Nazem Kadri, Kevin Shattenkirk, Ian Walsh
Associated Press

Hitchcock wants slumping Blues to tighten up

The St. Louis Blues had to overcome a ton of injuries in the early stages of the ’15-16 season, but they managed to stay afloat without key players like Paul Stastny, Jaden Schwartz, Kevin Shattenkirk and Robby Fabbri.

Now that most of their big names have returned, the Blues should be better, but they’re not.

St. Louis has dropped three games in a row including a 4-1 decision to Toronto on Saturday night. They have just one win in their last five games.

Head coach Ken Hitchock, who many consider to be a defensive genius, knows exactly what the problem is.

“We’re a team that’s built on really good structure,” Hitchcock said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “That’s what held this thing together when everybody was out. We did a great job with it. But as guys have started to come back, we’ve started to play looser. And the looseness is ending up on second guessing from a defensive standpoint, not from an offensive standpoint.”

Every team goes through ups and downs in an 82-game regular season, but with so much parity across the NHL, the Blues can’t afford to be slumping for too long.

They’re currently in second place in the Central Division with Minnesota (one point behind), Nashville (one point behind) and Chicago (two points behind) breathing down their neck.

The Blues have a perfect opportunity to turn things around, as they’ll play each of their next four games at the Scottrade Center.

They’ll take on the Coyotes on Tuesday night.

Hitchcock going to more aggressive attack for Blues

Ken Hitchcock
AP
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ST. LOUIS (AP) After three straight first-round playoff exits, the St. Louis Blues have learned to temper expectations.

They have been consistently among the NHL’s best in the regular season and realize it is past time to build something for the long haul. The sting still lingers from the latest failure, against the Minnesota Wild last spring.

“We’re all disappointed, everybody can agree on that,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “It’s never easy to kind of think about your failures, but we grow every time it happens.”

Management isn’t ready to tear it all down yet.

“We play, in my opinion, one of the toughest if not the toughest division in the NHL, and we’ve finished first or second in the last four years,” forward Alexander Steen said. “So we have an extremely powerful team.”

Maybe a change in strategy will be enough: Coach Ken Hitchcock is back with a mandate for a more aggressive, even reckless, style of play from a roster that hasn’t changed appreciably.

“We’re coming hard from the back and we’re coming hard to see how close we can get to the attack,” Hitchcock said. “I think it’s where the game’s at; I think it’s where the game’s going to go.”

The 63-year-old Hitchcock is pushing forward, too, unwilling to dwell on the flameouts. Coach and players agree that would be “wasted energy.”

“My opinion is when you sit and think about the past, you do yourself no good,” Hitchcock said. “If you learn from the past, that’s when you do yourself a whole bunch of good.”

There were only two major roster casualties. Forward Troy Brouwer came from Washington in a trade for fan favorite T.J. Oshie. Defenseman Barret Jackman, the franchise career leader in games, wasn’t re-signed.

“If you were expecting 23 new faces to be on the roster this year, I don’t think that was realistic,” captain David Backes said. “We’re going to miss those guys in the room and on the ice, but there has been some changeover and I think it’s pretty significant.”

Things to watch for with the Blues:

GOALIE SHUFFLE: Just like last year, there’s no true No. 1 with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen sharing duties. The 25-year-old Allen missed a chance to seize the job last spring when he failed to raise his level in the playoffs.

TOP THREAT: Vladimir Tarasenko had a breakout season with 37 goals and was rewarded with an eight-year, $60 million contract. The 23-year-old winger is by far the Blues’ most dangerous scoring option and said he won’t let the money affect his play. “I never worry about it,” Tarasenko said. “If you play good, you play good.”

NEW FACES: Brouwer and center Kyle Brodziak add a physical element that was perhaps lacking a bit last season. Brouwer has three 20-plus goal seasons and Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, fills a checking role. Veteran forward Scottie Upshall got a one-year, two-way deal after being coming to camp as a tryout. Rookie forward Robby Fabbri, a first-round pick last year, will get an early look. Another promising youngster, forward Ty Rattie, begins the year at Chicago of the AHL.

RECOVERY WARD: Forward Jori Lehteri bounced back quickly from ankle surgery and opens the season without restrictions. Another forward, Patrik Berglund, could miss half of the season following shoulder surgery.

TRACK RECORD: The Blues won the Central Division last season and Hitchcock, fourth on the career list with 708 regular-season wins, has consistently had the team near the top of the standings. “He is our coach, tough cookies if you don’t like it,” Backes said. “From my experience, he puts together one heck of a game plan.”

‘I’ve got no issues’ with Hitchcock, says Blues captain Backes

Ken Hitchcock, David Backes, Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund
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While it was hardly a glowing endorsement, St. Louis captain David Backes did offer support for head coach Ken Hitchcock who, on Tuesday, signed a one-year extension with the club.

“I’ve got no issues with him,” Backes said, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Does he ride guys hard and has he been on my case at times, where it’s made me angry? Yes. But he does it in the light of trying to make our team better, trying to make each individual player better.”

