Sunday, July 21, 2013

Hitchcock eager to see new-look, deeper Blues get going

Coach discusses changes to roster
heading into 2013-14, feels like team is better

By LOUIE KORAC
HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Before be returned to St. Louis last week to take part in the organization's youth hockey camp, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who admittedly loves his history, was in Europe to take in the sights of years past.

Hitchcock, who is a fan favorite of all things history involving President Abraham Lincoln, spent 12 days touring Germany seeing everything from where concentration camps were, to torture chambers from back in the days of the World War I and so forth.

A group of reporters sat down with the 61-year-old Hitchcock and talked about his time away from the United States and hockey to getting back and looking ahead. Here is a taste of what the Blues coach had to say, beginning with a sample of his time in Germany:
Blues coach Ken Hitchcock

It was great. It was really a new experience. When you travel and you do it all on your own, you get a lot of confidence. ... It was like planes, trains and automobiles everywhere. It was learning how to book trains and learning how to find places and cities, finding the right way to go and view the historical sites, whether it was on the buses or on the boats or walking tours. It was really good. There were some walking tours that were three- and four-hour deals where you're going up mountains to churches and castles and all that stuff. It was really a great experience. It was really interesting because we started the history part of it in the 1500's and then we ended up taking it right into 1990 where we were in cities that were just learning how to act as North American cities like Krakow, there was just a youthful explosion in Krakow that's going on now because it was a communist city or other German cities that were communist that are just learning how to operate, it was really neat. I went into a city called Rothenburg, (where) time stood still in this city. If you go anywhere in Germany ... the city got stuck in the 1500's and never left. The black plague went in and basically killed off everybody so the city stood still for a couple hundred years. Nobody moved in, and it was really interesting because it was a historical city and the Americans, when they came in, The American general and the German general made a deal that they wouldn't blow it up if the Germans put down their arms. To save the city, they both cooperated, so this beautiful medieval city that's built in the 1400's, 1600's is all conserved all down to the minute detail. The Americans never bombed (it). They torched like 20 percent of the city and all the churches and all the town halls and everything in this city were saved ... it was pretty neat. It's quite the historical tour.

It was quick. We landed in Berlin, two days later picked up the car in Leipzig ... we did Leipzig, Dresden, Krakow, Auschwitz, Salzburg, Nuremburg, Rothenburg ... a lot. It was a lot.

On getting back:
We've met as a staff at the end of the season and we each had areas to look at, and then we re-met at the draft. So as the draft was going on, we had our own coaches meetings and then everybody was given specific areas and then we're going to reconvene and start as a staff on Aug. 19th and then get ready to go.

On recent moves the Blues have made:
We've done a lot of good stuff here. There's a lot of build-up to where we're at right now. I think with the changes that (general manager) Doug (Armstrong's) made, we've got a good team. We've got a really good team coming back. All you're looking for is a fighting chance, and we have a fighting chance. I think all of us recognize that there's teams in the West that have improved. Some from the playoffs who were in it already have improved and some from outside have improved, but I think we have, too. I think with the guys we've resigned and the guys that we've added, we're deep. So all you're looking for at the start of the season is to know you've got a legitimate chance and then let the process begin.

On Derek Roy, Magnus Paajarvi, Jordan Leopold and Jaroslav Halak (there's even an English reference in the excerpt below):
We're banking on a comeback from a guy like Derek Roy getting back to where he was two years ago, and then we're banking on chemistry with Paajarvi. I think the signing of (Jordan) Leopold is a big signing for us. I've been very impressed with Jaro and the change that he's made in addressing a strengthening issue and a fitness issue so that he can remain healthy. I think we're like everybody else. We're pretty bloody excited where we're at right now. We just think that we're in that window that we really want to take advantage of here in the next few years.

More on Derek Roy, who Hitchcock coached in 2008 at the World Championships for Canada as well as Hitchcock's thoughts on line pairings:
I had him in the World Championships when it was a small game, a small-ice game. It was played in Canada. It was in Halifax (Nova Scotia) and it was in Quebec City. He was in an NHL building and that's when the teams were loaded. Everybody had great teams, we had a great team. It was a year before the Olympics so everybody were loading up their teams to see what they had. He came in as like the 13th forward and left as the third forward. I used him as a left winger and I used him as a center iceman. I ended up playing him with (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Sharp. Sometimes Toews was on the left side, sometimes Roy was in the middle, but he was really a competitive guy. He's not big, but he's really smart. He's really smart defensively and he's really patient with the puck offensively. It's a different player than what we have here. We have flexibility where we can go three big centers and one smaller guy or we can do two and two depending on how we play Sobe (Vladimir Sobotka). Sobe's not a big guy, but he plays like a big guy. We can go Lappy (Maxim Lapierre), we can go Bergy (Patrik Berglund), we can go (David) Backes and then we can go Roy ... we've got flexibility. But we've got flexibility all through our lineup. We've got a lot of guys that can play center, we've got a lot of guys that can play wing. In the first 10 days of training camp, we're going to figure it out where guys fit best.

