By LOU KORAC
ST. LOUIS -- Blues coach Ken Hitchcock addressed the media Tuesday at Scottrade Center in the final press conference of the 2013-14 season.
Hitchcock, who finished his third season with the Blues and 17th overall, addressed a wide variety of issues:
On getting 5-10 percent more from group?
You measure your team based on significant opponents from a coaching standpoint. When you win the games you're supposed to win, that's the preparation that the players do. When you have an opponent that you're either better than, more mature than, you win those games. You've done a good job in not letting points slip, but you measure your team against significant opponents. So teams that are in the same echelon as you, you measure your team against that and then you measure your team in the playoffs. The playoffs tell you everything as a coach. They tell you everything about yourself, they tell you everything about your players, they tell you everything about how close you are, what you need to do better, what you've done well ... they tell you everything. But also the in-season games against significant opponents tell you the same story too. We had a helluva year offensively from a lot of guys, career year. In saying that, everybody's going to talk about the loss in Game 6, and they're going to talk about the loss in Game 6 in Los Angeles and in Chicago. The series wasn't lost in Game 6. Sure, we played our best period of hockey in the whole series in the second period in Chicago, but that wasn't where we lost the series. And it wasn't where we lost the series in Los Angeles. We lost the series in (Games) 3 and 4. When we had the opportunity, we had in both series pushed out significant players who were very frustrated in the opposition. They were pushed out of the series, they weren't entering the series. That bought them time to come into the series in both instances and that's what happened. Players that weren't entered (in) the series or who hadn't entered the series against Chicago, came in in (Games) 5 and 6. We had frustrated them, eliminated them, whatever. They came into the series. We weren't able to create the gap in Games 3 and 4 and win on the road, which you have to do in the playoffs. That's the killer instinct that you need to have. We weren't able to do it in either series, and it hurts. That's everybody's responsibility ... mine, Doug's, players, other coaches, everybody. And that's the part that hurts is that we couldn't apply the killer instinct when we needed to in (Games) 3 and 4 in both years, and that's something you've got to have a hard look at. But it's also the games against significant opponents during the year that you have to look at and obviously other aspects of your game, whether it's special teams or whatever.
Why do you believe the top players haven't been able to execute in the postseason as they have in the regular season?
I don't look at it from top players, blah blah blah, this guy needed to do this, this needed to do that. It's a push, it's a team push. We win as a team and we lose as a team; especially as coaches. I don't want to get into we needed more from this guy or we needed more from that guy. We needed to open the wound. We opened the wound by the way we played. We played really well to start the playoffs and we had our foot on their throat with the way we played in Game 3 and we couldn't squeeze. We couldn't get the goal or we couldn't get when we had them emotionally pushed out even into Game 4, the games in three and four gave them the life that allowed other players who were very frustrated by our checking to enter the series. They ended up coming through at the end for them. We had done a great job, but we couldn't push through and get the goal, get the lead or whatever after playing well. They got more wind in their sails. To me, Game 6 is a little bit of a microcosm of what went on. You push, you push and you push and then they wake up after the second period and they look in their locker room and say, 'Holy smokes, it's still tied here. We might as well go win it.' And then people you have not heard from in the series score big goals. And end of series. It's the collective push for me as a coach. It's not just the playoffs, it's the measure of significant opponents that is the next level for me. That's why you wake up and you grind. You get up and you start grinding. You don't grind on, 'We need this or we need that.' That's the general manager's job. My job is to find more from the group that I'm given. So you find ways and you try to create an atmosphere to even get more from your team. Who's on your team, who plays, what they do. We put two guys that were just learning the game last year, (Jaden) Schwartz and (Vladimir) Tarasenko, they're significant players for us. There's a lot of really great pieces here that have really emerged as good players now, but we've got to help them along and find a way to push through when you're sitting in a series like that. To me, everybody talks about ... you just can't live on playing well. You've got to have time when it's the killer instinct and you've got to put the foot right on the throat. I keep saying that, but when it's time to put it on, you've got to put it on and we didn't. We let two teams, two really good teams ... we let em off the hook. And when they got off the hook, then they started to play and the people that we had boxed out came into the game.
