Listen to this quote from St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock: "I've talked to the players, most of them in the last two weeks. Everybody's in a hurry to get going here, and that's a good sign. I think we're going to be a very hungry hockey club."
He didn't say that this week. He didn't say that in September, when training camps were supposed to open. He said that in June, when he was in Las Vegas picking up the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s coach of the year.
If the Blues felt that way then, how do you think they feel now that the season is finally starting Saturday? They were primed to contend already because of their hunger and improved health, and the lockout should work to their advantage because of their continuity, structure, depth and goaltending. They are set up for this 48-game sprint in the West like the New York Rangers are in the East.
The goal is no longer growth. When the Blues announced a five-year extension Wednesday for Doug Armstrong, the NHL’s reigning general manager of the year, Armstrong said in a statement that Hitchcock and his staff "believe we have constructed the foundation necessary to compete year in and year out and deliver St. Louis its first Stanley Cup."
The Blues know what it takes. They know because after Hitchcock took over a 6-7-0 team and turned it into a 49-22-11 team, good for 109 points and second place in the West, they ran into the Los Angeles Kings in the second round.
And they got swept.
Despite all they had done, they were reduced to stepping stones for the eventual Stanley Cup champions. They learned an important lesson for a team that had made the playoffs only once in the previous six seasons. The Kings were simply more determined and desperate – going to the net harder, defending their net harder, winning more board battles, grabbing more loose pucks. The Kings were willing to go a little bit further in every hard area of the ice.
"All of us recognize that there's the next level out there," Hitchcock said in Vegas. "I think what we're lucky about is, we lost to the team that won it, so we know what the level is. Now we know the level we have to play at just to get back there."
"We can be one of two things," Armstrong said then. "We can be a nice, one-year story, and then we can fade into the background, or we can be a team that needs to be reckoned with. We challenged our players to go home and train that way, to realize that regardless of the number of points we had, we're still 12 wins away from where we want to be."
The sweep burned captain David Backes. He called it an "embarrassment." He didn't watch every game the Kings played the next two rounds, but he watched enough to confirm the thoughts he had while he was fishing with his old man or whenever else the nightmare popped into his head. He had lunch with Hitchcock to "scheme on how we're going to get there," as he put it.
"It's exciting to say, 'The destination, we can see it,' " Backes said in Vegas. "But to get there, we're going to need everybody, and moving forward, I think we're going to have a good chat."
That means Backes won't hold back if he thinks somebody needs a kick in the butt.
"We've had a good group of guys that's willing to do whatever it takes," Backes said. "But there's a few guys that we can identify that if it was going to come easy, they were going to take it, but if it was going to be a hard road to go, they were going to bow out. … This game's all about winning and it's about results, and we're going to either make those changes or suffer the consequences. I think everyone in the organization is willing to make those changes so we can have that success."
The good news is, the Blues will have just about everybody in body, which gives them a chance to have everybody in spirit. Their only major loss was veteran Jason Arnott. Their only major newcomer is rookie Vladimir Tarasenko – and he was a first-round pick in 2010 who has produced in the Kontinental Hockey League. Chris Stewart seems in shape and motivated to become a top power forward. Andy McDonald, David Perron and Alexander Steen are healthy after missing significant time.
"We've got another gear we can play at, just based on health alone," Hitchcock said.
Not one Blue had more than 54 points last season. No one ranked in the top 70 in scoring. But that's a good thing. The Blues won anyway, because they had scoring depth, excellent team defense and great goaltending. Now they think they could have multiple players with 60-plus points, and there is no reason to think they won't continue to have scoring depth, excellent team defense and great goaltending.
Hitchcock was energized by his time out of coaching when he took over last season, and he got the Blues going quickly by drawing on his experience with short preparation in international tournaments. Now he has had another layoff to be energized. He can draw on that same experience – plus his surveying of NBA coaches and what they learned from their lockout-shortened 2011-12 season – but he comes back with his personnel and system intact. He doesn't need to teach new concepts or terminology. He can refresh it all and go.
The Blues open with six games in nine nights. They will play 10 sets of back-to-backs. They will play 14 out of 20 on the road at one point. They will play 48 games in 99 days. The compressed, intra-conference schedule will be a factor for everyone, especially in the West because of the heavier travel, but it will force the Blues to focus. It will be a playoff push the whole way.
And it will help that they can roll four lines and lean on their structure. They have a Norris Trophy candidate leading their defense in Alex Pietrangelo, and they can rotate Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak in net. They had the equivalent of two No. 1 goalies last season, as Elliott and Halak shared the Jennings Trophy for the NHL's lowest goals-against average. If one falters, they always have the other one.
"We got to stare what it takes to win a Stanley Cup right in the face, and we got to battle those four games and really see the difference in what was in our locker room and what was in their locker room," Backes said. "As far as players on paper, it really wasn't that different, but what they had as far as the mentality and as far as the buy-in from all their guys, that's what the difference was. How we get there, that's probably the million-dollar question."
Now, finally, we'll see if the Blues have the answer.
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