Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Blues get busy signing own free agents

Team inks Cracknell, Cole to contracts

ST. LOUIS -- The Stanley Cup hasn't been won yet for the 2013 season, but the Blues are getting a jump on the 2013-14 season.

The team recently announced that it signed winger Adam Cracknell to a one-year, one-way contract worth $600,000 that keeps the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan native off the unrestricted free agent market. And on Tuesday, the Blues came to terms in principle with defenseman Ian Cole to a two-year, one-way, $1.65 million contract that averages out to be $825,000 per season ($750,000 in 2013-14, $900,000 in 2014-15).
Ian Cole

Cole, a 24-year-old Ann Arbor, Michigan native, just finished a three-year, $2.625 million entry-level deal and could have become a restricted free agent.

Cole, the 18th overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft, played in 15 games a season ago, recording one assist. He began the season playing with Alex Pietrangelo but became part of a numbers game and a logjam on the left side of the defensive unit with the late-season additions of veterans Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold.

Adam Cracknell
Cole has two goals and 11 points in 67 career NHL games spanning three seasons.

The 27-year-old Cracknell played in 20 games for the Blues last season after being called up from the American Hockey League's Peoria Rivermen. He posted two goals and four assists and became part of the team's 'CPR Line' that also consisted of Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves, which made up the team's fourth line.

Cracknell has six goals and eight assists in 46 career games spanning three seasons with the Blues, who signed him as a free agent in 2009 after being selected in the ninth round in 2004 by the Calgary Flames.

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound left wing appeared in 49 games with the Rivermen last season, posting 17 goals and 33 points.

Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said recently the team has every intention of qualifying all the team's restricted free agents with hopes of inking all to contracts. That list includes Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, Kris Russell and Jake Allen. The Blues also have a number of players from the minors that are restricted free agents. That list includes Evgeny Grachev, Tyler Shattock, Cade Fairchild, Philip McRae, Paul Karpowich, Jani Lajunen, Brett Sonne, Anthony Nigro, Jay Barriball and Stefan Della Rovere.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

2013 Stanley Cup Semifinal series predictions

(1) Chicago vs. (7) Detroit
Pick: Chicago in 6
Reason: The Red Wings found a way against the Ducks to persevere. It wasn't easy but Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Jimmy Howard and company found a way. But this is a different beast. Chicago won all four regular series meetings. They disposed Minnesota in relatively easy fashion. Detroit pushes them but the Blackhawks are too deep, too talented. Howard can steal games. So can Corey Crawford.
(5) Los Angeles vs. San Jose (6)
Pick: Los Angeles in 7
Reason: The Kings were pushed by the Blues, pushed hard. But they found a way in six one-goal games. The Sharks were impressive in sweeping Vancouver. They have young, vibrant legs to help the veterans overcome any potential shortcomings. San Jose can win this but Jonathan Quick found himself down the stretch and against the Blues. He's the difference even though Antti Niemi's been good..

(1) Pittsburgh vs. (7) Ottawa
Pick: Pittsburgh in 7
Reason: The Senators were dominating in disposing of Montreal in the quarters. They've been doing it the hard way all season long and continue to persevere despite injuries. But I've felt all along if the Penguins get any kind of goaltending (Tomas Vokoun to the rescue), they're going to be a problem for anyone. When they flip on the switch, they score at will. Just ask the Islanders. Craig Anderson can steal games but Penguins too talented.
(4) Boston vs. (6) N.Y. Rangers
Pick: N.Y. Rangers in 6
Reason: Where have I written this before ... oh yeah here -- Henrik Lundqvist. When the Rangers' backs were against the wall against Washington, Lundqvist threw a pair of shutouts at Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals. The Bruins are more rounded, deeper than the Caps and were able to find a miracle against Toronto. This could go either way but I like the Blueshirts.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Armstrong: team will look if signings/trades make sense

Blues' GM said priority is to take care of their
own, disappointed in ending but proud of season 

ST. LOUIS -- After scoring only 10 goals during their first-round playoff exit against the Los Angeles Kings, immediate connotations point towards the Blues' immediate need to sign/acquire a goal scorer or two.

But while speaking to the media during Sunday's locker room clean up following a six-game defeat to the Kings in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong offered the following:

"This is a public cry that for any GM that has 50 goal scorers and wants to send them to St. Louis, give me a call," Armstrong said. "This doesn't happen. You have to deal in reality. The reality is with free agency the way it is now, teams tie up those elusive top-end goal scorers.

GM Doug Armstrong

"I spent the last few days going over the top 20 scorers over the last few years, each year they're drafted by their own teams. ... They draft them ... (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (John) Tavares, (Steven) Stamkos were drafted by those teams. In coming upon the players in this room, to find out how to produce when the lights are the brightest to score those goals, if I can find a guy that can come in and help us score those goals, certainly we're going to look at doing it. But to think that that player is out there and teams just give them away and say, 'Geez, it's St. Louis' time to win, we'll give you (Alexander) Ovechkin,' you've got to deal in reality."

