By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- When he was suddenly brought in to become the next head coach of the Blues, Ken Hitchcock was on the bottom of the depth chart as far as seniority goes in St. Louis pro sports coaches.
Little did he know that 57 days later, Hitchcock would suddenly become the dean.
But after Cardinals manager Tony La Russa retired days after Hitchcock was hired and the Rams firing Steve Spagnuolo on Monday, Hitchcock was suddenly vaulted to the top.
He laughed about it at Tuesday's morning skate prior to the Blues (21-12-5) facing the Phoenix Coyotes (19-16-4).
"I've always said they should change the award to coach for the year rather than of the year," Hitchcock joked. "To me, it's the nature of our business. You can't change out all the players. There's different directions going on. There's part of you that understands you're in that business now, but I think the business since I've got here in 1996, it's become even more volatile. It's nothing to see us change out a third of the coaches. We just have to live in that business."
Joked captain David Backes: "I wonder if he's got any of his boxes unpacked yet. Quite the carousel here but I think all the changes seem to be welcomed and obviously ours has been successful. We wish those other sports teams here nothing but the best."
The Blues are 15-5-5 since Hitchcock's arrival, and it seems that Blues general manager Doug Armstrong's call to replace Davis Payne with Hitchcock at the time has moved the Blues into the right direction, particularly in the standings.
"I'm lucky," Hitchcock said. "I've got a strong relationship with Doug. I've got a strong relationship with J.D. (Blues President John Davidson). That to me is the most important part. When you have a good relationship with people, they'll love you. When the storm hits, they'll help you weather it."
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When the Blues went through a plethora of injuries a season ago, it seemed to doom this team even before they hit the ice.
The Blues are dealing with injuries once again this season. Sprinkle in a suspension or two, and it tests the mettle and depth the organization has.
"We've brought in some veteran guys that can not only fill those rolls but keep us on a keel and keep our mentality where we need to be as a group so that we can deal with having an Alex Steen out of the lineup, having Andy McDonald out for an extended period of time, other guys cycling in and out, a suspension here or there," Backes said. "We've just got more tools in our toolbox. We've got more mental toughness learning through those experiences but also having those other guys here helping us through it."
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Not only do the Blues look at January as a place to gain a large quantity of points on home ice but it's a month in which more importantly, they can gain separation from the teams that are below them. Namely teams from ninth place on down.
The Blues currently sit three points ahead of ninth-place San Jose and would like to gain some separation from those teams on the outside looking in.
"That's just as important ... getting a little bit of that cushion," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "When you are playing those teams that you are maybe battling with that are a couple points ahead of you, those games count tremendously but getting that separation from 10-15 may be something that pays off."
The Blues also recognize that the contenders usually make their move at the start of the new calendar year.
"I remember last year watching Vancouver, this is when they went on that ridiculous twenty-whatever and two run," Shattenkirk said. "Having the opportunity to play at home this whole month is something that we need to take advantage of. Once we get on the road here in February and March, it's going to be a lot tougher to win games. If we can get these points here, I think they're going to come in handy at the end of the year."
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Count Hitchcock as someone who is impressed with recently recalled defenseman Cade Fairchild.
Fairchild, on recall from Peoria in the wake of Ian Cole's three-game suspension, will be paired with Roman Polak tonight.
"I talked to three people about him yesterday and he's playing really well," Hitchcock said of Fairchild. "He was good for us when he came in and played. He's played even better. He's grown since then.
"I don't care what level you're at. When you're a smart player and you move the puck as well as he does, that helps a lot. He's such a smart player. He moves the puck. He's got the same skill-set ... maybe not the speed of (Kris) Russell but he's got the same skill-set. We've been able to really take advantage of that type of player. His confidence is at an all-time high right now. I'm curious to see how he looks."
Fairchild, 22, made his NHL debut with the Blues Nov. 29 in Washington.
"Any time you play a first game anywhere, you're kind of nervous and playing with new guys," said Fairchild, who leads the American Hockey League with a plus-21 rating. "You have a new partner but once you play a couple shifts, then you get into it and you don't even realize it anymore. I'm sure it'll be the same tonight. I'm sure I'll be a little bit nervous. Once I play that first shift or first two shifts, I'm sure it'll settle down for me."
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The Blues' lineup tonight against the Coyotes:
David Perron-David Backes-Chris Stewart
Matt D'Agostini-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie
Vladimir Sobotka-Jason Arnott-Jamie Langenbrunner
Evgeny Grachev-Scott Nichol-B.J. Crombeen
Carlo Colaiacovo-Alex Pietrangelo
Barret Jackman-Kevin Shattenkirk
Cade Fairchild-Roman Polak
Jaroslav Halak will get the start tonight; Brian Elliott will back up. Halak is 6-2-2 with a 2.08 GAA at the Scottrade Center after making 33 saves in a 2-1 shootout loss to Nashville on Friday.
The Blues will scratch winger Chris Porter tonight. On injured reserve include forward Andy McDonald (concussion), winger Alex Steen (concussion-related symptoms), winger Ryan Reaves (hip), and defenseman Kent Huskins (ankle). Defenseman Ian Cole will begin his three-game suspension tonight. He will also miss games Thursday against Edmonton and Saturday against Colorado.
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The Coyotes, who won 4-2 in Minnesota Saturday, are in the midst of playing eight of 10 games away from home. Their probable lineup:
Ray Whitney-Daymond Langkow-Shane Doan
Lauri Korpikoski-Cal O'Reilly-Radim Vrbata
Taylor Pyatt-Patrick O'Sullivan-Mikkel Boedker
Marc-Antoine Pouliot-Kyle Chipchura-Paul Bissonnette
Keith Yandle-Adrian Aucoin
Oliver Ekman-Larsson-Michal Roszival
Rostislav Klesla-David Schlemko
Jason LaBarbara is expected to get the start. Top goalie Mike Smith has been skating since Sunday and could return after being placed on injured reserve last week with a groin injury. Coach Dave Tippett was undecided after Tuesday's morning skate but Smith was taken off IR prior to the game Tuesday. Curtis McElhinney was reassigned to Portland of the AHL.
The Coyotes will be without forward Raffi Torres, who was suspended two games without pay Monday for charging Minnesota Wild defenseman Nate Prosser on Saturday. Also missing because of injuries include center Martin Hanzal (upper-body) and forward Boyd Gordon (lower-body). Defenseman David Rundblad, acquired from Ottawa in the Kyle Turris trade and a
former first-round pick of the Blues, will be a healthy scratch, as is veteran defenseman Derek Morris.