Saturday, January 1, 2011

One year later, Davis Payne moving Blues in right direction

St. Louis has gone 43-27-9 since
replacing Andy Murray a year ago today

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- Before he was handed the keys to the Blues' bench one year ago today, Davis Payne was making a name for himself guiding a pair of teams in the Blues' system.

Payne was quietly moving up the ranks.

Maybe quietly around the rest of the National Hockey League, but Blues management knew what they had.

And as he was guiding the Blues' East Coast Hockey League squad in Alaska with the Aces and then the Peoria Rivermen of the American Hockey League, Payne was building up an impressive coaching resume that includes over 300 wins in the two leagues.

There was one glaring difference from where he was then and where he sits today.

"(When) I started as a head coach, I was on my own for the first six or seven years and now all of the sudden you get an assistant, let alone three," Payne said Saturday.

When the Blues take on the Dallas Stars today at 5 p.m., it will be the one-year anniversary of Payne being named the successor for Andy Murray, who was fired after the Blues' New Year's Eve collapse against the Vancouver Canucks, a game which they blew a 3-0 third-period lead and lost 4-3 in overtime.

The Blues were 17-17-6 at the time of Murray's ouster and instead of going after a known commodity, the Blues entrusted the franchise to a man who had no previous track record in the league, one some around the league knew very little about.

But the Blues responded immediately to Payne, who is the second-youngest coach in the league. They finished last season 23-15-4 and are 43-27-9 since, including 20-12-5 this season.

"It's been a pretty good year," defenseman Roman Polak said. "He tries to push you every day and in practice. He's a good coach and doing a great job. You can see it on the ice, too."

Today will be Payne's 80th game behind the bench, and for the 23rd head coach in franchise history, it's somewhat of a blur.

"It's been a pretty quick one. I will say that, things have moved pretty fast," Payne said. "What you take the most enjoyment out of it is where we've come from in a year as a team, and what we've come through and how we understand that we need to play. Guys believe in that, they believe in how we're going to do this, they believe in each other and that to me, you take a great deal of pride in that these guys are going to work for each other. You can see we're right there when we play our kind of hockey the right away, we can compete against anybody. We intend to continue to do that."

The Blues are learning that Payne demands his players to play 200 feet of ice for a full 60 minutes, relentless pressure at both ends and play with a team structure that works hard.

"The type of game that he wants us to play, we've been playing," forward Brad Boyes said. "I think the identity has been there. We're a simple, hard-working team, responsible defensively and don't give up too much. That's the way we've been playing.

"There's some similarities to Andy (Murray). It wasn't totally a brand new system or change or anything like that. We were able to make a fairly easy transition. It's been good, and since then, we've had some good stretches, some good runs and we're in a good spot now."

Some thought the Blues took a gamble by handing the reigns to Payne. Adapting to coaching in the greatest league in the world can be overwhelming to somebody doing so for the first time. But the Blues saw what the Pittsburgh Penguins did with their coaching situation and turning it over to Dan Bylsma, who coincidentally is best friends with Payne.

"What the last year has done is the staff has been rounded out and is accustomed to working together," Payne said. "Me with them, them with me, how we react each day, things have become very smooth in how the operation's running and who's doing what. Delegation has never been one of my strong suits."

Payne, pretty much a humble person who never boasts about his own success, wants to continue to build the Blues into a consistent contender in the Western Conference and ultimately, raise that Stanley Cup one day.

It's a continued work in progress and one the Blues' coach will work tirelessly trying to accomplish.

"It's hard for me to take a look at it one year, because this is in way a stopping point, a reflection point in my mind," Payne said. "We've got Dallas tomorrow and that's the only reflection that I'm going to spend time on today."

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