New Blues owner Tom Stillman is a lucky man. He takes over a team that rolled to 109 points and a first-place finish in the tough NHL Central Division last season.
Stillman's hockey operation is led by the league's GM of the Year, Doug Armstrong, and NHL Coach of the Year Ken Hitchcock. The Blues are stocked with elite young talent and thrive on the support of a passionate fan base.
When Dave Checketts took over as the Blues' chairman before the 2005-2006 season, the franchise was wallowing in the mire. The owners vs. players labor battle had wiped out the 2004-2005 season. The previous owner, Bill Laurie, had severely slashed payroll and alienated the shrinking fan base by trading team captain Chris Pronger in a blatant salary dump.
In Checketts' first season, he had no chance for a quick fix. The Blues had the league's thinnest roster, finished with the NHL's worst record and saw average home attendance drop to 26th among the 30 teams.
Checketts and crew cleared the ashes and the rubble and began a methodical but intelligent rebuilding process that led to last season's rise in the standings. Only Vancouver had more regular-season points, and the Blues won a postseason series for the first time since 2002.
Stillman was a minority ownership partner in Checketts' fragile coalition, so he's familiar with the terrain. As the new boss, he enters an attractive situation. The cleanup is completed. The product is restored. The coach of the year and the GM of the year work at Scottrade Center. The fans are excited, hopeful and dreaming again.
Stillman is positioned to become the hockey hero of St. Louis. The Blues came into existence in 1967, as part of a bold six-team expansion that doubled the NHL's size. But 45 years later, the Blues are still in search of a Stanley Cup.
Stillman's mission is to become the first Blues owner to hoist the elusive Stanley Cup during a parade in downtown St. Louis. It won't be easy, but Stillman has the advantage of a head start. Previous Blues owners never had as much going for them as Stillman does now. But no Blues owner has faced the kind of pressure that awaits Stillman.
Watching the NHL awards show Thursday, I had two primary thoughts:
1. Hitchcock and Armstrong deserved the awards. It was a great night, a proud night, for the Blues franchise.
2. The stakes have been raised, expectations are soaring, and the Blues can't let the fans down again.
Next season will rank among the most important in franchise history, and my concern is that the Blues will maintain the status quo instead of ambitiously striving to improve.
Management made a status-quo move this week by giving veteran defenseman Barret Jackman a three-year contract for $9.5 million. Jackman is tough and respected. He's a loyal Blue. That's commendable. But Jackman was also among the team's worst players in the 2012 postseason. At this stage of his career, is Jackman capable of becoming a postseason force? That's the danger of the status quo.
The Blues are shopping for a fourth defenseman and a third-line center. They'll add a couple of promising kids to the mix, hoping that Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz can produce instant impact.
Mostly, the Blues will count on emerging players to continue on the track of steady improvement. They're banking on Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Chris Stewart to score more goals and develop into championship-caliber players. Maybe it will happen; maybe not. It's the danger of the status quo.
This is a wonderful time to be the Blues' new owner. So many positive components are in place already: the coach, the GM, the nascent collection of talent. But it's also an anxious time. The Blues can see the promised land, but the hardest part is getting there.
The 2011-2012 Blues were a delightful surprise, but the team won't have the benefit of low expectations next season. The goals have changed dramatically. Making the playoffs won't be good enough. It won't be a big deal to win a postseason series. Getting booted in the second round will be viewed as a major disappointment, or a flat-out failure.
The Blues are in position to take this franchise higher than it's ever been. But if they fall, the crash will be hard and more difficult to accept.
I hope that Stillman and his hockey men realize what's at stake here. The Blues are close, and these opportunities are rare. Stillman must seize the moment.
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Notes on Sam Bradford: The Rams' third-year quarterback is the honorary chairman for today's Komen St. Louis Race for the Cure. He'll be joined downtown this morning by Rams rookies Michael Brockers, Brian Quick, Janoris Jenkins, Isaiah Pead, Trumaine Johnson, Chris Givens, Rokevious Watkins, Greg Zuerlein and Aaron Brown. ... Bradford will be in Norman, Okla. on July 10-11 to run a youth football camp. ... Word is that Bradford is making a generous financial gift to his alma mater, Oklahoma. We'll have more details next week.