Consider changes in coaching staff?
I look at everything. I look at me to start with, I look at the job that I've done. I look at prep, I look at personnel, I look at the way we play them, I look at coaches, I look at everything. We're in the winning business. I look at everything. I just don't look at it today. I look at it a week from now or I evaluate and I get as much information, but the first thing I look at is me. What do I need to do to help this thing along. It's different. Nothing to take away from other teams in the playoffs, but it's different when you play teams who are Cup winners. You get such an immediate evaluation of your own group that it's really black and white. There is no gray area, there's no hiding, there's no mystique, no nothing. It's just straight black and white. You get a great evaluation. Unfortunately we've got these two great evaluations based on significant opponents. ... When you get a couple teams in the prime of their careers who know how to win, you really have to push them out because if you just push them up to the wall and you don't get them through, they're going to come back on and that's what both teams did. What was eerily similar wasn't the scores of the games, but the players that were frustrated in L.A. and came back to beat us and then the players that were really frustrated in Chicago and then came back to beat us, that was what was similar to me. We had done a great job in pushing people out that we thought maybe we could take advantage of or at least neutralize but they came back in the series. We allowed them back in and they became players in the series.
Are you comfortable with your group being able to step up?
We had (111) points and what we did really well all year quite frankly was we had the lead a lot and we are really tough with the lead. Nobody gets in our pocket when we've got the lead. We know how to play. We've got great structure. Guys buy in, all that stuff. But we're like a lot of teams emerging here trying to get better. You need to have a different type of team to chase games and that's not how we're build, to chase hockey games. We're built to close you down and close you down hard. We're built a certain way here and we've got personnel here to do it that way. The 1-0 game is a perfect microcosm of the playoffs for me for two years now. You chase it so hard, but if we had a 1-0 lead and had them chase us, it would be a different story.
Power play opinion change after postseason failure?
I think when you look at it on paper, you say, 'Oh jeez, if we could have scored here, if we could have scored there.' The game (Game 6) was tied going into the third period on the road. I don't care what the score was, 1-1, 2-2, 4-4, doesn't matter. Where we made mistakes when the game was on the line, we made mistakes defensively and like I said, Game 6 doesn't matter what the score is, it's tied and if you're a road team, that's exactly where you want it. That chance, that opportunity and yeah, we would have liked to score on the power play and we would have liked to be better and all that stuff, but at the end of the day, we made two big errors to give it to 3-1, and 3-1 was ... the fourth and fifth goals don't matter to me. They don't count. We were pressing taking chances. But we made two big errors when the game was on the line. We made a checking error in Game 5 here when the game was on the line. That's a concern. That's the questions that you ask of your players. Why are we pressing in that area? What are we thinking? Those are the questions that we've got to look at the video and live with all summer because those are the critical points of games. Those are the details that have been in our game for three years now that have given us a chance to have a great record. Those checking details have allowed our offense to get better and better, but I thought yeah, our power play could have been better. We would have liked to score goals, but even saying that, we needed to check better in some areas, too.
Do you plan to stick with what you've done on PP?
I'm not there right now. I haven't started figuring out stuff like that yet. Not there yet.
Talking about Games 3 and 4, how much of a watershed moment as it turned out was losing Backes?
Everybody loses guys. I saw things from some of their key players. I knew how hurt they were because I saw them and have coached them before. When they were jumping out of the way like they were jumping out of the way, they were banged up. They had players who were almost down for the count, too. That's just the way it goes. That's the playoffs.
What's the process now for you?
I need to process. I need to, no offense, but get away from you (media) folks. I need to process and figure out. I think moving forward I'll go over all the significant games from the season. I'll look at all of our games against Anaheim, Los Angeles and Chicago, San Jose, get some real evaluation on that, then obviously look at the playoff stuff, too. Those would be the games I'd look at and see what's there and what we need to change, things like that. I think you have to be careful evaluating one aspect. I think you've got to be careful when you evaluate one aspect of your game because there's a whole encompassing thing. Just because your power play has a tough two or three games, you still have to win the game. Maybe your PK is had a rough go for a game, you still have to win the hockey game. There's all the pick-me-ups that go, but I think once you look at the way you've played against significant opponents, you get a really good evaluation of what part you need to help along.
