job (including) myself as a coach of recognizing how we get ourselves to that point.
You had to press a number of players into service at the NHL level that may not have otherwise been here had it not been for the injuries. How valuable was that experience for them?
I think the experience is extremely valuable. You don't ever like to lack the success or ever having to go through it, but there are benefits to going through it and that's exactly it. You get guys into situations against top players and there's a learning process that goes there and there's also an understanding process that, hey, their game, yeah it's got room to grow, but it's effective at this level and those roles.
What do you take away most out of your first full season?
The understanding of how to win without your 'A' game. I think that's the biggest message that we have to gain from this. There's points to be had our there during the course of a season when you do have injuries and you do have a schedule adding up upon you. The way you play versus how hard you play sometimes can really make a difference and I think that has been a part of our biggest recognition here in the last little bit and certainly is something we absolutely have to take forward.
Are you a 'what if' type of a coach when it comes to a season? Sort of like, 'What if you didn't have all those injuries?'
You can't go back and say that you can. You can't go back and say if ... those guys were hurt. Other teams had similar situations. We had a bulk of them at the same time, but that will be a part of how we address that situation going forward, how do we handle ourselves when those guys are out. How do we get through January, as opposed to being 2-8-2, how do we make sure we scratch and claw and get some of those points, get some of those close games, tie games, one-goal games into overtime, a shootout situation? That's the next step.
Were we a playoff team without injuries? It's a non-factor because we're not. That's the disappointing and bitter part of the season. That means we've got things to learn, we've got ways to learn and progress to be made.
Do you believe you are a better hockey club today than at the beginning of the season?
Yes, I do. We've got some players who understand what is it going to be like, how our team looks going forward, how we play, the type of responsibilities they are going to have. It's the Patrik Berglunds who are going to get top-line minutes, it's the Kevin Shattenkirks and Pietrangelos that contribute in high volume ... you can go up and down the lineup. The experiences that have been gained over this last stretch, it says Niki Nikitin's going to be a player going forward, Ian Cole's going to be a player going forward. I hate to stop when you get part of the way through the lineup, but the way we can play, the way we can attack, the way we can defend, I absolutely believe we are a better hockey club.
We feel progress has been made, we feel like we're right there. We're going to give (the fans) their just do.
Can you talk about if Perron comes back, that young group moving forward?
It's unfortunate for Perry obviously missing the entire season. There's a lot of lessons there for us as a team. With our young, skilled group and the names you're talking about ... the Perrons and the Oshies and the Berglunds, even a Chris Stewart, the years aren't necessarily behind him, more so in front of him. I think if you look at how you create offense, how you use your skill, I think there was a lot of learning curve that went on with our guys in that regard. It's not a 1 on 1 situation, it's not a 1 on 1 league. It's a create-a-mistake, take-advantage, how to create that mistake with a 2 on 1, how do you create that mistake with good puck support, good decisions. How do you make sure time and time again you put yourself in a position of strength because at times, your opponent's going to play it right. You have to take the right play that's made available to you. I think the learning that's gone on from Bergy, from T.J. and from Alex Steen to some point ... understanding how to create that situation, whether it's at the start of a game, middle of a game, end of a game, just make sure you get to that point so that your skills can take over.
I think it's been a very, very valuable year for us in that regard. Our guys understand and we've done a lot of talk about puck decisions and creating those advantages and what do they mean to us. How does momentum get created out of that situation, how do you stop momentum when the other team is pushing at you based on all your decisions? It goes to the young defensemen as well. How do we make the right play when we are under pressure? How do we reverse that momentum going back against us? When we know offense is created with possession of the puck, understand that it's also created with position of the puck on the ice. I think the learning lessons that went on for these guys to know that they can play in this league, they know they have the skills and abilities. Now, how do you function those abilities within the game? I think the experiences they've gained this year was a huge, huge volume and it's going to pay dividends big time.
Berglund specifically. ... Do you have any proof that he's turned that corner?
The proof's in every day. I think when you're talking about the progression of a player and the development of a player, the proof's in being around him every single day and you see here's a guy who's first at the rink for every situation. He's first in the gym. He's first for every meeting. It's a situation where he wasn't looking for immediate success. He wasn't looking for one quick solution to his game. He wasn't looking for one quick answer to be that dominant center or a dominant top-six player in the league. He stayed with it. He didn't have immediate feedback on how his success was going to look. He stayed disciplined, he stayed committed to it, and he's seeing the benefits of that. I think when you have the conversations with him, when he's able to understand just where he is now, I think he's more motivated now than he was at the end of last year just based on what he sees is possible. That to me is extremely exciting to look forward to, a big-bodied center who now understands how he can play in this league, how he can defend in this league, you no longer have to play him out of situations.
A year ago, there would be teams targeting his line trying to attack them offensively ... you don't see that anymore. That's a credit to him on both sides. Not just the production, but the attention to the detail, the attention to his own zone. He wants to be that player. He's motivated to be that player. When you're around him every day, you feel good about that going forward.
Was there an unrealistic expectation built on that 9-1-2 start?
I don't know if anyone finished at that pace. I don't know exactly what that winning percentage is. Was it realistic that you were going to carry (that pace) through 82 (games)? Probably not. It was a good start. It was what we needed to do to build that assurance as to how we were going to play and the way we were going to play was going to create success. There were some areas, especially in that ladder part of that winning streak that our goaltending was probably the better pieces inside our room. ... There's a portion of that record that is able to be carried forward, for sure. There's obviously some different things that could have gone on. If everybody's whole and in tact the entire year, I see no reason for that type of success, maybe not at quite that level, to continue. ... We felt as we finished, there's teams that are starting tomorrow that we could go head-to-head with and feel pretty good about it.
