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TJ Oshie in Pregame (Mark Buckner/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS, MO.  (Joe Richter, Missouri Sports Magazine) – You’ve probably heard several times over the last week that St. Louis Blues Head Coach Ken Hitchcock is the longest tenured coach in St. Louis professional sports.  Tony La Russa retired from the Cardinals and Steve Spagnuolo was fired by the Rams, leaving “Hitch” as the coach who’s been in St. Louis the longest.  He laughs about that fact, but he’s not laughing about the team he coaches.  With a dominant 4-0 win Saturday night against one of the hottest teams in the National Hockey League – the Colorado Avalanche (9-1-0 in the ten games preceding Saturday) – the Blues moved into first place in the Central Division, and second in the Western Conference.  Considering the teams they leapfrogged, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings (who play each other Sunday night), the NHL is finding out that the Blues are no laughing matter.  They’re doing it right.

The franchise was collapsing under previous ownership – ever since the Blues traded Norris Trophy winning defenseman Chris Pronger (like him or hate him) the team has been a bottom feeder.  They’ve made the playoffs just once since then, a 4-0 sweep in the first round.  But then a guy named John Davidson came to town.

The Blues made Davidson the President of Hockey Operations, and things have improved ever since.  Davidson changed the attitude of the franchise.  He brought in some bright management people – such as wisely bringing the great Al MacInnis aboard as VP of Hockey Operations.  Jarmo Kekäläinen (who moved back to his native Finland) set the stage for what we’re seeing on the ice with some excellent drafting.  Bill Armstrong also was instrumental in the strong player development since 2004 – and it was no surprise he took over the team’s drafting.  The Blues brought in some great names as scouts, as well, and longtime Blues fans can’t help but crack a smile at some of the names – Rob DiMaio (pro scout), Basil McRae (part-time amateur scout), Rick Meagher (part-time amateur scout), Michel Picard (part-time amateur scout).

The result is a stockpile of talent.  Since 2004, the Blues have eleven draftees that are currently playing in the NHL – and many more who are on the cusp, such as Phil McRae and Ben Bishop.  Since 2005 (not counting developing first round picks from 2010 Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko), the Blues haven’t missed on a first round pick.   Every player drafted by the Blues in the first round between 2005 and 2009 are currently in the NHL, and five of those eight (TJ Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, Ian Cole and Alex Pietrangelo) are productive players on the team right now.  When it comes to scouting, the Blues are doing it right.

Blues Celebrate a Goal (Buckner/Getty)

So many ex-Blues have stayed with the team – most notably Bruce Affleck, who’s been a fixture with the team for decades.  Affleck is Vice President, Broadcasting and Blues Alumni.  He’s part of an alumni group that shows what Blues hockey is all about.  They are constantly seeking ways to help the community and grow the game of hockey in St. Louis.  The franchise should be extremely proud of what their ex-players do for the city.  The team has reached out to the community in many facets, with names you never hear despite their contributions such as Randy Girsch and Lamont Buford.  When it comes to the greater St. Louis community and having a group of alumni that develops the game in the city, the Blues are doing it right.

But let’s get back to the current Blues.  And if we do that, we have to talk about Doug Armstrong.  Armstrong didn’t have much salary room to work with, but he signed the players the Blues needed to take the next step.  The depth he added to the team, supplementing what the Blues have done in drafts, gave the team the kind of roster that could get them back to the playoffs.  He didn’t just fix the roster to get back to the playoffs, though; he adjusted the roster to go deep in the playoffs.  Goaltender Brian Elliott has been a nice surprise, but the contributions of veteran forwards Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner have given the Blues an element they didn’t have – playoff experience.  Both have won Stanley Cups, and Arnott even scored the Cup-winning goal.  Before this previous offseason, the Blues were so young that the team parties should have been held at Chuckie Cheese.  After Armstrong was done adding experience, the Blues looked more like a championship team.  He added well over three hundred career playoff games to the roster, nearly tripling the amount of playoff games played by players on his team’s roster.  The attitude in the locker room changed.  The Blues went from a team that felt it could make the playoffs to a team that felt it could compete long into the NHL’s second season – the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Armstrong’s work over the offseason is the biggest reason the Blues are doing it right.

The Blues didn’t take the NHL by storm, however.  They struggled around the .500 mark for the first month of the season.  The “maybe” attitude seemed to be returning.  Enter Ken Hitchcock.

Hitchcock simplified the game for the Blues; and the team’s record since he started with the team (18-5-5) really gives the team hope that they truly are a Cup contender.  The Blues brought in a coach with a Stanley Cup and over 500 career wins in Hitch, and his confidence and work ethic has infected the Blues.  Bringing in a winner such as Hitch is yet another reason the Blues are doing it right.

Finally, the Blues never take for granted the kind of fans they have.  Oshie, Perron, Hitchcock and others have praised the kind of lift they get when they play in front of the home crowd.  They know how much this town loves their Blues, and they know how much this town deserves a parade down Market Street with the team carrying the Cup.  They know it is time to dethrone the perennial contenders in the Western Conference.  And they must know they’re doing it right.

(Buckner/Getty Images)

NEXT UP

The Blues (24-12-5) head north to take on the Montreal Canadians (16-18-7) in Montreal, Quebec Tuesday night.  Game time Tuesday is early, 6:30 CST.

 

INTO THE BLUE

  • Blues first round pick Jaden Schwartz (14th overall, 2010) was Team Canada’s captain at the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championships.  Schwartz, 19, is currently second in scoring at Colorado College with 21 points (7g, 14a, +5) in 14 games.  His older brother, Rylan, is first in scoring on the team with 26 points (17g, 9a, +4) in 19 games.  Schwartz had two goals and three assists in six WJC games.
  • The Blues are 22nd (before Sunday’s games) in the NHL in power play efficiency, going 21-for-142 (14.8%).  The Blues’ penalty killing units have allowed 25 goals in 140 (82.1%) shorthanded situations (18th before Sunday’s games).
  • Rookie defenseman Cade Fairchild (4th round, 2007) was sent back to Peoria due to the return of defenseman Ian Cole from his three-game suspension.  In four games played, Fairchild had no points, one shot and a minus-1 plus/minus rating.
  • Alex Steen is still sidelined with concussion-like symptoms, as is Andy McDonald.  However, McDonald is skating in practice with a “no-contact” jersey.
  • Rugged forward Ryan Reaves returned from a hip injury on Saturday night.  He had just over eight minutes in ice time, and had 12 minutes in penalties.
  • Defenseman Kent Huskins (fractured foot) is skating in practice, but it will take time for him to get in a game.
  • The St. Louis Blues Alumni played the Lindenwood Lions ice hockey team (coached by former Blues defenseman Rick Zombo) in an exhibition game on January 8th.  The proceeds went to the Disabled Athletes Sports Association.

 

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