SUMMER BLUES

Doug Armstrong
(image from stlblues.com)

 

It’s been too long.  The fans know it.  The ownership/management knows it.  And, most of all, the players know it.  No matter how much St. Louis hockey fans love their Blues, if someone talks about making the playoffs, Jim Mora’s famous feigned perplexity comes to mind, “Playoffs?”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3-eavMSBnk

To this writer, however, the more important question coming out of last season was, “What if we get to the playoffs?”  With a roster so young the team parties should be held at Chuckie Cheese, it was hard to find someone on the team that could take up the leadership role so desperately needed in the trench warfare that the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs have become.  The team needed a hero.  Who would that hero be?  I have news for you – he doesn’t wear a jersey.  This year’s hero is Blues General Manager, Doug Armstrong.

“Army”, as he is affectionately known, heroically swooped in this summer and has answered my biggest worry.  The Blues young team has earned a reputation as one that is very tough to play against – when they’re on their game.  But how many times have we seen them get a couple bad breaks and end up losing by big numbers?  It’s the kind of pratfall a young team can get caught in (those darn kids and their emotions…); and it’s the last thing you want your team to be known for in the playoffs.

Well, Army came to the rescue.  He first traded for some new attitude by bringing in the versatile and exciting Chris Stewart last season.  And he somehow goaded the Avalanche into throwing in the extremely gifted defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (or defenceman, if you’re reading this in Canada…) on the deal.

Then the offseason came.  Honestly, the only coveted player on the market was Brad Richards; but the Blues obviously didn’t have the sixty million dollars (which just might get him a one-bedroom apartment in New York) he was looking for.

Army stood by and waited out the market.  The old Sun Tzu adage is to know your enemy.  Army wanted to see what his opponents would do before he made his decisions.  And his art of war could pay off for the Blues.

What did he do?  He only added 343 career playoff games to the roster.  Yes, 343.  Before the offseason, the entire Blues roster had only 131 career playoff games.  It doesn’t take a statistician to see what kind of difference that could make if the Blues make it to the playoffs.  Contrary to what many might have thought, Army must have been planning this all along.  “We’re in a place now where we really believe that we’re ready to take the next step.”

Army took his time to know what he would need (resigning the key young free agents like Patrik Berglund and TJ Oshie), what he had to acquire it (he got his budget about a month before the signings), and then went out and saved the day (with next to nothing).  He added Kent Huskins, whose 47 playoff games, coveted size (6’4”, 210), and revered steadiness (career +40), will help solidify an already talented group of defensemen.  And, as we learned last year with all the injuries on the blue line, you can never have enough quality defensemen.  Then he shored up the backup goaltender ranks by getting journeyman backup Brian Elliot to compete with the Des Peres Giant, Ben Bishop.  And then came the big two days, July 5th and 6th.  On the 6th, he added two former team captains in Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner.  The previous day, he recruited checker Scott Nichol to join the platoon.

Arnott will add some scoring touch around the net, and so will Langenbrunner.  For those who say they’re finished, remember how many people said Lance Berkman was finished when the St. Louis Cardinals took a chance on the man formerly known as “Fat Elvis”.  After working his butt off in the offseason, “Big Puma” looks more like “Medium Puma” (OK: “Extra-Medium Puma”), and is well on his way to a career year.  I bet Yankees fans wish New York wasn’t finished with him.

Forget offensive production for a moment.  What Berkman brought to the Cardinals was a different attitude.  And that’s what Arnott and Langs will bring to the Blues – not to mention their Stanley Cups.  Veteran leadership can go a long way in the protracted war of attrition that an NHL season is.  That is no rip on the current leaders of the Blues.  David Backes, Alex Steen, and Barrett Jackman deserve respect for fighting through these lean years of watching other teams in the playoffs.  It has not been their fault that the team has struggled through financial troubles.  Army alluded that he was still confident in their leadership by saying “our captain isn’t going to come from a free agent signing.”  Jackman emerged last year as a leader – by far his best year since winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie.  Backes, an All-Star, is a joy to watch as opposing players try to hit him and get the worst of their own checks.  Steen is a master with the puck, and his overall play has greatly improved while wearing the ‘Note.

Let’s not forget about the other warrior Army recruited, Scott Nichol.  Blues fans are going to love this guy – the kind of gadfly you love on your team, but despise when he plays for someone else.  Geoff Courtnall, anyone?  OK, he might not offer the scoring production “Courts” gave the Blues, but I doubt Nichol got anything close to the minutes “Courts” got.  Also, the Evgeny Grachev deal could end up being a huge plus for this team for years to come.  The 21-year-old man-child (6’4”, 224) just didn’t fit in with New York, and a new home (the antithesis of New York, actually) could be the best thing for the forward.  Again, look at Berkman.

Army said he wanted to create some competition in the lineup; my translation of that is he wanted to have a team of actual NHL players, and not two lines of AHL players like last year.

Head Coach Payne obviously appreciated it, “We’re ready now, and guys have to be willing to play their part and sacrifice a little bit so that this group is four lines deep and ready for the season.”  Payne had to be getting tired of trying to convince TJ Hensick that he was still playing college hockey…

We all know it’s time to return to the trenches of the playoffs.  This team is ready, and so are the fans.  The fans proved they were ready last year by filling up the Scottrade Center every game.  But nothing makes a team more marketable to a potential owner than playoff success.  Army said it best, “Our fan base has been patient; we want to show them that their patience is going to pay off.”  Somebody, please, get the hero a cape…

 

CARDS

Kyle Lohse, as Tony La Russa (Image from: baseballpranks.com)

 

Maybe Kyle Lohse should be handing in the lineup cards from now on.  Cards manager Tony La Russa turned in the wrong lineup Friday night.  Though some bloggers have ridiculously insinuated that the game was affected, baseball is far too complicated a game to say that substituting one player for another can be the sole reason for defeat.  No matter what, it appears that the All-Star Break couldn’t have come any sooner; TLR has worked through countless injuries to key players, an eye infection, and a sulking superstar.  It’s amazing they’re still tied for first place.  It’s a testament to the manager, and the attitude that Berkman (and others like Nick Punto) brings to the team.  And we can’t forget the gutsy performance of Matt Holliday this year.

By the way, what is it with the Cardinals and beating rookies for game-winning hits, as if they owe the veterans money?  Tony Cruz was attacked by his teammates after his winner Saturday night, another in a long line of vicious (but quite funny) assaults.  He took more punches than Devon Alexander did at the Family Arena in June – which was quite a lot.  If I was Cruz, the next time I get a game-winning single I’d keep running past first base and out to my car.