It's now up to Armstrong and the Blues' management team must head into an offseason searching for ways to improve or if possible, upgrade a team talented enough to succeed but still trying to knock down that elusive playoff door that's seemingly been padlocked since the Blues arrived in town in 1967.

But the thoughts of a second straight playoff exit at the hands of the Kings were still fresh in the minds of Armstrong, coach Ken Hitchcock, players and everyone involved in the organization.

"Certainly frustrating, disappointing, a lot of emotion over the last 24 hours," Armstrong said. "I think frustrating (and) disappointing is the way to put it, but now it's time to do a true reflection on where we're at as an organization, where we are, where we are going to go, how we're going to get there."

Armstrong reflected in where the Blues were where he got here and where they are now and points to those signs of progress as considerable building blocks.

"As frustrated and disappointed as I am, I'm still excited," he said. "When I got here five years ago to where we are today, through the work of a lot of great people that are currently here and no longer here, we're moving in the right direction and that's a positive. There's disappointment in our playoffs, but we're not going to throw the baby over the bath water. We are making strides. It's difficult at this time for maybe people to see those strides, but we are a much more competitive team this year against the L.A. Kings than we were a year ago, which is a positive. I said to the players we were a bad team, then we were a bad team that had a good year. Now we're a good team that was supposed to have a good year and we finished sixth in the NHL (29-17-2). That's pretty impressive.

"My belief in playoff success is you knock on the door, you get to the door enough times, sooner or later you'll get through. Where we are now is we're at the door consistently for two years, we're going to get back there and if we put ourselves in this position year in, year out, at some point we'll get through. I truly believe that we're moving in the right direction."

It will be 46 years of Stanley Cup futility for the Blues franchise, who were an expansion team that came into the league the same year as the Kings. They ended their drought with a championship in 2012.

"One of the things that I said to the players: I have sympathy for the St. Louis fans, but the reality is the failures of the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90's, 2000s, they don't lie at the feet of T.J. Oshie, they don't lie at the feet of David Backes, they don't lie at the feet of Brian Elliott," Armstrong said. "That's somebody else's issue. We're a better team now than we were two years ago. That's the way I look at it. To live in the past and try and exercise ghosts is irrelevant."

The Blues are a better team now, which is why Armstrong felt like they could compete for the Stanley Cup, which many outside hockey predictors also indicated during the preseason.

"I really felt that this was ... we talk about a window opening and that core group being there. This was one of the times the window was open and we didn't get through," Armstrong said. "The disappointment in that and now it's the mandate to come back and get to this point again and change where we are today, but I felt that this was a team that I believed what the pundits said that we were a Cup-contending team and we didn't get there. But again, we're not going to throw the baby out of the bath water and reinvent the wheel when I don't think it needs reinventing."

Many questions will be faced for Armstrong and company moving forward. What are the team's plans for their restricted free agents, guys who can walk as unrestricted free agents, the three-headed goalie situation which sparked a confrontation between Hitchcock and Jaroslav Halak prior to Game 4 against the Kings.

The goalie question is certainly one to keep an eye on, as the Blues ended the season with Brian Elliott getting the bulk of the action but he and Halak each have another year remaining on their contracts (Elliott with a $1.9 million salary and Halak at $4.5 million). There's also Jake Allen, who will be a restricted free agent but one who will make things interesting moving forward. Armstrong called his goalie situation a "cloudy" one.

"He's certainly proven based on his work this year that he's at the point now where I don't think now going back to the American Hockey League ... I don't think he needs more seasoning," Armstrong said of Allen. "He's one of three right now. He doesn't need waivers to go back to the American Hockey League, but he has proven to me that he deserves an opportunity to play in the NHL.

"I think anything could happen. It was a difficult year for both Elliott and Jaro and I think Jake took great advantage of it. He's proven to us now that he has to go in the equation. Brian got off to a poor start, resurrected himself and had a great finish. Jaro unfortunately had (two separate groin) injuries. We were giving him the ball, he played four of the five (games), and then he got injured again and the season progressed and he didn't get back in the net. It's a cloudy issue right now to be honest with you -- our goaltending situation -- because of how the season's progressed and it's a positive cloudy in one sense (because) Jake has given us things that we have to look at."

Hitchcock's view on the goaltending is pretty simple: Let the competition begin.

"We've got three under contract," he said. "We're in a tough position for three goalies, but we're in a great position organizationally-wise. We've got three good goalies. I'm not sure what we're doing to be honest with you from a play standpoint. All I know is if you're under contract, I'm assuming your coming back and you're going to be ready to go and let the competition stand where it is. That's what training camp's for. I'm looking forward to actually having a training camp myself. I haven't had one here yet. That's three good goalies into two good nets. Who knows where that goes, but I know right now, I'm not sure of the contractual status of Allen. I'm not sure if he has to go on waivers or not. I'm not sure on that. I don't know the rules there, but all I know is we've got three good goalies. Tough on the goalies, good for the coach.