Through Friday the Cardinals' starting pitchers were putting together a nice run, with a 2.72 ERA in the previous 15 games. If anything, the Cardinals' rotation is doing an underrated job, ranking seventh in the majors in ERA (3.62) and eighth with 41 quality starts.
The St. Louis starters are fourth in the NL in innings pitched, and have thrown the most innings by a rotation in the NL Central. They have the league's lowest home-run rate, the fourth-lowest walk rate, the best ground-ball rate, and are second in fielding-independent ERA (3.43.) And that's been done without any innings from staff ace Chris Carpenter and only 66 innings from the injured Jaime Garcia.
A special welcome to the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA), who are gathering at the Renaissance Hotel in St. Louis this weekend for their annual convention, which ends Tuesday. More than 800 sports-information directors will attend conferences and hear from a lineup of guest speakers, including Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Kudos to Washington University SID Chris Mitchell, head of the local organizing group that's coordinating the activities.
Congrats to Roger Hacker and Marisa Giller on their wedding today. Roger is a member of the Fleishman-Hillard sports business team and the son of former Cardinals first base coach Rich Hacker. ... River City Rascals second baseman Doug Sanders has returned to the squad after Kent State's elimination from the College World Series. Sanders was Kent State's first-base coach.
Harsh words from Pittsburgh Tribune columnist Joe Starkey: "Is if the MLB All-Star Game wasn't enough of a joke, Tony La Russa will be managing the National League. La Russa is retired. Will he use Mark McGwire as a pinch hitter? Ozzie Smith as a late-inning defensive replacement? Commissioner Bud Selig keeps telling us this event matters, but a move like this exposes the All-Star Game for what it is: a meaningless sham."
The return of Jon Jay and Matt Carpenter from the disabled list is positive for the Cardinals in many ways. It improves the morale, gives the team younger legs and, in Jay's case, more speed. Jay provides outstanding defense in center field. The advantage of having Jay fill the role of the No. 2 hitter, where he's put up such good numbers. Since the start of last season Jay is batting .318 with a .353 onbase percentage and .432 slugging percentage when placed No. 2 in the order.
There's the flexibility offered by Carpenter, who can start at first base, third base, right field and left field. He's also an effective pinch hitter. There's now improved depth, and that's important when Carlos Beltran or another veteran needs a day off to rest or calm an injury. Manager Mike Matheny has more choices, and no matter what he decides for the starting lineup he'll have legitimate hitters waiting in the dugout, available for the late-inning strategy moves.
Jay lengthens and deepens the lineup. With Jay batting second Beltran moves to a middle-order spot, and with others moving down, the Cardinals will be able to put a quality hitter in the No. 7 slot each day. In Friday's win at Kansas City, Jay batted second and Carpenter hit seventh. They combined for four runs, three hits, four times on base, a double and an RBI. The Cardinals' offense is nearly whole. With Skip Schumaker, Jay and Carpenter returning from the DL this week, only Lance Berkman (knee) remains sidelined.
Wentzville’s Jordan Hankins (Fort Zumwalt North), a sophomore second baseman at Austin Peay University who was named to the Ohio Valley Conference all-conference team. Hankins has been invited to camp for compete for a spot on USA Baseball’s National Collegiate Team, which will travel to Cuba and The Netherlands for games this summer.
The Nice Section
The 19th Friends of Betty Schildroth Golf Tournament is July 15 at the GC of Florissant. Entry fee of $340 per foursome includes breakfast, lunch, prizes and auction. Proceeds benefit the hospice program at Mercy Hospital. For more information call 314-839-2927.
The Maryville University Golf Classic is July 16 at Old Hickory GC. There are tee times in the morning and the afternoon. To register or seek more information, visit the Maryville athletics web site, maryvillesaints.com