Thursday, September 12, 2013

Blues set to open training camp with lofty expectations

Team enters 2013-14 season confident it
can compete for franchise's first Stanley Cup

ST. LOUIS -- When Ken Hitchcock stood at the podium moments after his team had just been eliminated by the Los Angeles Kings in the postseason for the second straight season with four straight losses in which his team felt dumbfounded by what had transpired, he was asked what he would say to them.

The Blues, who felt like they had outplayed the Kings in the majority of aspects but were beaten by 1) a hot goaltender in Jonathan Quick and 2) timely goals -- or in the Blues' case lack there of, were left to wonder what more could they have done.

(Getty Images)
David Backes and the rest of the Blues open training
camp today at Scottrade Center.
Hitchcock, a veteran bench boss with direct knowledge of how to not only win in the postseason but win it all (in 1999 with the Dallas Stars), saw the fight, saw the determination, saw the effort, saw the compete from his team. What he didn't see were the necessary and pertinent results.

"What (I told) them is it's not good enough," Hitchcock said after a 2-1 Game 6 loss in Los Angeles that eliminated the Blues four games to two. "If you want to be a champion, it's not good enough.

"... You're going to have to find a way. We're a pretty hungry group here from management to coaches to put a championship team together and it's not good enough. ... I hope when our players reflect upon it are really, really pissed off and disappointed in the opportunity that we missed here because ... we took everything to the beach, but we didn't finish putting it in the water."

Now that the players have had the summer to reflect, most of them are back, and the Blues begin that quest once again for the elusive top prize of a Stanley Cup when training camp begins today at noon at Scottrade Center (free and open to the public).

There will be 50 players -- with one notable exception -- that will begin the quest of pushing the Blues up the ladder and in their eyes, to the top of the mountain.

Most of the roster from last season is still in tact minus a few exceptions, notably David Perron and Kris Russell, who were traded to Edmonton and Calgary, respectively. Also, veteran Andy McDonald retired and reducing the experience level a bit. There are some new additions, with the signings of free agent centers Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre leading the way as well as talented left wing Magnus Paajarvi, who came to the Blues in the Perron trade.

Most of the players, minus Alex Pietrangelo, have been in St. Louis for the last couple weeks. They've been training and working out together leading up to camp, and with a short turnaround for the first preseason game Sunday in Dallas, the belief is the Blues are hungrier than ever to win a championship.

"I think we're closer now with the addition of a (Jordan) Leopold and a (Jay) Bouwmeester for a training camp and a full season," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said. "I think we're closer with the additions of a different style of player in a Derek Roy. I believe the core group coming back wants to win. I was disappointed that we didn't fulfill something that was in our grasp (last season) and myself, Ken and ultimately the players will feel the same way and they'll do whatever they can not to have that feeling again next April, May or June."

The Blues already have a hurdle to overcome before officially hitting the ice, and that's the absence of Pietrangelo, a restricted free agent who has yet to come to terms on a new contract.

Armstrong told a media throng on Wednesday that he made a strong offer Tuesday night in hopes of getting Pietrangelo into camp on time but that's not going to be the case, so the Blues will begin camp without him with no end to the contract dispute in sight as Armstrong and Pietrangelo's agent, the experienced Don Meehan, slug it out off-ice trying to find common ground.

"Our focus has to be on the players that are here and the coaches that are here, but Alex is a restricted free agent and we'll continue to have dialogue when either side believes there's something that can be accomplished," Armstrong said. "There's no set timetables on these things. It's disappointing that he's not here, but it doesn't change my affection for Alex as a player and as a person. I think he's a quality young man. I think that he's a quality player, but economically, we couldn't come to common ground. From my perspective, it doesn't make him a bad guy and hopefully from his perspective, it doesn't make us a bad team.

"There's ebbs and flows. You feel you're getting traction, you feel that, 'You know what, today's the day.' I'm sure Alex felt the same way I did. He was hoping that yesterday was going to be the day. I felt good that maybe yesterday was going to be the day, that training camp has such great importance for the team that's trying to accomplish something special. It wasn't the day. ... We're not at a lot point in this franchise's history with him not being here today. He's not here. We move forward. When he gets here, we're happy."

(Getty Images)
Kevin Shattenkirk enters a new season with a four-
year contract in hand and higher expectations.
The season will be the third for Hitchcock but a rarity, it will be his first training camp. Hitchcock was brought in a month into the 2011-12 season when Davis Payne was fired, and last season, there was no training camp for anyone after the lengthy lockout that wiped out nearly half the season.

"Ken is going to get to put his stamp on what he's expecting from the season starting (today)," Armstrong said. "I think that's very important."

The Blues, one of the top teams in the Western Conference the last couple seasons, will once again have lofty expectations placed upon them. Whether they fulfill those expectations or not is up to the core group that has been in tact since the team drafted those players. With the addition of the proper pieces to fill the voids, the Blues feel like they are complete in all aspects.

"We talk about our team right now that is ... when I say it's a big year, it's a year where we should believe and be comfortable believing we can walk into any building and walk away with two points and we have as much right to compete for a championship as any other team," Armstrong said. "I don't think I could say that with 100 percent confidence in a year prior to this year, but this is the year that I really feel we should be viewing ourselves as a team that should compete for the championship. Are we the favorites? I don't know. Do other people view us that way? I don't know. That's the way I view us and that's what we want to impress upon our players. ... You only get so many opportunities to play on a team that believes they can win and I think we have that now."

Added Leopold, who was acquired late last season and resigned in the off-season: "Expectations are high, and they should be. We have a really good team. You look at our d-core, when we sign Petro, we have arguably one of the better d-cores in the league. Every team I've been on, you normally build your team from your goalie and defense on out. Of course we didn't score goals last year when we needed to, but it'll come. It's all a learning experience. ... Hopefully it's a driving passion to get you there again."

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