"The stuff with Jaro, that's an every day occurrence. Arguments and discussions that go on with players and playing time and all that stuff that was discussed in the media today, that's the ongoing stuff. If he wasn't pissed and disappointed, I'd be surprised and I don't care. To me, if you're under contract, get ready to play."

The list of the team's restricted free agents is why it may be difficult for the Blues to go out and bring in players when shopping season opens on July 1. The list (defensemen Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Kris Russell and Ian Cole as well as forwards Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund and Allen) all will be due pay raises, particularly Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk as well as Stewart, who led the Blues in goals (18) and points (36).

Armstrong said the team plans to qualify all their restricted free agents, including ones that played in the American Hockey League, then will attempt to try and sign each one of them.

"Ownership understands that the window is open now and we have to take care of our own," Armstrong said. "I don't see this as being a huge free agency offseason for us. I see it more taking care of our own business and then seeing if we want to re-arrange some of the chairs via trade. I don't see the player out there that's going to really move the needle a lot through free agency.

"The easiest thing is to show somebody the door, the hardest thing is to bring somebody through the door that's better. We can all clamor for a new GM or a new coach or new players, but that's the easy part. The other one is bringing in a better person that's leaving."

"Are we frustrated, yeah," Armstrong continued. "We have players that have produced in the past that haven't been able to get us over the hump in the playoffs, but they're still in those prime years. Ultimately, I think Ken hit it the best that we need the home grown talent to start producing in the most important times. With that being said, I believe that the home grown talent can produce at the times. But if we can improve our team, that's our mandate. We're always looking to get better, but as I said, the easiest thing is to show somebody the door, but it's foolish if you're not bringing somebody in that's better."

The list of home grown players, aside from Backes, Oshie, David Perron, Berglund and others, could very well also fall into the lap of the younger draft picks, like Vladimir Tarasenko, who just finished his first season. Top picks Dmitrij Jaskin, who made a pair of cameo appearances with the Blues this season, as well as Ty Rattie, who just helped the Portland Winterhawks to a championship in the Western Hockey League, could make impacts but unlikely unless they dazzle in camp. Both are likely destined to play for the Blues' new AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves.

"Certainly Tarasenko has been given a challenge and a mandate to go home. I was very impressed with his season, but I look at it maybe differently than everyone else looks at it as far as stats," Armstrong said. "He came over here, smaller ice surface, demanding schedule, new culture. Now he has to go home and he has to come back in and be a player that we can count on. He was a player that we brought in here that we were going to bring along slowly for a year. Him not playing in the playoffs isn't unusual for a lot of players his age, but he's left with a mandate that, 'Your name is on the board in an important spot now. You have to come back and you're not going to get the leeway maybe that a first-year player gets in the second year.' We are going to count on him.

"With Rattie and Jaskin, we want these players to be good players, but I think there would be a frustration with our fan base that if we just put these guys in there and they don't perform, where are we at? If these guys come in and have great training camps and they push guys out of work, they're going to get that opportunity. But I still think that we're a team that if you view yourself as a contending team, you probably don't put six first-year players on it."

As far as the unrestricted free agents, the prominent names include Andy McDonald, Jordan Leopold, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, and Adam Cracknell.

Cracknell is all but certain to return, as the Blues will look to keep him off the market after an impressive showing playing on the fourth line -- aka the 'CPR Line' -- with Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
Alex Pietrangelo, a pending restricted free agent, is expected to get a hefty
pay raise heading into the 2013-14 season.
"It's still early for that," Armstrong said when asked about the UFA's. "I'm going to meet with the coaches in the next 10 days or so, get their evaluation. Then I'll sit with (Vice President of Hockey Operations) Dave Taylor and our staff and go over where are our unrestricteds and how they fit in. We'll let them know at the appropriate time, but the emotions are pretty raw right now."

A wildcard who could make things very interesting is Jori Lehtera, the team's 2008 third-round pick who finished a 17-goal, 48-point season with Sibir Novosibirsk in the KHL.

"We have to as an organization decide whether we have ... a player like Lehtera over in Russia," Armstrong said. "A) does he want to come over and B) where do we fit him in, and if he comes over and we put him in, who's he replacing. A lot of these things have to get ironed out behind the scenes. That's what we're going to do now.

"We talked to him as soon as the (KHL) season ended about coming over (this past season). He was off of a concussion. We thought about bringing him over to play this year. It just didn't work out. We've talked to him about what his plans are for the summer and next season. We'd like to have him. It's up to him whether he wants to come."

The Blues went from a good start to a rocky middle to a strong finish. When the season was on the brink, they responded with a 12-3-0 April and pushed their way into the playoffs, and that's what Armstrong appreciated the most.

