Monday, June 1, 2015

Hitchcock: Blues have to adapt to way NHL plays today

Coach said playing reckless, with speed, 
tempo is the way to be successful moving forward

ST. LOUIS -- At Ken Hitchcock's press conference announcing his one-year extension last week, the Blues' coach talked about reasons why the four remaining teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were still around.

And it was no coincidence why they remained.

Now that it's down to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Chicago Blackhawks, there are many elements that each respective team brings to the table, but there's no denying one common element that each brings that's been above and beyond the rest of the NHL.

"The four fastest teams in the league are playing right now," Hitchcock said last week. "They're the four fastest in October and November and they're still playing."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Paul Stastny (26) and Vladimir Tarasenko will be focal points for the Blues
moving forward in 2015-16.

So what does that mean? That the Blues have been playing an ultra-conservative style? Have they been playing too slow? To a point, yes they have been.

Playing a puck possession style has not been out of the ordinary. Transitioning the puck from the defensive zone out was something the Blues looked to transform into going into the 2014-15 season, but they didn't want to stray away from being physical, punishing and a defensive-oriented team.

Looking at the way the league has geared towards speed, Hitchcock -- whose extension is for one season -- said the Blues' style needs to change in that direction. But part of the style will be reverted back to a familiar way of playing.

"We've got to go back to reckless. It's too conservative, it's too careful," Hitchcock said. "It's too much skill ahead of work. We've got to go back to reckless. We've got more skill right now than we've ever had since I've been here, but skill, careful hockey doesn't win. You've got to play reckless. We need to get back to the reckless play that we had before and that's what Doug (Armstrong) and I talked about. You can do it and still be responsible, but we've got to get back to reckless play. We've got to ask more people to be involved both offensively and defensively."

Armstrong used an example of games the Blues played with the Lightning this past season (both victories). In them, the Blues won a home game 2-1 in overtime Feb. 3 and then Feb. 12 in Tampa, the Blues won 6-3 and did so with a way they feel they must play with on a consistent basis moving forward into 2015-16.

"The game's getting quicker," Armstrong said. "I remember one game in particular we played in Tampa. We beat Tampa here and got outplayed badly and our goalie (Brian Elliott) stole us the game, and then we went down to Tampa and we looked fast. That's a very fast team. They might not have been at 100 percent, I don't know. All I know is we looked quick, so how can we use the same personnel to get quicker? What are some of the things? That's why Ken's a great coach is he can find and make those alterations. We saw that when he got here four years ago. We were a team that was hoping not to get embarrassed a lot of nights to a team that expected to win. He's found ways and his job now is to evolve and get these players to play better than they did last year. That's the goal ... that's the fun part of it though."

So if the idea is to be a more reckless team that has a roster of players playing both offensively and defensively with a quicker pace, does that include the current roster as it's constructed? More than likely not. But Hitchcock is on board with Armstrong staying pat and not making any drastic changes. He believes he can get this group as it is to play the necessary way to win.

"I really believe in the group. But I also believe that if we don't make the internal changes that are necessary, we're going to get passed (up)," Hitchcock said. "I thought after I needed some time to reflect and observe. ... The six games in the playoffs (against the Minnesota Wild) felt similar to games I coached in during the regular season and I needed to observe them. I went back and watched around 24-26 games of similar competition. I needed to see myself why our team performed like it did with the peaks and valleys. If you look at the playoff series, it was a direct reflection of our regular season. First three games, we were inconsistent and at times just playing ice hockey. And then boom, turn it on and play like crazy in Games 4, 5 and 6. We allow the goalie to win Game 5 and we lose the series, but it's this that bothered me and I needed to see myself if it had occurred during the regular season and it did. Once I had that information, it allowed me to look at the personnel and to look at the players and start visualizing moving forward, 'How could I help us keep up and excel still?' 

"What's happened here in very quick order, this league has sped up. This league has pace like never before and you can't change out a bunch of players. That's not our job as coaches. Our job is to get the most out of every player. I think internally without changing a bunch of players, we can really quicken our team and make our pace a lot higher and we're going to have to to keep up to where the league's at now."

