Blues head into another offseason after regular season
success, searching for new answers after early playoff exit
By LOUIE KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- The evolution of a franchise at times can be determined by the intestinal fortitude one must go through before breaking down the door to success.
Playoff failure is never an easy process, especially for a group like the Blues, who have had successful regular seasons two years running, but to see that success come to a crashing halt in the postseason -- both at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings.
With a core group of players in place for the Blues, Sunday's day to clean out the lockers brought forth another reminder how close the Blues are, yet they're still so far away.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock (top) said if the Blues are to take the necessary
steps moving forward, the teams needs 10 percent more across the board.
Instead of preparing for a Game 7 winner-take-all contest against the Kings, coach Ken Hitchcock and his players were instead cleaning out their belongings and heading to their summer destinations in the spring.
"It's not good," Hitchcock said. "It's like the players. Got a bad feeling in the stomach."
Just like they were taken down in four games in last year's Western Conference Semifinals, the Blues were once again cast aside by the Kings, this time in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals after winning the first two games. The Kings stormed back and won the next four, giving the Blues the franchise's first playoff series loss when winning the first two games of a series (10-1).
"When you've become a good team like we've got here right now, we've got a good team," Hitchcock said. "To not see the players benefit from that is disappointing. You want to see them have success for all the work they've put in. We've gone from an average hockey club that had a great year last year, where every dance went the right way, every shot hit the post who fought to become a very unified group. To be this close and not get that last gear is disappointing.
"So we've got to go and rework it and figure out the five percent that needs to change just like L.A. did four years ago ... we've got to figure that out. But I'm disappointed because we were right there. Part of it's exciting, but it doesn't feel exciting right now. It feels like it's really disappointing."
The series with the Kings was so close, each game was determined by one goal. In fact, aside from the 5 minutes, 1 second the Blues led by two goals in the series, the teams were either separated by a goal or games were tied for 376:25.
"To see the type of team that they have and we were really close, very frustrating," Blues winger David Perron said. "I think they were better than us obviously to win four in a row. We've just got to find a way to score more goals.
"There's only one team that's only going to win out there in the end, and they won the Cup last year, so they know how to win. I think we made a lot of ground this year in a lot of ways. We are a team that's in a way growing in the playoff experience. It's good to see that we can play with them and we had a real good series against them, but in the end, they were a better team and they found a way. It seemed like we pushed them really hard, but like Hitch said, they didn't break, they just recovered every time. That's something that hopefully we'll experience going forward."
The Blues were plagued by a goal scoring deficiency, scoring 10 times in six games on 177 shots on goal, but it was the number of shots that missed the net (101) in six games that was the alarming -- yet a consistent trait one doesn't want -- that has those scratching their heads considering the Blues lost four one-goal games.
The effort was there, the determination was there, the defensive and goaltending -- for the most part -- was there in terms of being enough to win, but when push came to shove, when the Blues pushed, the Kings responded. When the Kings pushed, the Blues resisted to a certain degree but didn't respond in ways to overcome the Kings' desperation.
"The necessary commitment, we did OK, but moving forward, I think the area we need to address having experience in this before is in the five or 10 percent that we need to change across the board is, 'What do I need to do to make myself a better player in the offseason; not better athlete?,'" Hitchcock said. "This is in the area of the little bit that needs to change here to get to the next level is what little things can I do to make myself a better player. Those are things that I don't want to address right now. I'd like to spend some time to think about it over the next couple weeks and talk to the players about that because we have a really good thing going here right now. We have a lot of buy-in, we have a very strong core group of leadership that really cares and is committed, but we've got to find a way to play better in critical space. That's from a playing standpoint. Just from an execution-playing standpoint, we need to be better.
"We missed the net a lot under confrontation. We made a few mistakes that are correctable mistakes in the offseason in execution. Most of the stuff that I'd like to see us improve is in execution stuff that can take place in the offseason."
In a game of execution from their best players, this is where the Kings really stood out. They simply got more in terms of production from the Anze Kopitars, the Jeff Carters, the Justin Williams', the Mike Richards', and of course from their captain Dustin Brown. They combined for 17 points in six games, compared to the 13 points the Blues got from their core group of Alexander Steen, David Backes, Andy McDonald, Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Perron.
"From some guys I would," Hitchcock said when asked if more could have been had from some of his top players. "Playoffs is a different animal. I think in the regular season, we are what we are. I think we were middle of the pack or whatever. But the playoffs is a fight for space, not look for space game. I think we had some players that have to learn to fight for space. When you go into the playoffs looking for space, it isn't there, especially against championship teams. It's a harder, truer evaluation when you draw L.A. I'm watching other series, I watched last night, I watched other series in the West ... it's a different animal than the one we just played in. There is no space on the ice where we played. But at the end of the day, does it really matter if you lost in the first round or the third round when you lose to the people that know how to win. That's what I mean.