What were you the most unhappy with this team looking at the big picture?
It fluctuated. There were times where the special teams in that middle part of the year was an area where we really needed to be better. When we had that January, we had a lot of road games and the roster had changed. We needed to be better in special teams. Special teams fall on the coaches as well to make sure we've got the right plan. ... Those are things that needed to be better. ... If you look at games where we had a point sitting there in front us, whether it was a tied game in the third or we found our way back into a third period or a one-goal lead in the third period, those points that were left out there that ended as zeroes in our column was probably the bigger of the most disappointing situations.
What can Jaroslav Halak do, what can you do, what can (goaltending coach Corey) Hirsch do to make Halak more consistent?
I had a great conversation with Jaro (Monday) about his year, how he felt it went, where are the areas of concern that we would have, where are the areas of concern that he has and they match up. That's a great starting point with Hirschy and getting a chance to work with a new staff, a new voice and the give-and-take that goes on there.
It takes time. I think you look at a guy who's come in as a first-year guy, the first time as a No. 1 guy. There's a learning curve there, there's an understanding of how to get yourself back ready again, how to hit that reset button after, whether it's a bad goal, bad period, bad game ... and good period, good save, good game. The reset button still has to get hit. I think knowing that you're the No. 1 guy for the first time, there is a learning curve that goes on there. I think he recognizes that his recognition of the difference in play between Eastern Conference teams and Western Conference teams in going through the circuit here for the first time ... very, very accurate in what he saw and the adjustments that he needs to make. A lot of teams that apply traffic to him and his handling of that traffic at the top of the blue paint, his depth at those situations, recognizing what teams are trying to do ... there's a different element when you're trying to play Chicago. There's a different element when you're playing Detroit and how they attack, a different element when you play Vancouver and the other top teams out west.
There's a number of different areas that he's made clear recognition and we have as well. They match up. We feel that it's going to be a real important year for him as far as strength and conditioning goes because of the workload that he will face. Is he a 60-game guy, a 60-plus game guy? We have to monitor that. These are all questions that we'll get answered here as the summer goes along, but in order for him to hit that number or beyond, the body has to be ready for it, so this is a real important time for Jaro take care of that as well. I know he's excited about the World Championships and getting to work and making sure that he's prepared. He's excited about how it finished, he obviously liked how it started. He feels that there was more during the middle part of that year -- especially January -- where he could have been sharper. That's a statement you want your No. 1 guy making.
What can you say about David Backes, his year and the consistency from start to finish?
That's probably the biggest word to describe David's game: the consistency in all areas. He knew that he was a big part of it coming in. When guys came out of the lineup, he knew he was a big part of what stayed in there and how we were going to need to play. He took on that challenge. At times towards the end, the load got heavy for him. There's no question about that, but he stayed with his game, he tried to pull guys along, push guys along, take things over when he had the opportunity. His leadership continued to grow, the way he handled himself down the stretch was outstanding. The numbers speak for themselves, but most impressed in the fact that he does this against top defenders, he does this against other teams' top offensive players.
The frustration of a lack of team success is what sits most with him. That's what we want all our guys feeling. Whether a guy felt like he had a good year or not, we're shy of those 10 (playoff) points. We're shy of that opportunity to play his week. We ask guys to identify in their game whether the areas that they can gain percentage points that add to our team game. He's got a clear picture of where he feels he could get better, how he could contribute more, how he could be sharper, how he can improve his faceoffs. Those type of areas contribute to the team's success. This is his focus leaving town for the summer. That's exactly where we want the focus to be.
When do you expect to name a captain? Have you made a recommendation on it?
No, we haven't. Just got through all the player meetings. We'll sit down with Army, sit down with the coaches. The leadership thing is something that will be important going forward. We've got some guys ... Jacks (Barret Jackman) and David and Alex (Steen) who wore the assistant 'A's as the year went on after we traded Brew (Eric Brewer). It is an important function within our room, within all the areas being that guy that answers to you guys in good and bad, being that go-between coaches and the rest of his teammates. It is an important piece and it's going to take some thought on our part on who the right guy is, who the right guy going forward is. We've got lots of guys who are capable of doing that and we want to make sure that it's one that meshes with all those areas and all those concerns. As far as recommendations right now, we haven't said one guy (or) this is our guy. It's certainly a conversation that's going to take place.
Do you think if this defense comes back as it is now, it's good enough to succeed or do you need a veteran presence besides Jackman?
The makeup is something that is tough to comment on right now. We've got things that are in place right now that make us an effective team. Our job is to take those pieces as coaches and mold them into a functioning unit and be the best team that is a playoff team. I believe the guys that are in there now are capable of that. I know that Army is going to take a look at all avenues for improving the team and make those necessary adjustments. We're going to spend and obviously have time to spend on defining what our lineup looks like, what our depth looks like, how we feel these guys have gained the experiences as the year has gone on, that young d-core ... the Nikitins and the Coles, Shattenkirks, the way Carlo (Colaiacovo) has played towards the end, Jacks being in that mix, obviously Petro and Roman's year we're very pleased with. There's some great options in there. How those options end up looking is something that Doug is going to make decisions and we'll have conversations on what gives us our best chance to not only get in but win.