We have some ideas. We'd certainly like to see if ... we're comfortable with twosomes wanting to see threesomes. We're comfortable with some twosomes. We really want to see (Chris) Stewart play with Roy, we really want to continue down the (Alex) Steen-Backes train, we want to keep that going. We want to see Berglund play with Paajarvi, we want that to keep going. We have combinations that we want to see, and then it's where does Osh (T.J. Oshie) fit, where does (Vladimir) Tarasenko fit, where does (Jaden) Schwartz fit best. But we've got some twosomes that are alive and kicking that we really are going to focus on and see where it fits from there. The one thing I would say is that with Steen and Backes, there's going to be an interchange. It doesn't matter for me who starts as the center, but I think you're going to see more interchange with those two guys playing together than ever before ... meaning Backes might be at center sometimes and Steen might be at center sometimes depending on who starts with the faceoff and things like that. I think we want to continue down the path of those two playing together.

On what's intriguing about Stewart and Roy together:
With Derek Roy and Stewart, we feel like that Stewart's a guy that gets open in the scoring areas and we feel like Derek Roy's a guy that has patience to find people like that. That's his strength. That's when he was getting big numbers in Buffalo (playing with Thomas Vanek), he was that type of guy that had patience and bought time and made plays that a lot of people can't make.

On if Roy can get back to where he was two years ago in Buffalo:
(Roy) has an edge to him. He can really play with an edge and he can really compete in small spaces for a small guy. That's what we need back. Rather than looking to score, what we need him to do is play back where he played with a real edge. He can really play feisty and nasty at times for a small guy. That's when he's really effective. That's what we want to see from him back again is getting back to that level where he really (is) effective there. For a play-making guy, he has some real grit to him. That's what I found out when I had him in the World Championships. ... He was kind of there as an extra player and worked his way onto the top line.

On what Hitchcock's input was in trade that sent David Perron to Edmonton for Paajarvi:
This goes back a long way with Doug and I. This goes back into the Dallas days. My preference is, 'Don't tell me who you're getting rid of.' I get it where he's moving a guy out, but I don't want to dwell on that. What I like to do is be able to tell the general manager when he says, 'This is the guy we're thinking of bringing in,' then I take real pride in going in and looking at every aspect of his game, and contacting people who know him very well personally. I do my homework on that, and I use a lot of people to get the right information and then I bring that information back to Doug on where I see him fitting on our team. I don't like to compare a player to an existing player because if the deal never goes through, then you feel like you're coaching a player that might not be there. I don't like to get into that at all. All Doug said was, 'We're thinking about getting this player, Paajarvi. Where does he fit?' Or he said, 'We're thinking about resigning Jordan Leopold, where does he fit?' And then that's when we do our work. I had a lot of people personally that knew Paajarvi, both in Sweden and in Edmonton, and then I watched all of his games against teams similar to us. I wanted to see Magnus ... first of all, I knew how well he played in the last 20 games. When he played with (Sam) Gagner, I knew how well he played. I watched that closely, but I wanted to see how he played against San Jose, LA and ourselves. Those were the games I focused on. ... That's the information and then I gave Doug that information, and then he did his thing from there. It was the same with Derek Roy. All I watched with Derek was from the time he went to Vancouver. I didn't watch anything that he did in Dallas because Vancouver played a similar game to us, and I wanted to see how he played in the playoffs, the role that he was played in. He was used as a multi-purpose player in Vancouver. He was centering the second line, he was running the half-wall on the power play, he was out late in games as a second center iceman ... so I knew the role that he had in Vancouver, so the whole focus was on nothing but Vancouver and the way he played there.