The fortitude of the players," he said. "When the season was on the brink, when we weren't sure whether we were a good team or a team that had a good year a year ago, how they responded the last two or three weeks. It's not what people want to hear, but I do have to take satisfaction that we finished sixth in the NHL in a good league. That doesn't happen by accident. There are some good things that might not feel like it today for the fans, it might not feel like it today for the (general) manager, but that's why a 10-day reflection period is necessary because you don't want to make mistakes."

Hitchcock: players must give more to achieve success

Blues head into another offseason after regular season
success, searching for new answers after early playoff exit

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."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sour taste lingers for Blues after another early playoff exit

Lack of scoring doomed team against Kings; next
steps will be key to thrusting franchise forward in the future

ST. LOUIS -- They closed the gap on the Los Angeles Kings, as it was a far cry from the four-game sweep to the Kings in the 2012 conference semifinals.

But the bottom line a day after the Blues were eliminated by the same Kings, this time in six games in the conference quarterfinals, is that the Blues may have closed the gap, it wasn't nearly enough.

Friday's frustrating 2-1 loss in Los Angeles gave the Kings the series, winning four in a row after dropping the first two games to the Blues in St. Louis.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' Chris Stewart (25) and T.J. Oshie (second from right) go
through the customary handshakes at the end of the series with the Los
Angeles Kings once again Friday night. The Blues lost in six games.

"What I'm going to tell them is it's not good enough," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "If you want to be a champion, it's not good enough. You can't allow the goalie (the Kings' Jonathan Quick) to outwork you. If you want to be a champion, you're going to have to find a way."

A lot of finger pointing can come with the downfall in losing a playoff series, but the bottom line for the Blues was they couldn't solve Quick, or they couldn't solve ... themselves.

Missed opportunity after missed opportunity was evident in the games the Blues won, but they were able to get past the shortcomings. But when it all began to unravel in a 1-0 loss in Game 3 at Staples Center, one player afterwards was overheard saying, "We can't give (expletive) games like that away!"

It was a game in which the Blues got a textbook defensive and goaltending game that was sorely lacking the finishing touch after creating quality chances through hard work.

"We're a pretty hungry group here from management to coaches to put a championship team together, and it's not good enough," Hitchcock said. "We can lament on missed opportunities and how hard we played. We really bought in for the last two months in a big way, which gave us a real good feeling about ourselves, but you get opportunities like this ... like we did in Game 3 and we did in Game 5 (a 3-2 overtime loss) and again (Friday), you can't miss those opportunities.

"I hope our players, when they pause and reflect on it are really, really pissed off and disappointed in the opportunity that we missed here because we didn't finish. We took everything to the beach, but we didn't finish putting it in the water. That's going to be disappointing and we're going to have to live with that for the rest of this summer."

The Blues only allowed 12 goals to the Kings, an average of two per game, which should be good enough to persevere through a playoff series. But they scored only 10 goals in six games themselves, and only four of them came after taking a 2-0 lead five minutes into Game 4. It was a Brian Elliott-Quick duel that Quick won again.

"I don't know how many goals we scored, but it's like (Game 6), Ells gave up one, two goals. Those are tough games," defenseman Roman Polak said. "We had chances. We did it for 20 minutes every period. We stayed in the offensive zone and we stayed on their 'D,' but at the end of the night, we didn't score and they did. That's the bottom line."

The rundown is as follows:

Andy McDonald -- no points in six games

Chris Stewart, who led the team in goals (18) and points (36) in the regular season -- one assist in six games

David Perron -- two assists in six games

Patrik Berglund, who was second in regular season goals (17) -- one goal, one assist in six games

T.J. Oshie -- two goals (both in Game 4) in six games

Alex Pietrangelo/Kevin Shattenkirk -- combined for one goal in six games

Hitchcock was asked if some of his contributors in the regular season could have given more in the playoffs.

"From a scoring standpoint? Yeah," he said. "That's the small difference, but there's a big difference between playoffs and regular season, a big difference. I just felt like we allowed a goalie to outwork us. I know it's the most important position in our sport, but I think to get to the next level, you can't allow that to happen if you want to get to the next level."

Quick stopped 167 of 177 shots in the series and was the difference again. He allowed only six goals in four games against the Blues in the postseason last spring.

"We were real close," Berglund said. "Now we have to go home. It really sucks. But we have to learn from this, too, and move on."

Added Elliott, who was solid himself for the most past in the series with a 1.90 goals-against average and .919 save percentage: "We put a really good effort in. That's what's more frustrating is we played really well. They kind of just held the fort while we held our chances. ... We played the game we wanted to play. We just didn't come up with the goal support.

"Whenever your season ends, it's going to bother you. You have to reflect on this right now. We'll just have to let it soak in and figure things out for next time."

So the question begs to be asked: where do the Blues go from here. Some of those questions will be answered Sunday when players clean out their lockers and leave for the summer. There will be unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents, evaluations on current players. Plenty of work will be done this off-season to try and get this franchise to the next level.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues and Los Angeles Kings shake hands after the Kings took out
the Blues in six games, beating them in the postseason again.

