Saturday, May 28, 2016

Blues head into summer of uncertainty

Roster as it ended in conference final almost certainly 
won't start next next season as is; Hitchcock status uncertain again 

ST. LOUIS -- It's too soon to start thinking about the future just yet, especially in the immediate aftermath of a playoff series loss that stung the Blues like no other in recent memory.

But the facts must be addressed at some point: what will become of the Blues moving forward after a six-game series loss to the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference Final?
(St. Louis Blues photo)
The Blues will have lots of questions to answer this summer, including if
coach Ken Hitchcock (top) will return for a sixth season.

* Will coach Ken Hitchcock, who at 64 is comfortable with one-year contracts (he signed one for 2015-16), return after arguably his best coaching job in five seasons here? 

* What will become of some of the prominent unrestricted free agents, including captain David Backes, who completed his 10th season with the only NHL team he's ever known? Or how about Troy Brouwer, acquired past summer from Washington for the popular T.J. Oshie? Both Backes and Brouwer had terrific playoffs and their stock only went up with their performances.

* How much money will the Blues invest in restricted free agent Jaden Schwartz?

* Do the Blues try and trade some of their prominent pieces (Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrik Berglund and/or Jay Bouwmeester) to A) free up some money and B) bring in assets this way instead of adding free agents, which will be difficult considering the Blues being pressed up against the salary cap? 

* What becomes of veteran fourth-line forwards, and UFAs, Steve Ott, Kyle Brodziak and Scottie Upshall? Do any of them return? Do the Blues ove on without all of them and retool back there?

* Will Vladimir Sobotka, who's played with Avangard Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, return following a two-year hiatus and fulfill the $2.7 million arbitration-awarded one-year contract?

Many other questions, including that of star forward Vladimir Tarasenko, who until Game 6 when he scored two virtually meaningless goals, was held off the scoreboard against the Sharks and had his conditioning level questioned; what will management say to him and how will he embrace and understand what it takes to reach the pinnacle? 

Blues players will clean out their lockers on Saturday morning and head off to their destinations of the summer to refresh, recharge and come back in late August/early September with a new understanding and hunger to strive higher after coming so close. Hitchcock and general manager Doug Armstrong will address the media Tuesday morning.

But in the aftermath of the loss to the Sharks, it was quite evident it will take more than just a few days to recover from the furthest run this franchise has seen since 1986 (the Blues reached the conference final in 2001 but were eliminated in five games by Colorado).

"Yeah, it's really disappointing because it's so hard to win in the league right now," Hitchcock said. "It's so hard to win a series, it's so hard to just get into the playoffs. And when you get this far and you get this close, you think you've got the opportunity, and when you have a team like us, which is very much a team, you want to see them successful. They poured a lot into it and poured a lot into it through a lot of adversity and then came out on top. But they're hurting right now; we're all hurting. You don't want this to be our best opportunity, you want it to be a building block. But in this game, in this era, in this cap world, you don't know where you're going to be a year from now. This was a great opportunity and guys are really, really disappointed."

Judging by the players' reactions after the game at SAP Center, it was evident that this one will sting if not for days, weeks, even months.

"There's nothing you can really say to make anybody feel any better than they do. We all know the feeling, we all have it," Brouwer said. "We're all disappointed. An opportunity missed. It's going to hurt for a while. It does whether you lose in the first round or even if you get closer. It was still that same feeling, but to know that we were two wins away from playing for a Cup, it hurts."

Guys like Alex Pietrangelo, drafted in 2008 and completing his seventh full season, are equally upset and hurt. As is Alexander Steen, who was brought here through trade with Toronto in 2010.

"This is the closest we've ever been, this is the closest a lot of guys have ever been, especially guys who have been here for a long time," Pietrangelo said. "A lot of guys have put in a lot of time here. It's pretty disappointing.

"You can appreciate it. We've come pretty far. There (were) only four teams left, we've accomplished a lot this year, but it (was) pretty quiet in the room."

Steen said: "I'm proud of the group in a sense that right from the goalies to everybody who came in throughout the playoffs, it's not the result we were looking for. It's a tough feeling, but the boys battled and gave everything we had. We lost to a strong opponent. We had some good efforts here. It's a tough feeling. Everybody poured everything into it."

Which is why Hitchcock wasn't going to talk to the team in the immediate aftermath. 

"I'm not going to talk to them for a day or two," Hitchcock said after the game. "They need their space with each other. They've bonded here better than any team I've coached in the last 10 years. They need their time together. They don't need me interrupting anything right now. We'll talk at the appropriate time, but right now, they need to be with each other."

The Blues will be with each other one more time Saturday, then it will be a summer of uncertainty. Armstrong will have his hands full trying to retool this roster while managing the team's finances and complying with the cap numbers. That's what made this loss so tough, since the players bonded together in a way that they wanted to make sure was inseparable.

"I love playing with these guys," Brouwer said. "Everyone in here was a phenomenal guy, everyone in here was a phenomenal teammate. We had a lot of laughs, a lot of good times and it’s disappointing that we’re all going home for the summer without an opportunity to compete for rings.

"I don’t know exactly what the whole situation with signing players and cap issues are nowadays. I think if we can keep this team together, we still have a great opportunity for next year. Our young guys are going to have a year of experience. The guys in here who have made it to the third round for the first time have more experience, knows what it takes. I think all of this is only going to make this team and this franchise better. ... I've really enjoyed my year here. Coming here and not knowing what to expect, it was all good things. Phenomenal franchise from ownership down, great guys in the room, great city. I really, really enjoyed my year here."
(St. Louis Blues photo)
One of the many questions looming for the Blues is whether they will bring
Troy Brouwer (36) back. Brouwer can become a UFA on July 1.

One thing the Blues did accomplish: they brought a city together that had little hope for them when it came to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They've brought closer that winning feeling and hope that heading into the 50th anniversary of the franchise's birth, that they're closer to breaking through that not.

"I think the city of St. Louis, the fans, the people of St. Louis fell in love with the team because of this never-say-die attitude they have," Hitchcock said. "They're disappointed like we are, but they fell in love with a hockey club that just poured it all in every night, and had to. It wasn't just connected to winning, it was connected to the way we played, the way the players carried themselves, the way they dealt with you (media) folks in a very classy way, this was a special bond that was created by the players and they won the fans over and they won the people of the city over. It's pretty impressive. I'm sure there's people in the city of St. Louis that are just as disappointed as they are right now, but they won them over. They deserved to win them over by the way they acted and behaved."

* NOTE -- The remainder of the World Cup of Hockey rosters were announced on Friday, and to go with Steen (Sweden), Jori Lehtera (Finland), Tarasenko (Russia) and Sobotka (Czech Republic), Backes (USA), Pietrangelo (Canada), Colton Parayko (North America) and Dmitrij Jaskin (Czech Republic) were added to their respective rosters on Friday.

Some of the notable omissions included Shattenkirk (USA) and Robby Fabbri (North America).

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