After 13 games in the 2011-12 season, the St. Louis Blues were a middling 6-7. Thus ended the tenure of Coach Davis Payne, as GM Doug Armstrong called in an old friend: Ken Hitchcock, who coached for Armstrong in Dallas.
The result: Hitchcock improved the team's special teams, solidified the defense and led the Blues to 109 points and first in the Western Conference. They defeated the San Jose Sharks in five games, but lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in four games.
Can Hitchcock get the same results from a team that didn't see much turnover during the offseason, or was last season lightning in a bottle?
"Karma's a Hitch"
The Blues had a rather quiet offseason, which could be chalked up to a cautious approach from new owner Tom Stillman — or simply a desire to continue playing a winning hand.
Joining the Blues via free agency were Jeff Woywitka, defenseman from the Rangers; Andrew Murray, a center from San Jose; and Taylor Chorney, defenseman from Edmonton.
Another addition: Highly-touted rookie Vladimir Tarasenko signed after playing in the KHL. He can do this.
Leaving the Blues: Defensemen Danny Syvret (Flyers) and Carlo Colaiacovo (Red Wings), as well as unsigned veteran center Jason Arnott. They also traded grinder B.J. Crombeen to the Lightning.
At forward … David Backes saw his offensive numbers slip (24 goals, 54 points) but thrived as a leader under Hitchcock. He finally received recognition of his defensive prowess with a Selke nomination. T.J. Oshie had a career best 54 points, while David Perron rebounded from a career-threatening concussion to post the best points per game average (0.74) of his career.
Andy McDonald was limited to 25 games due to injury, but put up a strong 22 points. His frequent linemate Patrik Berglund had 19 goals. Alex Steen also battled through injuries, but was right around his expected level of production with 28 points.
Chris Stewart was a significant disappointment for the Blues, failing to fulfill the promise of his 28-goal season. He had 15 goals and 15 assists, was demoted down the lineup and was a healthy scratch twice in the playoffs. He's back on a 1-year deal.
Hitchcock liked to use Vladimir Sobotka in a number of different roles, and saw some time on the top line last season. He plays bigger than his size, and could be a good first linemate for Tarasenko.
Jamie Langenbrunner, back on a 1-year deal, is no longer a goal-scoring threat, with six in 70 games last season. But he brings some veteran leadership, and experience playing under Hitchcock. Matt D'Agostini's numbers dipped, as did his ice time. Scott Nichol, 37, returns as a truculent veteran down the lineup, and Ryan Reaves brings extra size and toughness.
The wild card at forward: Jaden Schwartz, who showed flashes of potential in 19 games last season and is a prized prospect.
On defense … Alex Pietrangelo had a breakout offensive season, and an overall campaign that deserved more Norris Trophy love. With Colaiacovo moving on, the options for Pietrangelo's new partner on the left side might be Ian Cole (15:55 TOI in 26 games last season) or Hitchcock favorite Kris Russell (plus-13 in 43 games). But really, anyone on the Blues' blueline will thrive with Pietrangelo.
Kevin Shattenkirk has posted 9 goals and 34 assists in each of his first two NHL seasons, and was a plus-20 last season. He could partner with veteran Barrett Jackman, who opted not to play the UFA game by signing a 3-year deal with the Blues. He was a plus-20 in 81 games last season. Roman Polak brings a solid defensive defenseman game, skating 18:52 per game last season. Jeff Woywitka brings depth and a rather high Words With Friends score.
Kent Huskins waits and wonders if the team needs another D-man.
In goal … Brian Elliott was snubbed in the Vezina voting after a record-setting season for the Blues. His 38 games might not have been a large enough sample, but his 1.56 GAA, .940 save percentage and nine shutouts in that span were incredible. He inked a 2-year extension with the Blues.
Jaroslav Halak found himself in another goalie platoon thanks to Elliott, but also benefitted from the Hitchcock system: 1.97 GAA and a .926 save percentage in winning 26 games in 46 appearances.
We'll go with DJ Quali-T with "Were (sic) Coming For It", because it manages to so deftly rhyme "it" with … "it."
Ken Hitchcock's Jack Adams Award-winning season for the Blues saw them go 43-15-11 under his guidance. He helped turn around their special teams, squeezed complete performances out of players like Oshie and transformed the Blues into a defensive juggernaut. He's one of the finest coaches in hockey, and a pretty good dude at that.
Armstrong's decision to hire Hitchcock could be seen as a panic move, knowing that new ownership might want its own people in place for the Blues. Whatever the case, it was a stroke of genius and earned Armstrong the chance to construct a champion with the purse strings finally loosened (one assumes).
We got a good glimpse at the St. Louis Blues without Pietrangelo and with a less-than-100-percent Pietrangelo in the series vs. the Kings. He led the team in the regular season in TOI (24:43) by over three minutes a game over the next highest ice-time earner. He's essential on the kill and on the power play.
Tarasenko is fast, strong and has been playing against professional competition since he was 16. The Blues have been eager to get him over to the NHL, and for good reasons: He's got the skills to challenge for the Calder if given the chance.
Elliott. It's nearly unfathomable that he'll be able to replicate his record numbers from last season, but we'd be happy to have been proven wrong.
"He's tough. He's rugged. He answers with his fists. He scores dirty goals. And he's a born leader.
"So why does David Backes continue to lie about being a Canadian?
"Paid for by Hockey Canada."
There's no reason to believe that the Blues and Hitchcock will regress, especially with the rest of the Central Division facing some adversity (goodbye, Misters Lidstrom and Suter). They'll still need another veteran defenseman and a veteran winger to get over the hump and challenge for the Cup, but the window is wide open for this group.
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