"You only get so many years in the league, you only get so many times in the playoffs to try and make a run," said captain David Backes, who finished with a goal and three points in the series. "This team was hot going into the playoffs and added pieces at the deadline (defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold), didn't stand pat or sell or any of that. We took on some big players and we were expecting better than this. I don't know what the next step is, but right now, it's just sour."

The Blues, with a fragile franchise as it is financially, won't go on any spending sprees this summer. If changes are to be made, general manager Doug Armstrong will have to maneuver his way through a clever trade or two to give the roster a bit of a makeover, or as Hitchcock said, the people from within need to step up.

"I think it's open now, but we have to look at ourselves a little bit," Hitchcock said. "... Adding Bouwmeester and Leopold really enhanced our hockey club. They really helped us. They brought us composure and compete and big minutes. They really helped us, but the people that we count on that we've grown have to play better for us to get to the next level quite frankly. We need more from the people that are home-grown. That's something that we'll address in the off-season in conversations from each individual, but that's what we need. We need the home-grown guys, the guys that we've built around to get to the next level."

Blues' season ends with 2-1 loss to Kings

Lack of scoring main culprit to season's
end; Penner scores winner on fluky play

LOS ANGELES -- It started so well. But to use a phrase the hockey folks like to say, 'At the end of the day,' it wasn't good enough for the Blues once again.

Winning two games against the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings had the Blues believing they were ready to take the next step after last season's sweep at the hands of the Kings.

Little did they know the recurring nightmare would occur again, but this time the Kings won four in a row again after spotting the Blues the first two games.

(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues' David Backes (right) battles the Kings' Slava Voynov for a
loose puck Friday night at Staples Center.
And the way it ended for the Blues almost makes one wonder if they're really the Chicago Cubs of hockey.

Friday night's 2-1 loss to the Kings at Staples Center eliminated the Blues in six games in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and the way the Blues lost once again was showcased what this team desperately needs to get to the next level: lack of goal-scoring.

The Blues finished with 10 goals in the series and only reached three goals in a game once -- Game 4, they lost 4-3 -- and it was the main culprit once again in a frustrating night of near misses and what ifs.

The Blues got their goal from their fourth line center (Chris Porter) and nothing else from the guys expected to score. And to top off the absolute worst luck, when the game should have been 1-1 heading into the third period, the Kings' Dustin Penner was able to cross the blue line, wire a shot that deflected off the skate of defenseman Roman Polak and over Brian Elliott high into the net with 0.2 seconds left in the period that turned out to be the game-winning goal.

Game. Set. Match. Season over. Just like that.

"I think that's probably the story of the series. I would say for us missed opportunities," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "We had a lot of people play very hard ... didn't get timely goals. That's what playoffs is. Goaltending's a big part of it. I thought the best player in the series was their goalie (Jonathan Quick). In the end, he made the big saves when we had the five or six close-in chances today. He made the big saves."

Make it 8-for-8 (in a bad manner) for the Blues in elimination games. They haven't won one since downing San Jose in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, winning Game 6 by a 6-2 score. They would lose the series in seven games. The Blues are now 3-16 in franchise history when trailing a series 3-2. They are also now 0-7-1 in their last eight visits to Staples Center and lost for the first time in franchise history (10-1) when winning the first two games of a playoff series.

It was a long plane ride home with plenty of time to wonder what might have been.

"We hit a few posts, a couple that were sitting right there in the crease ... it's getting to be a broken record, but we still didn't get the job done," captain David Backes said. "It's about winning four games to win a series. Up 2-0 and to lose four straight is pretty sour right now."

So close once again, yet so far away.

"Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades is what they say," Backes said. "All the little things you think about we could do better to get that result the other way ... everything right now is pretty, I don't know if it's frustrating or just a sour taste in your mouth right now."

The Kings got goals from Penner and Drew Doughty in the first period and needed only 16 shots to do it, as the Blues once again outshot the Kings 22-16. But it was the Kings who came out better once again.

"I think we deserved better that this," said center Patrik Berglund, who was denied on a breakaway attempt in the third period. "I think we battled really hard, played really hard. We had all the chances in the world to score more goals than they did.

At this time, it really stings because I think we were right there. We expected to get past this round."

The Kings took advantage of ineffectiveness by the Blues when Doughty used Polak, who for whatever reason was collapsing back on a 2-on-2 play, as a screen to snap a shot high near side past Elliott 12:37 into the first period for a 1-0 Kings lead.

Colin Fraser, who was covered well by Kevin Shattenkirk, dropped the pass to Doughty, who was handled by Polak but instead of stepping up and challenging Doughty 1-on-1, Polak backed up and Doughty was able to use it to his advantage.

"He made a great move," Polak said of Doughty. "He kind of stopped me there on the move. He made it look like he was going to shoot a slapper. He waited and shot it strong side. It was a pretty good shot. It was a good play."