Prior to the playoffs, many assumed Hitchcock’s future in St. Louis would be decided in the playoffs — specifically the first round (as in, could he get the Blues past it?) The answer was “no” for the third straight year; the Blues lost in six games to Minnesota, and it was widely speculated that would be the end of Hitch’s time with the organization.

But that’s why they call it speculation.

Shortly after the loss, Blues owner Tom Stillman preached composure, saying that while he was “frustrated and disappointed” with the way the season ended, he wasn’t ready to “throw people under the bus.”

“For two reasons I don’t think that’s a great idea,” Stillman explained. “First, you should take a careful, deliberate look at what happened — what we did, what we didn’t do — and then make sure we figure out how we don’t do that again, and break through in the playoffs.

“The other reason is a matter of, I guess, leadership. We have an organization that’s going to continue forward, and I’m responsible for making sure that the organization gets it right and is successful. I don’t think it’s helpful if I’m up here and start blaming people and cutting off people’s heads.”

Those words suggested the Blues knew they had a good coach in Hitchcock — and to be fair, few question his knowledge and tactical ability — but needed time to analyze the relationship between Hitch and his players. This was, after all, the same coach that’s been accused of wearing down people with his demanding nature and, at times, an overwhelming “information overload.”

Just consider what T.J. Oshie said about the Blues following a bad loss to Vancouver in March.

“I know we’re not [in the playoffs] yet, but there’s a lot of information going around, and guys are getting a little indecisive,” Oshie explained. “I’m not sure what it looks like from up top, but I think guys aren’t really sticking with their gut and going with their first instinct.”

This isn’t to say the Blues were anti-Hitch. In late April, Blues d-man Kevin Shattenkirk threw his support behind the head coach.

Backes re-iterated as much today. The captain said that while that playing for Hitchcock is challenging, those challenges can often be rewarding.

“I think if you get caught up in those individual moments at the time you’re under the gun, having an interview, those comments come out,” he explained. “But when you take a step back and you realize, ‘Oh that’s why he was all over me because I was not being as productive as I could be,’ he’s very effective.”

Hitchcock re-signs for one more year in St. Louis

Head coach Ken Hitchcock of the St. Louis Blues leads his team against the Colorado Avalanche at the Pepsi Center on February 20, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Blues 1-0 in overtime.
(February 19, 2013 - Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America)
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Ken Hitchcock will be back behind the St. Louis Blues’ bench next season. The club announced today that the veteran head coach has agreed to return on a one-year contract.

That return was far from a certainty after the Blues once again failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. There were reports the club was talking with Mike Babcock about replacing Hitchcock, before Babcock decided on Toronto.

But there’s no denying the Blues’ regular-season success (175-79-27) under Hitchcock. For them, it’s been a matter of getting it done in the playoffs, where the past three years they’ve lost to some good teams in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Minnesota.

There will be a press conference this afternoon to discuss the extension.

Related: ‘Let’s live to fight another day’

Report: Blues will stick with Hitchcock ‘barring anything dramatic’

Chicago Blackhawks v St Louis Blues
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The St. Louis Blues suffered another crushing playoff letdown in 2014-15, fueling speculation that they might make a big change behind the bench. It sounds like they’ll stick with head coach Ken Hitchcock, after all, however.

That’s the word from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, who said that Hitchcock will remain Blues head coach “barring anything dramatic” during the final moments of this Saturday Headlines segment.

It’s unclear what sort of things would qualify as “dramatic,” although recent stories indicate that both sides were going through some soul searching (rather than the Blues merely pondering a change). Hitchcock mentioned that he needed time to reflect while the team spoke of a decision-making process still taking place heading into this weekend.

It’s pretty easy to lay out the pros and cons of Hitchcock’s tenure with the Blues.

source: AP
Source: AP

 

The regular season results have been brilliant. From 2005-06 to 2010-11, St. Louis only made it to the playoffs once (and was summarily swept in 2009). Hitchcock took over during the 2011-12 season, and St. Louis has made the postseason every year he’s been at the helm. In fact, the Blues have won two Central Division titles – no small task – and have finished second or better in his four seasons.

Of course, the success dries up after the final game of each regular season. They’ve only won one playoff series with Hitchcock in charge, even as expectations climbed quite a bit in the past couple seasons.

It would be foolish to pin the blame on Hitchcock alone, yet at 63, it’s understandable if the veteran coach would elect to move on (or for his team to seek a new voice).

On the other hand, it also makes a lot of sense for this to be a last chance season, even if this offseason brings about some big changes.

While there are some big concerns this summer (star winger Vladimir Tarasenko is an RFA and veteran blueliner Barret Jackman is a UFA, among others), some of the Blues’ bargains are on the verge of getting raises.

Jake Allen needs a new contract, while Brian Elliott’s $2.5 million bargain evaporates after 2016-17. Kevin Shattenkirk’s super-cheap at $4.25M, yet that goes away after 2016-17, too. David Backes only has one year left at $4.5M while Jaden Schwartz should expect a big bump from $2.35M after 2015-16.

Long story short, it makes sense for the Blues to take a measured approach with Hitchcock … but they’ll expect dramatic results if he returns in 2015-16.