ST. LOUIS – Thirteen games in, another St. Louis Blues youth movement was foundering. Even after fortifying the roster with a smattering of seasoned playoff veterans, they were just 6-7.
Once and for all, the front office needed to know if it was on the right track hoping that a collection of high draft picks could make a run at top tier of the NHL.
“We just had too many young players we weren’t sure about,” team president John Davidson said. “Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to rely on those guys. It was time to show us something.”
In early November, the Blues replaced one of the youngest coaches in the league with the most experienced hand on the market. They’ve been an elite team since the day Ken Hitchcock, pushing 60, replaced 41-year-old Davis Payne and took charge.
“Hitch knows exactly what this team needs to be successful,” forward David Perron said. “He’s leaned really hard on us and we’ve responded.
“All the guys in this room are making it happen.”
A franchise that had missed the playoffs five of the previous six seasons was the first to qualify this season. The first to clinch its division, too.
The Blues entered the final weekend having clinched no worse than the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, and with an outside shot at the President’s Trophy despite a so-so finish. It’s their first playoff berth since 2008-09, when they were a No. 6 seed and made a quick exit.
“We needed somebody with a resume that was long, and Ken was available,” Davidson said. “Everybody wanted to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and say, ‘OK, let’s go!'”
St. Louis stockpiled draft picks during lean times and Perron, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo are all former first-rounders. Captain David Backes was a second-round pick. Now those picks are finally paying off.
The Blues have a pair of young offensive-minded defencemen in Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in 2008, and Kevin Shattenkirk, a former Avalanche first-rounder acquired in a trade with Colorado for former No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson. The duo had combined for nearly 100 points without sacrificing in their own end, with both among the league leaders in plus-minus.
The 22-year-old Pietrangelo is the youngest player in franchise history with consecutive 40-point seasons, and is among the league’s most durable players, too, playing 24 or more minutes in a dozen consecutive games entering the weekend.
“He’s had very few low points and he’s logged a lot of minutes,” veteran defenceman Barret Jackman said. “He knows when to get rid of it, knows when to skate. Leaps and bounds.”
The offence lacks a bonafide scoring threat or a line that’ll scare you, with only Backes, Oshie and Pietrangelo topping 50 points. So it relies instead on a relentless attacking style to wear down the opposition. Veterans Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol, all signed last summer with the belief the franchise was ready to make a move, add seasoning.
What makes this team really click is the league’s best goaltending tandem.
Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have combined for an NHL-record 15 shutouts, tying the mark set by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1969-70. Elliott leads the NHL with a 1.49 goals-against average and has nine of the shutouts, and had a scoreless streak of more than 3 1/2 games before giving up two late goals in a shootout loss to the Red Wings on Wednesday.
Halak, who had seven more starts than Elliott, was fifth in the league with a 1.97 goals-against average. Both are 26.
“Our goaltending has been unbelievable all year,” Jackman said.
When the playoffs start, Hitchcock probably will have to choose between the spidery Halak, who came to the Blues after a deep playoff run with the Canadiens, or Elliott, who fills more of the net, is more fundamentally sound and was the franchise’s lone all-star representative.
“Don’t go there,” Hitchcock said earlier this week. “I’ll go there next week.”
St. Louis entered the weekend with a shot at the league record for fewest goals allowed in a season, and its stingy penalty killers had allowed a goal on just five of 91 chances.
Until the last few games the Blues have been a juggernaut at home, setting a franchise record with 65 points and with just five regulation losses.
“St. Louis is a great team,” Columbus interim coach Brad Richards said. “They’re going to test you, they’re going to make you make mistakes.”
Unlike last season, when injuries exposed a lack of depth and the Blues faded, the lineup has weathered extended absences for Perron, Andy McDonald and Alex Steen due to concussions.
“The players’ buy-in has really made me proud,” Hitchcock said. “They’ve been willing to look in the mirror, do the hard things, change in some cases individually, and collectively.
“I’m very impressed. That’s what’s given us a chance.”
Hitchcock is the Blues’ fourth coach in six years, all of them in-season hires. He’s hired through next season, and figures to end the revolving door.
This is his sixth division champion and 10th playoff team in 15 seasons.
“He’s a great hockey mind,” Jackman said. “He’s pretty loose most of the time, too, keeping the guys focused but having fun.”
It was an easy call to make for general manager Doug Armstrong, who was an assistant GM when Hitchcock coached the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup in 1998-99. Davidson has known Hitchcock for decades, too.
During a 1 1/2-year absence from coaching after getting fired by the Columbus Blue Jackets, Hitchcock prepared mentally and physically for what might be his final shot. While scrutinizing rosters and doing his own job of scouting, Hitchcock embraced a workout routine and improved diet habits.
He gets points for trying to better relate to a younger generation and its reliance on social media.
“He didn’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring,” Davidson said. “He made himself a better man, a better coach, so when the opportunity came around he’d be ready.”
Hitchcock didn’t change much. He just made players accountable.
“We feel like if we work,” Hitchcock said, “we’re going to win.”