Elliott said he never saw the shot.

"He brought it kind of into the skates and then fired it," Elliott said of Doughty. "I didn't really get a clean look at it. We've got to have those, too."

The Blues were humming for most of the game. They forced the Kings into 21 giveaways in the game but just couldn't put the puck away.

They got the equalizer when Porter deflected Polak's shot from the point 4:39 into the second period after Backes was able to get the puck back to Polak for the slap shot.

Then came the near-misses, as the Blues nearly took the lead but Quick was able to thwart Ryan Reaves on a drive to the net, then kept Kevin Shattenkirk's rebound from going in as well.

Rookie Jaden Schwartz also has a glorious chance from between the hash marks in the second after a Kings turnover but as has often been the case, fired wide of the net (the Blues missed the net in 21 shots in the game).

Polak coughed up a puck that led to a Dustin Brown breakaway but the Kings' captain slid his breakaway attempt wide on a backhand with 3:28 left in the second.

But unbelievably, instead of a 1-1 game heading into the third, Penner's slap shot from just inside the blue line deflected off Polak's skate and got over Elliott with 0.2 seconds left in the period ... an absolutely deflating type of goal.

"I think it hit my skate," Polak said. "I should just let it go. I should just probably let it go for Ells to see. It was like two seconds left in the period. Yeah, it was a bad play by me.

"It was a bad goal at a bad time, but I think we did a pretty good job in the third period. We had so many chances. We didn't put anything in. I think the forwards and the 'D' and Ells did a great job in the third, but it just didn't go in for us."

Elliott defended Polak on the play.

"It's frustrating that has to be the one that we lost on," Elliott said. "Not much more to say about it. A deflection and even off the post. It evens out in the wash, but we didn't get another chance to throw stuff in the wash.

"I saw it come off because it was going low first, but what can you say? You can't put blame on him for trying to get in front of a puck. We're all trying to do our best out there. Obviously he's frustrated, we're all frustrated that had to be the one we couldn't get back."

Hitchcock wouldn't lay blame on either Elliott or Polak, instead lamenting the fact the Blues failed to get the puck deep into the Kings' zone with possession.

"It's a cast of errors," Hitchcock said. "We didn't get the puck deep twice when we had a chance to clear, we didn't check the right player and it went off our stick. You can't blame Elliott on that. That was a complete deflection and went up almost four feet from where the original shot was. But we didn't get it cleared. We had it twice to get cleared and we panicked with the puck, and it ended up in our net."

The Kings put the gear into lockdown mode the rest of the way. They generated only three shots in the third period but didn't care. They had a lead and wanted to protect it.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Kings' Dustin Brown (right) slides his breakaway attempt wide of the
goal and Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) Friday night.

But Berglund would get his chance with 10:02 left, getting a pass from David Perron and went in alone. Quick got a right pad on the first attempt and Berglund fanned on the rebound at the doorstep.

"I wanted to take one step and go five-hole," Berglund said. "I just picked up the puck pretty quick. ... I wanted to trick him a little bit and take a quick shot. He saved it, the puck was there again and I missed the net."

Seems to have been the story of the series and many times during the season for the Blues, and they now get to go home and reflect on the opportunity missed.

"What I'm going to tell them is it's not good enough," Hitchcock said. "If you want to be a champion, it's not good enough. You can't allow the goalie to outwork you. If you want to be a champion, 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. We can lament on missed opportunities and how hard we played. We really bought in for the last two months in a big way, which gave us a real good feeling about ourselves, but you get opportunities like this ... like we did in Game 3 (a 1-0 loss) and we did in Game 5 (a 3-2 overtime loss) and again tonight, you can't miss those opportunities. I hope our players, when they pause and reflect on it are really, really pissed off and disappointed in the opportunity that we missed here because we didn't finish. We took everything to the beach, but we didn't finish putting it in the water. That's going to be disappointing and we're going to have to live with that for the rest of this summer."

Friday, May 10, 2013

(5-10-13) Blues-Kings Gameday Lineup

LOS ANGELES -- As coach of the Dallas Stars in 1999 when he led his team to the Stanley Cup, Ken Hitchcock was in this familiar position: down 3-2 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and facing elimination on the road.

Not only did Hitchcock's Stars go into Denver and down the Colorado Avalanche 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals, they won Game 7 at home, it was culminated with a victory over the Buffalo Sabres in six games to win the Stanley Cup.

Fast forward 14 years later, where Hitchcock's Blues are down 3-2 against the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, on the road, in a tough building, needing a win to keep their season alive.

So what can these Blues draw from their veteran coach that they must apply against a Kings team that has won three straight in the series?

"You have to outplay the team," Hitchcock said after Friday's morning skate. "You can't expect to play at the same level and win the hockey game. It doesn't happen. I've been in this situation a number of times and come through, and it's been the same similar landscape. We have to outplay them today. If we play at the same level, it's not going to be good enough. We've got to find ways in every aspect. Our special teams have to be better and our 5-on-5 play has to be better if we expect to win the hockey game. Because when you're the defending Cup champion, you have some experience in critical times and critical areas on the ice that you can rely on that's familiar ground. We're not on that ground yet. If we're going to leave no doubt, we're going to have to outplay them."