The Blues proved during the regular season that can play successfully against teams considered to play with quick pace and speed. Among the final four teams Hitchcock spoke of (Tampa Bay, Chicago, Anaheim and the New York Rangers), the Blues were 7-5 against those teams, including 5-2 against the Lightning and Blackhawks. 

But will Armstrong supply Hitchcock and his coaching staff the personnel moving forward to play the way they want to? With unrestricted free agents in question and trade rumors popping up quickly, the Blues have the resources and means to change. 

"There's turnover and we have to be prepared for that; we have to be excited about that challenge," Armstrong said. "... There is value if we get better players in return. ... No trade is better than a poor trade. If we can improve our team ... there's going to be change regardless in our game. The team that wins the Stanley Cup is going to probably have four or five roster changes. That's just the nature of the salary cap system. We are going to have a different look. We're going to explore improving our team to levels that we probably haven't explored in the past, but it has to make sense."

And in making sense, the Blues aren't going to just shuttle players out of town for the sake of simply getting rid of people. As Armstrong said, the Blues will bring players in if it makes them better, but they also have to look ahead to contracts of younger core players that will need to be taken care of and those contracts of veteran players that will expire in the near future. The salary cap structure plays a role here, too.

And it's those older veteran players that management has to take a hard look at, players that have not gotten the job done for four straight postseasons, including three straight first-round ousters.

"I'm not saying they're not competitive players," Armstrong said. "They're good people, they're good players, but when you spend upwards of four or five years before Ken got here, what we we're trying to build, you add different style of players in there, I thought there was some bumps in the road that we haven't had in the past.

"Right now, our focal point is to be signing our own restricted free agents and then on July 1st, extending some of the players that are going to be restricted or unrestricted a year from now. Players like (Jaden) Schwartz, is a player I'd like to talk to. I'm not saying we're going to get anything done with him, but he's a core group (player). ... A lot of the conversations Ken and I had were we believe we're fortunate to have two cores. We have an aging core in their late 20s to early 30s and we have a young core in their lower- to mid-20s. So I want to make sure that we're servicing both of those cores. But understanding that the long-term look on this franchise is around Schwartz, (Vladimir) Tarasenko, Alex Pietrangelo, (Kevin) Shattenkirk, Jake Allen has a great career ahead of him. We're fortunate. We have good players in their 30s and we have really good young players coming. We're adding  young players from Chicago (Wolves) next year, so there will be change. (Robert) Bortuzzo and a (Petteri) Lindbohm, (those are) the type of reckless players. That's the kind of unbridled energy that we're going to put in our lineup early and we're going to live with." 
(St. Louis Blues photo)
Jaden Schwartz (17) and Alex Pietrangelo (right) are part of the Blues'
young core moving forward in 2015-16.

And if the veteran guys such as David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Jay Bouwmeester, Alexander Steen, and so forth are in St. Louis in September, Hitchcock believes he can have them play the way the two Stanley Cup combatants are. Look for center Paul Stastny, last season's big free agent signee, to get a more prominent role moving forward.

"We've got to get to that pace," Hitchcock said. "We can do that ... if Doug doesn't change anybody, we can do that because we can change the way we play, but we can also change the positioning of the personnel to make us more reckless, much quicker and play with a lot higher pace.

"... This has been a process of reflection, of focus on what went right and what needs to change and we're now in the process of getting ourselves mentally and physically prepared to get the players into the right frame of mind so we can begin building our team again."


  1. The problem is that the league changed years ago. Are we honestly to believe Hitch JUST now is seeing that and wanting to make the adjustments? It's a big reason why I wanted the Blues to go another direction at head coach, but it will be interesting to see if the changes involve shipping out the underperformers or simply mixing up the lines again.

  2. Agree 100% with the above comment.

    But at the end of the day it doesn't matter as long as NBC is running things... Their Western Conference national ratings darlings will always go farther than the Blues.