Tag: Ken Hitchcock


Looking to make the leap: Jori Lehtera


The St. Louis Blues have gone from thinking they’d lost prospect Jori Lehtera for good to hoping he’s ready to make the leap to the NHL.

Lehtera played in just seven playoff games with the Blues’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, back in 2009 before returning to his native Finland.

St. Louis re-signed the Lehtera to a two-year, $5.5 million contract on July 1. As Blues beat writer Jeremy Rutherford, points out St. Louis was running out of time to bring Lehtera back into the fold. NHL teams control players’ rights until they turn 27, Lehtera will turn 27 on Dec. 23.

“I had a good chat with him quite honestly at the Olympics at the dining hall,” General Manager Doug Armstrong told the Dispatch following the signing. “I told him that we were disappointed that we couldn’t come to an agreement and he said at the end of the day, he felt he made a mistake (staying in Russia).”

The 26-year-old spent the past four seasons in the KHL where he averaged 13 goals a season playing for Yaroslavl and then Novosibirsk. In total Lehtera scored 55 goals and 100 assists in 178 games while in Russia.

But it was Lehtera’s performance at the 2014 Olympics where he had a goal and three assists in six games helping Finland capture a bronze medal, which impressed Blues head coach, Ken Hitchcock.

“When the Olympics started he was the fourth-line left-winger; the tournament finished with him being the second-line center iceman,” Hitchcock told NHL.com in July.  “He worked his way all the way up the lineup and he was a really trusted player by the coaching staff. What I really noticed was when the game was on the line that coaching staff trusted him more and more. When the World Championships were on, he was their No. 1 center. He played in every situation, almost 20 minutes per night, same coach, same trust. That doesn’t go unnoticed.

“I think the thing that comes to mind for me when I evaluate him is he’s going to find a place to play on our team because he’s competitive, he’s smart and he’s got great hockey sense. I don’t know where that place is, I don’t know how far up or down the lineup it’s going to be, but I just know he’s going to find a place to play.”

The Blues feel Lehtera, despite being an NHL rookie, could have an immediate impact in his first season and see him centring a line of Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko and Lehtera do have experience playing with one another having spent time together with Novosibirsk during the 2011-12 season.

For now, Lehtera is pencilled in to that role. With the likes of Paul Statsny, Patrik Berglund and Maxim Lapierre all in the mix down the middle, Lehtera is sure to have competition at camp.

Related: After Miller (and many others) failed, Blues turn to Elliot and Allen

Under pressure: Ken Hitchcock

Ken Hitchcock

We don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but things haven’t gone all that great in the playoffs for the St. Louis Blues.

Three years in a row the Blues have had huge regular-season performances, and all they have to show for it are two first-round losses and one second-round exit. A single series win over the San Jose Sharks isn’t anything to hang a banner over, and that’s something coach Ken Hitchcock knows.

What’s done in the Blues has been a mix of two things: Shoddy goaltending and a lack of offensive punch. St. Louis will look to answer those issues with a netminding tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen, and an offense that added Paul Stastny. They also hotly pursued Jason Spezza in an effort to further boost goal production, but Stastny’s addition was what helped make the Blues winners on paper in free agency.

We know the Western Conference is difficult and the Blues’ division got a lot more difficult last season with the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, and Minnesota Wild all finding their way. Throw them into the mix with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Central Division is a bloodbath waiting to happen. Just what the Blues needed, right?

That’s why there’s so much pressure on Hitchcock.  Should the Blues make the playoffs and suffer another early exit, it will certainly lead to questions about his work behind the bench, as well as for the players on the ice. But as we’ve seen in the past, those kinds of battles usually result in the coach losing first.

It’s St. Louis Blues Day at PHT

Alexander Steen, David Backes, Steve Ott

Throughout the month of August, PHT will be dedicating a day to all 30 NHL clubs. Today’s team? The St. Louis Blues.

It’s been like a sad movie on repeat the past few seasons for the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues have had brilliant regular season performances sullied by crushing disappointment in the playoffs. Two years in a row it was the Los Angeles Kings ousting them from the postseason. Last season, it was their hated rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks, giving them the boot in the first round.

Before the playoffs began, it seemed like it was all set up for St. Louis to make a deep run. They acquired Ryan Miller and Steve Ott from the Buffalo Sabres to help give them the boost they felt they needed in goal and the agitating penalty killer you need in the postseason.