What's it like to coach against Lapierre:
He was a guy you circled and just said he's a reckless player. I don't know why, but I thought in the playoffs ... I just finished watching all of his shifts (Thursday). He played a very smart, positionally sound game but conservative. He looked like he was going get caught with something. He looked like a guy that was one step away from getting suspended, if you know what I mean. He played conservative ... he played cautious, cautious positional hockey because they had him playing with a lot of new players, players that hadn't been there before. He played with (Steve) Pinizzotto, he played with a number of different players. But (then-Canucks coach) Alain (Vigneault) really trusted him because he played him late in games, even in the playoffs when the games were tied. The way we are with the forwards that he's going to play with, it's a good fit because somebody's going to have to back up the reckless play that's going to be there because that line plays its best when it's reckless and somebody's going to have to be able to back up that reckless play. I think he's going to be a good fit for us, whether it's a (Chris) Porter or it's an (Adam) Cracknell or with Revo (Ryan Reaves) or whatever, you're going to have a hard-charging line there and somebody's going to have to back that up. I think he's a good fit for us, but we're going to turn him loose to where he was two years ago a little bit more. So he's going to be able to play with a more physical edge just based on personnel. Who he played with in Vancouver, it's a different fit with us. It's going to be a different fit because the times he did play reckless was when he played with (Dale) Weise and (Christopher) Higgins. That's the type of line that we're going to end up having to play with here.

On what stands out with Paajarvi that can complement what the Blues have:
He looks like a player that's just starting to take his career seriously. He's getting back from relying on just on his athletic ability and now he's starting to play with an identity. For me, the last 20 games when he played with Gagner ... what he did was, he play with Gagner against top players, and then he played with Gagner killing penalties. So they found this third-line identity for that line, and then he really started to play. His scoring chances didn't diminish. His scoring chances increased because he was getting more odd-man rushes and he started to play with an edge. That's the area we want him to carry forward. The way he played in the last 20 games is what we're going to expect from him.

How can Paajarvi complement Berglund?
Him and Berglund had great chemistry together, two big guys that hung onto the puck. It's a month-long competition so how do you know? But all I know is the two guys held onto the puck. Nobody could get the puck away from them and they were hard guys to play against. You've got two 6-foot-4 guys out there grabbing the puck and hanging onto it. They're hard to play against. To me, Magnus is just starting to understand what it takes to play as a good player in the National Hockey League. I think he's just starting to become serious about his craft and that's a good thing for us.

On his relationship with Perron:
I really liked him personally. Him and I had a good relationship because I really respected the fact that he was coming back from a significant injury. I understood the difficulties that he was going through personally on coming back from that injury. I really felt like he was a guy that when you had him on the ice, you were one step away from scoring a goal all the time because he was a dangerous player offensively, so the other team was always on edge against him. I get the business of hockey, I understand the business of hockey ... why you have to do that stuff. I don't look at top-skill players as anything else than there's a risk with those players, and as long as they're working hard and competing, then the risk is worth it. The times when I was disappointed in him were the times when he stopped playing reckless and he started to play careful. When he played careful or tried to play and put the skill in ahead of the work, he knew that the coaching staff wasn't going to be happy with him. But when he put the work in ahead of the skill, I was happy. I know he didn't get points last year, but he was in on a lot of scoring chances in the LA series. He's a good player. The gamble that you take is that, for us ... Paajarvi is three years younger and is an improving player. We think he's an improving player that's going to get better and with our team and the way we play, we think he's a great fit. There's no denying that David is an offensive player with a lot of thrust. We'll see over time here.

We're getting a good player who's growing up ... hopefully, Edmonton's getting a good player who's going to be a threat to score all the time. But with us, one of the things we have going for us is we think we've got two players in Schwartz and Tarasenko who, given those minutes, can really do a lot of damage. We feel like, for instance with Schwartz, when you get that many scoring chances in a game like he gets because of his work and determination, he's going to be a great asset. And we think Tarasenko with a year under his belt, understanding the physical commitment that it takes off the ice, on the ice, living style, lifestyle, being more comfortable in the NHL, we think the sky's the limit for Vladi. ... He's in great shape. He's figuring it out. We've got to make room for those guys. We've got to make room for those guys to give them an opportunity. Schwartz never played on the power play, so this year he's going to get a chance to play on the power play. Tarasenko played on the second unit on the power play. Well this time, he's bumped up. He's going to play on the top unit, or get a real chance to play on the top unit. Tarasenko's going to be back playing the position on the power play that he played in Europe. With the way we're structured and especially with Derek Roy and stuff like that, we have a chance to run the power play on the side of the ice that Vladi's more comfortable on. We're basically trading a right shot player for two left shots who are going to absorb the ice time that David had on 5-on-4 situations.

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