St. Louis Blues 'Hitch'ing their way to first Stanley Cup?

Tom Szczerbowski-US PRESSWIRE

St. Louis struggled out of the gate last year under the hand of Davis Payne, but that all changed when Ken Hitchcock was given the reigns. Could this be the year they finally break through?

The St. Louis Blues were a team with great expectations heading into the 2011-12 season. While lofty heights were eventually attained, it took a strategic maneuver in finding the right field general to guide the club early in the calendar to shift St. Louis into high gear.

After stumbling out of the gates with a 6-7-0 record to begin the campaign, GM Doug Armstrong made a move that not only saved the Blues' season, but also had them battling for the Presidents' Trophy as the league's best regular season club. With the Blues plodding along under Davis Payne, Armstrong pulled the trigger on a coaching change in early-November that brought Ken Hitchcock back to the NHL.

The results the rest of the way were nothing short of spectacular.

St. Louis brandished a 43-15-11 mark under Hitchcock, garnering 97 of a possible 138 points (better than 70%). The master disciplinarian who engrains a defensive conscience in every club he has mentored was appropriately rewarded with the Jack Adams Award as the coach deemed to have contributed the most to his team's success.

The 49 wins and 109 points recorded were both the second-highest totals in franchise history (51 wins and 114 points both set St. Louis standards during the 1999-00 season), and the club won the Central Division title.

There were two main ingredients to the Blues' recipe for success last year -- a suffocating team defense and a near-perfect home record:

Defense

After yielding 35 goals in the campaign's first 13 contests (2.69 goals-against average) with Payne at the helm, the Hitchcock-led Blues were as stingy as a team can be, giving up just 130 opponent goals over the last 69 games (1.88 GAA). The 165 goals allowed for the entire regular season was an NHL low -- 14 fewer than the Los Angeles Kings, who were next -- and was far below the league average of 224.

Home Sweet Home

The Blues posted an amazing 30-6-5 record in the friendly confines of the Scottrade Center, and were one of only two NHL teams to register 30-or-more victories (the Detroit Red Wings being the other).

Another Key Factor Was Between the Pipes

The strong presence emanated by the team's pair of 27-year-old goaltenders must be noted. While the defensemen and forwards did their best in contributing to the stifling defensive effort, the affect of Hitchcock's arrival had on goaltender Jaroslav Halak was particularly interesting. Struggling with a 1-6-0 record under Payne's leadership, Halak caught fire and rattled off a 25-6-7 mark under Hitchcock's system. The native of Bratislava, Slovakia finished with a 26-12-7 mark, with a 1.97 GAA and .926 save percentage. There is no doubt the former-Montreal Canadien is the club's franchise goalie.

Brian Elliott helped keep St. Louis afloat early on when Halak and the rest of the club slumped, posting a 5-1-0 mark at the time of Payne's dismissal. The first-year Blue was solid all season-long, proving to be a stellar back-up while boasting a 23-10-4 record, with NHL-bests of 1.56 GAA and a .940 save percentage.

The Jennings Trophy-winning tandem combined for a league-high 15 shutouts, with nine coming from Elliott.

The Postseason

After mowing down the San Jose Sharks in five games with the grind-it-out, machine-like precision exhibited during the regular season, St. Louis fell victim to the Stanley Cup-bound buzz saw from Los Angeles in a second round sweep. The Blues inability to solve the Kings' defensive game plan was compounded by the failure to defend their own net.

What Can Be Improved For Next Season?

While the Blues were barely below the league average of 224 goals scored (210), they sometimes found themselves spinning their wheels as far as offense is concerned. With a gritty collection of grinders and few dynamic offensive players, just two St. Louis skaters topped the 20-goal mark -- captain David Backes (24), and David Perron (21). T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund each netted 19, while soon-to-be-38-year-old still unsigned unrestricted free agent Jason Arnott notched 17.

Three Factors That Didn't Help:

  • Left winger Alexander Steen being limited to just 15 goals following a 39 game absence due to a concussion. After scoring at least 20 or more in each of the past two seasons, Steen was on pace for the best offensive campaign of his career at the time of his head injury. He was able to return for the latter stages of the regular season and playoffs, and a healthy Steen heading into next year is a must.
  • One of the most lethal of the St. Louis forwards, Andy McDonald, missed 51 games following an early-season concussion, and suited up for just 25 games -- scoring 10 times and posting 22 points.
  • Chris Stewart played a physical style but slumped mightily in the scoring department. The burgeoning power forward was coming off of back-to-back 28 goal seasons and much was expected, but just couldn't seem to get things rolling all year long. Stewart went through long scoring droughts -- including only one in his last 18 regular season contests -- and finished with just 15 goals.

Three Positives Up Front:

  • Perron's nightmare, year-long battle with post-concussion syndrome finally ended when he successfully returned in early-December. The 24-year-old notched his 21 goals in just 57 games, and proved to be one of the most dangerous players in the Blues' lineup.
  • Another Blue to miss significant time with concussion-related issues also made a triumphant return. McDonald played just three regular season contests before sustaining a head injury in Dallas and he would be out until February. The good news is he thrived down the stretch, then led St. Louis with five goals and 10 points in nine postseason games.
  • More offensive help may be on the way in the form of right winger Vladimir Tarasenko. The 20-year-old Russian is in North America following three years in the KHL, with the last showing the promise of the organization's top prospect. In 54 games split between Sibir Novosibirsk and SKA St. Petersburg, Tarasenko scored 23 goals and recorded 47 points, then notched 10 goals and 16 points in 15 playoff contests for SKA St. Petersburg. This could prove be the game-breaking offensive talent the Blues have been seeking for some time.

What To Expect In The Upcoming Season

The trademark of the Hitchcock-coached St. Louis squad remains their defensive resiliency, and there's no reason to think that will deviate next year.

Led by two-way defenders Alex Pietrangelo (12 goals, 51 points, +16) and Kevin Shattenkirk (nine goals, 43 points, +20), and rock-solid defensive defenseman Barret Jackman (+20), St. Louis' corps of blue liners remains one of the best in hockey.

Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk -- as well as Kris Russell and Ian Cole -- are all slated to become restricted free agents next summer, so all could be counted on for excellent seasons in a contract year. In addition to Jackman -- who was an UFA that re-signed for another three seasons -- Roman Polak -- who is signed for the next four years -- is the only other Blue under contract for next year on the back line.

That gives the team just six NHL-ready rear guards at the present time.

Possibilities to fill out the St. Louis defensive contingency are unsigned UFA's Carlo Colaiacovo and Kent Huskins, as well as Jeff Woywitka or Taylor Chorney.

If St. Louis can remain healthy up front -- and specifically if Perron, Steen, and McDonald can overcome their past concussion problems, and the rest of the core group of St. Louis skaters can remain healthy -- this could indeed be a banner campaign for the Blues.

The makeup is somewhat reminiscent of the 1990's-early 2000's New Jersey Devils groups that won three Cups in a nine-year span. There's no reason to suspect either the defense or goaltending will falter, which means the Blues should have a chance to be in every game.

A stifling defense and dominant performances at home -- a recipe for continued success.

Hitchcock's clubs play a characteristically air-tight game that takes care of their own end, and that's a good thing since it's common knowledge in professional sports that defense wins championships.

Could this finally be the year the franchise claims their first championship? It appears as if they've overcome last year's growing Paynes, and are now Hitching a ride in the right direction.

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