Adding those two to go along with captain David Backes, surprising goal-scoring maven Alex Steen, rising Russian star Vladimir Tarasenko, Team USA standout T.J. Oshie, and young stud Jaden Schwartz gave the Blues the depth up front they’d been lacking.

With the forwards seemingly set and a defensive corps led by Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Jay Bouwmeester the road to the Cup Final was there for the taking. Of course, things don’t always go how they’re drawn up.

Miller struggled in St. Louis. Whether that was due to the Blues tinkering with his positioning in net or not, the same bad goals Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott gave up in years past were also beating Miller. That combined with the Blues inability to keep up with the Blackhawks scorers netted Ken Hitchcock’s team yet another early start on the summer.

Suffice to say, if there are more playoff struggles next season there could be hell to pay.

Offseason Recap

The Blues were one of the most active teams of the summer.

They signed former Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal. He gives the Blues a true No. 1 center and a guy who is strong at both ends of the ice. While Backes was their top center last year, adding Stastny may help move him to the wing. That’s luxury.

St. Louis also re-signed Ott but lost Vladimir Sobotka to the KHL. That trade-off is one that made some scratch their heads as Sobotka is younger and seemed to be a perfect player with the Blues. Ott’s veteran abilities were valued by Hitchcock, however, and that always works out to have the coach on your side.

They also parted ways with Miller opting instead to keep Elliott and make him the starter and potentially give Jake Allen his chance to shine. Acquiring Miller brought on scrutiny for GM Doug Armstrong and the decision to let him walk to sign with the Vancouver Canucks will be put under the microscope.

The Blues also added forwards Jori Lehtera from the KHL and Peter Mueller from Switzerland. They also dealt Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs for Carl Gunnarsson. Blues fans may need a scorecard or a really sweet phone app to know who they’re rooting for next season.

Hitchcock a big fan of St. Louis’ signings this summer

Paul Stastny

The St. Louis Blues made perhaps the biggest splash of free agency locking down forward Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal to shore up their center position.

What did Ken Hitchcock think of the moves the team made? He’s a big fan and not just about the addition of Stastny as he told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (paywall).

“It was really good news for us as coaches. But it was a combination of (Joakim) Lindstrom, (Jori) Lehtera and Paul,” Hitchcock said. “These are three point-producing players who really enhance our hockey club. All three are capable of playing top-six roles.

“Paul is a real good fit for us with the way he plays and the way we play. Lehtera is a real good fit, and we feel like Lindstrom has really improved his game. He has a number of good friends on the hockey club and he’s going to be given a real chance to play in the top nine and see where it goes. It gives us the competitive depth to keep up with what’s going on in the West.”

Never mind the Western Conference, the Central Division is going to be harsh enough to get out of.

The Chicago Blackhawks added Brad Richards, the Dallas Stars added Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, the Minnesota Wild brought on Thomas Vanek, and the Colorado Avalanche may have lost Stastny but they added Jarome Iginla.

Hitchcock said he feels his team isn’t that far away from winning the Stanley Cup and this Blues team might be the best one he’s had. That might be true, but the competition out West got a lot stiffer this summer.

Report: Muller signs two-year deal to be assistant in St. Louis (Updated: official)

Kirk Muller

It didn’t take Kirk Muller long to land back on his feet.

According to TSN’s Darren Dreger, Muller has signed a two-year deal to be an assistant coach under Ken Hitchcock with the St. Louis Blues. Muller was only out of work for eight days as he was fired as head coach of the Carolina Hurricanes on May 5. In three seasons as the Hurricanes coach, he had a 80-80-27 record.

Muller is familiar with Hitchcock as he played for him with the Dallas Stars in the final four years of his playing career and was a key veteran on the Stars’ Stanley Cup Final team in 2000.

Muller joins a Blues coaching staff that already includes Brad Shaw and Ray Bennett. Another set of eyes never really hurt anyone and he has served as an assistant once before with the Montreal Canadiens back in 2006.

Update: It’s official.

‘We are excited to add Kirk to our staff,” said GM Doug Armstrong in a release. “He was a Stanley Cup-winning player, and as a coach, has shown excellent communication skills, and the ability to relate to both young and veteran players.”