"We really bent (the Kings) in a big way. We never even creased them last year. We never came close to pushing them out of stuff. We had them bent, but we never pushed them out. That's the little bit of fight for space I'm talking about. Those are the scoring areas that collectively we have to address with people to get better at. Execution, under fire in close quarters. I think we can address that in the offseason and hope to challenge the players to do that better."
But instead of reflecting on a quick exit from the postseason yet again, Hitchcock would rather reflect on the overall picture, and that is the Blues had the sixth-best record in the NHL this past season (29-17-2, good for 60 points) and albeit baby steps were taken again, there was progress.
"You do an injustice to this group if you do not evaluate this on the season," Hitchcock said. "This is a full season of hockey. To write off the playoffs and to just say it was not good is really not fair to this team. What I mean by that is that when you evaluate your team, you evaluate the season. The playoffs are part of the season. We came and we started off the season very cocky and almost arrogant and we got smashed hard, and then we really regrouped. We came and really developed a long-term bond of accountability, which I think is really important moving forward. We had all the momentum going into the playoffs, but we ran into a team that quite frankly knows how to win at this time of year. We got close, but not good enough, so I'm disappointed. But I'm not losing any evaluation of what took place during the regular season because you have to pay a very healthy respect to that because that's part of your season and that's a big part of your season."
So looking at the overall picture of the playoff series with the Kings, if the Blues were able to get good play despite not getting the necessary result, what needs to be done to get it to the point of good play equals expected results?
"What we have to convince the players of is the 10 percent more that's needed is 10 percent from everybody," Hitchcock said. "Not from this guy or change out that guy or all that crap that goes on ... oh, we'll just add to this mix. That isn't happening. We forged an identity here, this is the way we play, this is winning hockey, this is in-your-face, winning hockey, this is the way we play and can we get 10 percent more across the board because that's what championship teams do. They look in the mirror and they decide which way 10 percent can come from, and every player has to sign off on doing that, and I think we can get that from this group.
"Hard to criticize the way we played, but we didn't get value for it. I'm not disappointed for us, coaches or management. I'm disappointed for the players because the feeling in the locker room was we poured so much into it, we didn't get out (of it) what we want what we felt we poured in."
There have already been outcries from fans clamoring for a proven goal scorer or two, which is only natural in a situation when the results are in black and white. But with the Blues' financial stability not in a position to go out and spend gobs of cash it doesn't have on free agents, any change will likely come through trade or in this case, get more from the guys that Hitchcock calls "home grown players." That list includes some of the aforementioned players drafted by this franchise. And those players will need to give more than the expected 10 percent across the board.
"Yeah, I think that's where we're talking from," Hitchcock said. "The guys that have been here for a little while, there's a steeliness that comes ... you either go up or down when you go through this stuff. There's a steeliness that's here hopefully that we're going to find out because when you demand more from people, you either go up or down, so it means we're going to find out. We're going to find out because I believe it's in these players, I believe they've gone through the really tough times. They're starting to see light at the end of the tunnel; doesn't feel like light right now today, but they will in a couple weeks. I think there's going to be an excitement level, but then once the excitement wears off and the coach says, 'OK, this is what you need to do in the offseason,' it's not going to be comfortable. And then whether they do it or not is going to determine whether we get to the next level, but it's not going to be comfortable for some guys what we're asking them to do. But it's necessary if you want to get to the next level."
Some may not agree or want to hear it, but that's why Hitchcock believes the difference already is in the present locker room.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' T.J. Oshie (74) is one of the players coach Ken Hitchcock calls
"home grown players" that need to give more for future success.
"I think it's here, but it's convincing players ... there's a big difference in looking for space and fighting for space," Hitchcock said. "I think it's here, but I think we have to teach players that it isn't just the words we ask, it's how to get the players to understand the overall commitment to get that next level going here. You end up changing out a player, and then he goes and becomes a good player on another team. It's because those players figure it out. I think we've got a lot of guys who are more than receptive to try and figure this out. If we wouldn't have had the last two months that we had, I would have said, 'Oh boy.' But I watched us come together in the last two months and I liked what I saw.
"I'm just really disappointed for the players right now because after forging a bond that was necessary to become a good team, we didn't benefit from forging the bond like I thought we could have. That's kudos to L.A. They're a helluva team. There's a reason they won the Cup. They're a helluva team. In the prime of their career, they're a helluva team. I just feel from our standpoint it's still in us, but the next level that we're going to ask is going to be some interesting conversations."
Everyone from management to coaches to players will take the next couple weeks and rethink some things, then implement a course of action moving forward.
"I told the players that I would like some time," Hitchcock said. "I don't feel like I'm in a position. I think it's really raw for us as coaches right now. The disappointment is real. We are asking for two or three weeks and then we'll contact the players individually rather than just have the blase meetings with the same words.
"I think we'd like to put a lot of thought into this and that 10 percent that we're going to demand of everybody. We would like to have an action plan for everyone individually to move forward and we would like some time to evaluate what it is exactly and we'd like to contact some outside sources to help them and give them an action plan and hopefully they grab it and run with it."