Message delivered as the Blues and Kings play Game 6 Friday night at Staples Center (9 p.m. on FSN, Y-98 FM and NBCSN).

The Blues are the first team in the series to lose at home in Game 5, a 3-2 overtime setback that has them on the brink of elimination. They hope to draw on the good play they displayed in that game, aside from what has seemed to be the missing link between winning and losing: scoring.

"We've got to play another game like we did at home last game but bury a few chances and limit a few of the mistakes that we made," captain David Backes said. "Special teams battles are always a key. We need 20 guys in here that want it more and are more committed and put it all on the line.

"The character we've shown throughout the year should have prepared us for a situation like this. We'll see how it all comes out tonight. We've got a group of guys in here that's ready to get back on the ice and prove that Games 1 and 2 weren't flukes."

It's one reason why the Blues seemed to have a loose, laid back but focused attitude skating today.

"I think we're pretty confident in the games that we've been putting out there, the product that we're putting out there," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "They're an experienced team. They didn't get flustered by a 2-0 deficit [in the series]. They came home, they did what they needed to do and then they came into our building and snuck one out last game. Now it's our turn to do it here.

"This is a tough building to win in. They feed off of their crowd and they play very well at home, so it's going to be important for us that we make sure we keep our emotions in check and really just be ready for anything that comes."

A year ago when the Blues were swept by the Kings in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Kings overwhelmed them in a number of areas. It's not the sense that Hitchcock gets from this series, which is why he believes they can win here tonight.

"A year ago, we were hoping that they didn't show up, and if you look, we maybe got 10 scoring chances a game," Hitchcock said. "The scores were closer than the games were. There wasn't a feeling on the bench for me that we were going to push through at times. But we've come a long way. We're pushing them to the limit, they're pushing us to the limit. Both teams have had to put a lot of energy into every period to get through it. Both teams are being pushed against the wall in a lot of these games. From that standpoint, we've come a long, long way. But I think the reward, what we're trying to convince the players is if we win tonight and get it to Game 7, there's even a bigger reward. Convincing the players of that and getting us to do it I think would even give us more and more confidence because we're in a position where both teams feel like they deserve to move on, but one's going to. I just want to see from a growth standpoint us get that opportunity."

- - -

The Blues have already dropped a pair of one-goal games in Staples Center in Games 3 and 4.

They lost 1-0 in Game 3 on Slava Voynov's second-period goal, a game in which the Blues were lamenting the missed opportunities they had that could have put them up 3-0 in the series. They then fell 4-3 in Game 4 when they led 2-0 five minutes in and 3-2 heading into the third period.

They're both cases of a missed opportunity here, or better execution there that the landscape of the series could be different. But these are the very reasons why the Blues believe they can win in a building that's seen the Kings win nine in a row -- because both Games 3 and 4 were winnable games.

"I think you have to take a lot of good things out of the games we weren't able to get a win," Shattenkirk said. "Maybe with the exception of Game 4, we executed our game plan pretty well and we stuck to it, which I think is even more important. We didn't stray when we went down a goal or anything like that. I think that was a problem we had during the year. We've cleaned it up here in the playoffs. We haven't gotten the result we needed.

"It's tough to think you were up 2-0 and now you're down 3-2, but it's do-or-die games from here on the way out and I think that's a position we're ready to really grab and take and run."

So what do the Blues need to bring from the drop of the puck?

"Just our best effort," defenseman Jay Bouwmeester said. "We know what we're up against now. We've just got to win one hockey game. We've played well at times during the series. If we can just have a complete game, play for a full 60 minutes, then we give ourselves a pretty good chance.

"I think (the mood) is good. We have good energy. We know that if we put a full game together then we give ourselves a good chance. That's all that we can really control right now is our effort and the way we're going to compete. Everyone knows the situation, but I think my experience here this has been a pretty loose group and we play good when we have a little bit of fun. The feeling in here hasn't changed too much."

Added Hitchcock: "I think the feeling with us is that every player in that room knows we can't play the same. We're going to have to outplay them. I think everybody knows that, but I think there's a real high level of confidence that we can do that.

"I know we're going to get their best push because they don't want to go back to St. Louis. But I also believe we have it in us to outplay them."

- - -

The Blues' probable lineup, the same as Game 5:

Jaden Schwartz-David Backes-Alexander Steen

David Perron-Patrik Berglund-T.J. Oshie

Andy McDonald-Vladimir Sobotka-Chris Stewart

Adam Cracknell-Chris Porter-Ryan Reaves

Jay Bouwmeester-Alex Pietrangelo

Jordan Leopold-Kevin Shattenkirk

Barret Jackman-Roman Polak

Brian Elliott starts in goal; Jaroslav Halak is the backup.

