Each season there are teams with expectations; with coaches who are asked to deliver upon those expectations. Last season, Davis Payne was expected to lead the St. Louis Blues and build upon their 2009 playoff appearance after a frustrating 2009-10 season. Instead, the Blues had enough injuries to fill a steamboat on the Mississippi and the season that started with so much optimism ended with feelings of “what if?” What if T.J. Oshie was healthy all season? What if David Perron didn’t run into Joe Thornton’s elbow? What if Andy McDonald was able to play an entire season? The list goes on and on.
Payne was largely given a free-pass in his first full season behind the bench. To be honest, nothing really stuck out in his first year. They were in the middle of the pack in both goals scored and goals against. Their special teams weren’t all that special with an average power play and penalty kill. On the positive side, team defense was actually pretty good on the whole allowing only 27.7 shots per game—so the coach must have been doing something right. Unfortunately, they were terrible at holding the league as they were one of the worst teams in the league at holding the lead after scoring first period. The Blues may have been prepared, but they didn’t always play the full 60 minutes.
During his “Blues Chat,” Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch in St. Louis addressed Payne and his immediate future with the team:
“This is the last year of Payne’s two-year deal. I’ve written in the past that I think he’s done an admirable job considering his lack of NHL experience and also considering the Blues’ injuries and ownership issues. With that said, there is some heat on Payne this year to get the most out of this club. If healthy, they should be a playoff team. If they can contend, I don’t see any reason the Blues wouldn’t retain Payne. But if the club falls short, there will definitely be questions about whether he’ll be extended.
NHL coaches have a shorter shelf-life than ever these days. After taking over for Andy Murray after New Year’s Day 2010, Payne has a 61-48-15 record in 124 career NHL games. More importantly, he is 0-2 in the playoff department—as in zero playoff appearances. The first season wasn’t necessarily his fault since he only coached half the season and the second season was marred by injuries, but sooner or later the coach will be asked to overcome adversity or find a new job. This may be the season where push comes to shove for Payne.
Adding to Payne’s pressure is the way the Blues started last season. After twelve games, they were sitting on top of the league with a 9-1-2 record. Not only were they winning games—they were beating teams that were destined for the playoffs like the Flyers, Ducks, Penguins, Predators, and Blackhawks. Payne admitted that the quick start may have set expectations to an impossibly high standard:
“9-1-2, I don’t know if anyone finished at that pace. Was it realistic that you were going to carry (that pace) through 82 (games)? Probably not. It was a good start. It was what we needed to do to build that assurance as to how we were going to play and the way we were going to play was going to create success.
“If everybody’s whole and intact the entire year, I see no reason for that type of success, maybe not at quite that level, to continue. … We felt as we finished, there’s teams that are starting (the playoffs Wednesday) that we could go head-to-head with and feel pretty good about it.”
Payne and the Blues will hope to get off to another quick this start—only they’ll hope they learned from last year’s mistakes and play with more consistency. The organization expects veteran additions like Jaime Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott to help the team right the ship during any rough spots and a new captain should give the team strong leadership. This is a team that has shown potential over the last few years—but it’s time for the players to start filling the potential with their play on the ice.
If not, the players and coaches alike could be looking for a new start in a new city.