David Backes expected big changes in St. Louis this off-season.
In June, more than a month after the Blues’ season had ended, Backes, the club’s captain, didn’t mince words when talking about what he expected for the future of the team.
“I do expect change as far as we didn’t get a job done and there needs to be some change or else you’re buying into complete insanity, which is doing the same thing and expecting different results,” Backes told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I do expect change to happen. On what scale and what realms, that (GM Doug Armstrong’s) baby and that’s what his position does.
“I do expect that the same 23-25 faces won’t be back. In a typical year, that means it’s four or five guys (leaving). If it’s that number or maybe a couple more, that wouldn’t be surprising to me. Who that would be is speculative at best in my book.”
Backes definitely wasn’t the only one expecting changes, especially after the Blues finished their fourth straight season in the top two of the Central Division and had a third consecutive flameout in the first round of the post-season. For several players to be moved would have made sense and certainly wouldn’t have been shocking. But with the off-season inching ever-closer to an end, have the Blues really done enough — or anything — to snap their puzzling post-season drought?
Three straight first-round outs usually lead to a number of changes, so that would have been easy to expect . However, the only major moves Armstrong has made to reshape the franchise were the trade of T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer and the decisions to not re-sign blueliners Zybnek Michalek and Barret Jackman. Outside of that, the Blues have made minor moves, bringing in defensemen Andre Benoit and Peter Harrold and depth forwards Kyle Brodziak, Jordan Caron and Danny Kristo. Those changes will impact the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, more than they will the big club.
Up front, the lines will look nearly identical to what they did in 2014-15. Brouwer will slide into a second- or third-line role and Brodziak is slotted as a fourth-line center. Other than that, don’t expect much difference from what was a powerful offense this past season. Defensively, Petteri Lindbohm is likely to come in and play his first full season after suiting up for 23 games in 2014-15, and the top-four of Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester and Carl Gunnarsson still remain.
So, in total, the moves include acquiring Troy Brouwer and a handful of bottom-of-the-roster talent, bringing a rookie defenseman into a bottom-pairing role and saying goodbye to some veteran blueliners. That doesn’t represent a massive sea change for the Blues.
One of the more head-scratching decisions made by the Blues is that coach Ken Hitchcock will be back for a fifth campaign in St. Louis. Early in the off-season there were rumors the Blues were interested in bringing free agent coach Mike Babcock into the fold. Babcock, of course, signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs May 20 and it took until May 26 — exactly one month after St. Louis’ post-season elimination — for Hitchcock to get a one-year deal.
Hitchcock is far from a bad coach, but that he’s gone bust early in the post-season for four consecutive years could have been reason enough for the Blues to take a new direction. But maybe the change can come not from roster moves, but rather a change in mindset by the coaching staff. Hitchcock believes he has a way for the Blues to change their fate without necessarily shuffling the deck.
“We’ve got to go back to reckless,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch’s Tom Timmermann following his re-signing. “(Our style is) too conservative, it’s too careful, it’s too much skill ahead of work. We’ve got to get back to reckless. We’ve got more skill than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. But skilled, careful hockey doesn’t win. You’ve got to play reckless. We need to get back to the reckless play we had before. That’s what Doug and I talked about. You can do it and still be responsible. But we’ve got to get back to reckless play. We’ve got to ask more people to be involved offensively and defensively.”
With a stable of blueliners that includes Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester, maybe reckless can work. But if the high-risk, high-reward style backfires, the onus will be on goaltenders Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, a tandem that still has more than its fair share of doubters, to step up when required. With a surefire No. 1 goaltender, maybe the reckless style of play Hitchcock is after in 2015-16 wouldn’t be cause for concern, but neither Allen nor Elliott are the Carey Prices or Henrik Lundqvists of the NHL.
Under Hitchcock, the Blues have been one of the most defensively sound teams, surrendering only 26.4 shots per game over the past four years, the best mark in the NHL. It doesn’t mean the style won’t work, but only that it could put a considerable amount of pressure on St. Louis’ goaltenders.
Overall, however, those changes that were expected didn’t come. Offensively, defensively, between the pipes and behind the bench, these are largely the same Blues. So maybe the Blues are buying into the insanity that Backes talked about, but there’s potential that this roster being together for one more season could be all the Blues need.
In three of the past four seasons, St. Louis was ousted by either the eventual Stanley Cup champion or a club that made the Western Conference final. Last season, they lost to one of the hottest teams in hockey, the Minnesota Wild. Given a good draw in the first round, the Blues could pick up steam and make quick work of some opponents, at which point insanity might appear to be the best policy.
But if the whole thing backfires — if the Blues are one-and-done again in 2015-16 — don’t expect summer 2016 to be one where St. Louis stands pat.