Healthy scratches include Kris Russell, Ian Cole, Vladimir Tarasenko, Scott Nichol, Jake Allen and Dmitrij Jaskin. Jamie Langenbrunner (hip) remains on injured reserve.

- - -

The Kings' projected lineup, which could include a change at forward:

Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams

Dwight King-Mike Richards-Jeff Carter

Dustin Penner-Jarret Stoll-Trevor Lewis

Jordan Nolan-Colin Fraser-Tyler Toffoli

Robyn Regehr-Drew Doughty

Rob Scuderi-Alec Martinez

Jake Muzzin-Slava Voynov

Jonathan Quick is in goal; Jonathan Bernier is the backup.

Healthy scratches are expected to be Brad Richardson, Jordan Nolan and Keaton Ellerby. Kyle Clifford did not take part in the morning skate and could play, as coach Darryl Sutter said it was a "maintenance day" for Clifford. If he's in, Nolan would be the candidate to draw out. Willie Mitchell (knee) remains on season-ending injured reserve. Matt Greene (lower-body) is not ready to return.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Blues still confident despite facing elimination

After holding 2-0 series lead, St. Louis must
win at tough Staples Center to prolong season

LOS ANGELES -- Despite holding a 2-0 series lead, despite seeing that series lead in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs slip away and put them on the brink of elimination against the defending champs, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock professes there's fight left in his team.

"This is not over," Hitchcock said on the heels of the Blues' 3-2 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals. "Somebody's got to win another hockey game. If we can raise our spirits again and go at it again like we did, I like our chances."

They're confident words from a coach whose team just dropped its third straight in the series.

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Barret Jackman (right) said the Blues still have confidence they can beat
Dwight Kings (left) and the Los Angeles Kings.
All five games between the Blues and Kings have been decided by one goal, leaving no margin for error. But it was the Blues that made the small slip-up in overtime Wednesday that led to Slava Voynov's second game-winning goal of the series when he scored eight minutes into overtime.

"Every opportunity, every goal is important here," said Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, whose goal with 44.1 seconds remaining Wednesday evened the score up at 2-2. "You never know what bounce is going to happen next. That's playoff hockey and we just have to keep grinding away."

Teammate Barret Jackman said nothing has surprised him in the series.

"That's exactly the way we thought it was going to be coming in," Jackman said. "We feel that both teams are very physical, skate very well and create a lot of turnovers with the forwards checking and the d-men's gaps.

"We knew it was going to be close. One goal each game, maybe a little bit more of a stretch than you thought but it's exciting hockey and now we've just got to find a way to win."

The Blues' task is daunting, to say the least. Not only have the Kings won nine straight at Staples Center, the site of Game 6 Friday at 10 p.m. ET. But the Blues have dropped seven in a row [0-6-1] in this building since March 17, 2011. But Hitchcock didn't take many negative aspects away from Wednesday's loss other than the end result.

"If we play like that again, I like our chances," Hitchcock said. "All we've got to do is win a road game to get her back here again [for Game 7 Monday night]. I like our chances, if that's the effort and that's the all-in attitude we have, I really like our chances.

"There's lots of positives ... effort, discipline, structure, whatever you want. There's lots of positives. Overtime's a crap shoot. We win a game in overtime [in Game 1], and I'm sure they're thinking they're going to win. I know to win the Cup, you've got to win most of your overtime games. But for me, the way we played, that's something that we've got to build on. If that's the type of effort ... that's all you can ask this time of year. But you need an all-in mentality. We had that. This felt very similar to Game 1, and we had an all-in mentality and dominated the game. We need to come with the same mentality for Game 6."

(St. Louis Blues/Mark Buckner)
Vladimir Sobotka (17) and the Blues will have their work cut out for them in
Game 6 against Jonathan Quick (right) and the Los Angeles Kings.
The Blues feel confident coming into Los Angeles knowing it lost two games [1-0 in Game 3 and 4-3 in Game 4] that they felt like could have gone their way.

"We're still positive," Jackman said. "We still feel like we have a very good team that can easily skate with L.A. We have to continue to wear them down and go into L.A. and continue to do the little things that we did [Wednesday] night and hopefully we're on top in Game 6."

If not, it'll be the second straight season the Blues will see their season come to a close against the Kings, who eliminated them in a four-game sweep in the Western Conference Semifinals a year ago.

"It's always tough going into a road rink in the playoffs," Pietrangelo said. "Look at the atmosphere that we have here. It's not quite the same in L.A. Their fans are a little bit quieter, but at the same time, it's tough to fly there and play that road game in their rink, but we thought we did a lot of good things in L.A. (in Games 3 and 4). We just go there, play our game and get this thing back here on Monday."

The Blues are 0-7 in their last seven elimination games dating back to the last time they won, which was April 23, 2000 in Game 6 of the conference quarterfinals at San Jose. The Blues lost that series in seven games.