For the record, Keith Tkachuk liked the St. Louis Blues’ direction before they acquired the best goalie in the 2010 playoffs without giving up a roster player.
We talked to the retired Blue while the playoffs were still on, after he’d announced the 2009-10 season would be his last in the NHL.
St. Louis, of course, will march on without one of the best American players ever and Tkachuk believes his old team will improve on its disappointing non-playoff showing last season.
“The Blues are heading in the right direction, no question about it,” he said. “I expect them, 100 percent, to be in the playoffs next year.”
Considering the team already had loads of young talent in-house before it went out and acquired former Hab hero Jaroslav Halak in goal, identifying St. Louis as a team moving toward something good isn’t really an exercise in large leaps.
But Tkachuk was very specific in terms of addressing what needs to change on a club that, for the past couple seasons, has started slow before picking up the pace in the second half. In 2008-09, the Blues’ white-hot finish was enough to earn them a post-season berth, but they couldn’t climb out from behind the eight ball in consecutive campaigns.
“You cannot expect to take nights off early in the year because they come back to bite you,” said Tkachuk, adding the blame for last season’s struggles in the early stages falls squarely on the players. “Looking back, when I started, you hate to say it, but were there easy games? Absolutely.
“This day and age, there are no easy games, everybody is well prepared, everybody is fighting for a job and you cannot take nights off.”
When the young Blues made the 2009 playoffs, they were a bit of a Cinderella story and maybe a slight step back last year should have been expected. And though it’s unrealistic to think there won’t be a few more growing pains with a relatively green group, Tkachuk said the next important step in the team’s development is an understanding that the time for using youth as any kind of crutch has passed.
“They’re not young guys any more,” Tkachuk said. “They have to realize now they’re veteran guys who need to compete every night.”
No matter where you look on the Blues roster, there’s reason for encouragement. The forward crew has a 23-and-under crowd of T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and David Perron, while “older” up-front guys like David Backes and Alex Steen are just coming into their prime.
Halak, 25, just signed a four-year deal worth $3.75 million annually on Tuesday. The 45 games he played for Montreal last year represents the highest regular season count he’s ever posted, but he’s also one of very, very few goalies in the league who can raise his hand when asked, “who here has ever almost singlehandedly carried a team through two playoff rounds at any point in your NHL career?”
On the back end, Alex Pietrangelo is knocking on the door as the top rated prospect in THN’s annual Future Watch edition.
The blueline is also where you’ll find what might be the crown jewel of the organization, Erik Johnson. The restricted free agent had a good bounce-back year in 2009-10 after missing the entire previous campaign with a knee injury resulting from a golf cart mishap.
With fast feet and a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, the sometimes forgotten first overall pick from 2006 is on the verge of becoming something special.
“The one guy who has a big chance at being a superstar in the league is Erik Johnson,” said Tkachuk when asked which of the young players he suited up alongside really stood out to him. “He’s a guy who has to learn to play 25 to 30 minutes a night like the other elite defenseman and make a major impact. I know he can do that. You need puck-moving defenseman and he’s definitely a puck-moving defenseman.
“He’s only going to get bigger and better, he’s the future of the Blues and he’s going to have to learn to compete every night and I know he can do it.”
As for Tkachuk’s own future, it might be linked to the Blues, too. When we spoke to him he was keeping more than busy running his three young children to various sporting activities and very much sounding like he enjoyed every minute of it.
Long-term, there’s a chance Tkachuk would like to transition from the front of the net to the front office, in some yet-to-be-determined capacity.
“I don’t want to close the door on anything,” he said. “I love the Blues and hopefully someday I can get back into it. But right now I need to step away and be an assistant coach for both my boys and go to softball games and figure skating with my daughter and soccer games.
“So I’m going to do that for a little bit and hopefully I can sit down with (GM) Doug Armstrong and see what his plans are hopefully get back involved some day.”
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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