Is a killer instinct something that comes from within? What can coaches do to help in that regard?
No, it's developed. ... Yeah. Yep there is. It means sometimes it's not pretty at times, but you can do that. That's developed. That's not God-given. That's developed from within your group.
Starts to games?
That goes to the killer part. There's a reason for that. We need to talk about that, too. If you're going to start the fight, you need to know you can finish it. That's just the confidence that goes within the group that has to come from us. It's really, really important that we develop that mindset. That just enhances your team that you're willing to go a little bit deeper. It's that killer instinct. If you look at just some of the games from series even last night, a game's on the line in one of the series late last night and it's the same four guys that step up. We've got to develop that mindset with guys that we think can make a difference, give them the trust and confidence that they can do that stuff.
Mutual option on contract, level of coaching?
You mean am I too old? I love living here, I love working here, I love working with Doug. That's something he and I will talk about. We've made a home here. We've made significant progress here. I know it doesn't feel like progress to people right now, but it is. I've only been here three years. I see the progress, I know the debris of years of getting close and being frustrated and then building it. I see the level of improvement here. It's incredible. I see the level some of the younger players have improved at. I know Doug wants to bring in a couple more, which is great with us. If they think they're ready, then it's our job to get them playing and up and running just like we did with Schwartzy and Vlad. But there's a real high level of commitment here by the fans and by the players. We've just got to help it along and enhance it, improve it. It's really tough, it's really tough to go through what you're going through right now, but you just from an evaluation standpoint, you get just a true evaluation of ... there's no gray area. It is what it is. It's tough to go through, but there's just no gray area on evaluation now. I know exactly what's needed from a play standpoint. We've just got to find a way to move it forward.
Curse of Scotty Bowman (last time Blues made finals)?
I don't think so. We're one of the eight now by tomorrow that are out and we're one of those teams trying. The one thing you realize though, as you're watching this thing, this division's going to be harder and harder because of what Dallas did, obviously Chicago's a top dog, we're a good team, Winnipeg had a big run at the end. I mean, this division's going to be incredible. Look at Colorado, they're right there. This is going to be one helluva division. You're going to have to be really on top of your game right from Day 1. There's going to be significant opponents right off the bat.
Glaring difference in team's game in critical areas on the ice?
To me, it's when you've got your foot on the throat, step. That's what we've got to do. I don't know any other way to describe it. However the play is, you've got to step on it. When you're in a position like we've done like this year, playing well enough and then saying, 'We played great but we didn't win,' we out-chanced them, it's all window dressing right now for the end result. End result is we've got to go further, further in every aspect of your game; further in checking, further on special teams, further on scoring. You've just got to go further. It's hard to do, but you've got to do it. You can add 10 pieces to a hockey club, but you have to have commitment to go further, and those are the hard conversations you have to have. Those are the hard things you have to do.
Is it hard to understand why they don't step when an opponent is down?
No, that's not hard to understand. It's a learning skill.
Is your evaluation of these guys clear?
You get a great evaluation on everybody, your team game and your individual play when you play significant opponents. It's not just based on playoffs. It's significant opponents. So when you play top dogs, you really get a good evaluation of what you have. We know what we have. Doug knows what we have. It's our job to just keep grinding and to keep getting ourselves better and better. Our team's a lot better team this year than we were last year. We're a lot better, a lot better in a lot of aspects. But there's still some big dogs out there. They've gone through the same stuff we did. This was the same stuff you hear from Chicago or you hear three years in L.A. They've gone through that stuff. I just don't want to get into ... I know what you've got to ask. It's not my job right now. I'm trying to explain to people don't get lost in losing Game 6. That wasn't Game 6 in my opinion. It was before that. That's more the similarities. We can't dismiss that or write that off. They've got to learn from it. Those are the tough things you go through your leadership you've got to figure out.