Gordon: Applause ends, work increases for Blues

2012-06-21T13:35:00Z 2012-06-22T12:36:44Z Gordon: Applause ends, work increases for BluesBY JEFF GORDON stltoday.com
June 21, 2012 1:35 pm  • 

Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock took their bows Wednesday night. Amid the Las Vegas glitz, these hockey lifers reigned as the NHL’s top general manager and coach.

Congratulations guys. Now get back to work.

In this brutally competitive business, nobody has time to rest on their laurels.

Armstrong and Hitchcock know the drill. Postseason awards offer a nice pat on the back for the whole hockey staff, but such honors also boost expectations.

(The Jack Adams Award, for NHL coach of the year, has been an especially treacherous trophy to place on the mantle. Ask former Blues coaches Brian Sutter and Joel Quenneville about that; they had to pack up said award after getting cashiered here.)

Armstrong and Hitchcock starred at the league's made-for-TV ceremony because the Blues finally broke through. After Hitchcock arrived early last season to jump start the group, the Note rolled to a 109-point season, the Central Division title and a first-round playoff victory.

But the 2011-12 season was just a starting point. The stated goal is to win the Stanley Cup, a challenge Armstrong and Hitchcock embrace.

The franchise’s new ownership stability removes one of the major obstacles. The leader of the new group, Tom Stillman, wants to win a Cup. The wealthy partners he assembled have the financial wherewithal to make that happen.

The Blues won’t spend recklessly under this new regime, but Armstrong and Co. will chart a long-term course without fretting about the bills getting paid. That is a big deal after what the operation endured last season when the NHL had to bail out the franchise.

Now the hockey operation moves forward with it’s “to do” list, in no particular order:

Round out the defensive corps. Armstrong is looking for one additional “top four” defenseman to go with the current group. It appears free agents Kent Huskins and Carlo Colaiacovo will move on and that young Ian Cole will graduate into more regular NHL work. With emerging star Alex Pietrangelo leading the way, this could be a formidable unit with the addition of one more veteran.

Get Kevin Shattenkirk past his playoff collapse. His 43 points and plus-20 rating made him one of the league’s better stories last season. But the staff can’t let flashbacks of the Kings Fiasco haunt him next season. He must regain his steady puckhandling and reliable outlet passing form.

Coax a breakout season from Jaroslav Halak. The goaltender’s up-and-down year culminating with his unfortunate playoff injury. While his tag team with Brian Elliott served the team well last season -- earning the duo the Jennings Trophy -- Halak must step up and take charge. He must replicate his great second-half surge over the course of an entire campaign.

Groom the young forwards. Rookies Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko both have “top six” potential. Schwartz showed great potential during his brief NHL trial last season. A full summer of pro-style conditioning should move him closer toward that goal. Tarasenko starred in the KHL, so he should score in the NHL if he works hard. He is the 2012-13 wild card. Hitchcock sounds excited to have him. If “Tank” bears down and makes an impact, this team will really be fun to watch.

Revive Chris Stewart. He showed 30-goal potential with a breakout season in Colorado and his late-season surge in St. Louis after arriving from the Avalanche. But his halfway effort last season resulted in a 15-goal finish. Armstrong decided to give him another shot. Will Stewart make the most of it? We’ll see, but his decision to upgrade his summer training regimen is a positive sign,

Get key forwards past their concussion woes. David Perron and Alex Steen were plus-42 between them. But they also combined to miss 64 games. How can the Blues improve offensively? Get more games from these two prime-age players and injury-battered veteran Andy McDonald -- who scored 22 points in just 25 games last season. Blues beat reporter Jeremy Rutherford noted the offensive potential of a McDonald/Steen/Tarasenko line.

Help T.J. Oshie take the Final Step. He is so close to being a true impact forward. His career-high 54 points and plus-15 rating represented real progress. He clicked with captain and top center David Backes. More consistent tenacity in the offensive zone could boost him closer to 25-goal/70-point range. That would make him a star in today’s stingy NHL.

Get more from Patrik Berglund. OK, so he is never going to become another Mats Sundin. That seems abundantly clear. But surely he can produce more than 38 points during a full season playing a scoring-line role. He was a good, solid player for the Note last season but he has more to give. Hitchcock downplayed Berglund's disappointing assist total, but that IS an issue.

Move Phil McRae firmly onto the NHL track. He had mixed results while spending all last season in the AHL. The Blues need to develop the offensive side of his game so he doesn’t settle for a fourth-line role when he reaches the show for good. It’ll be interesting to see new Peoria coach Dave Allison does with McRae, goaltender Jake Allen, defenseman Cade Fairchild and the other Rivermen.

The clapping has subsided. The 2012-13 NHL schedule has been released.

The Blues brain trust is back to work, preparing for the NHL Draft and free agency.

The routine is familiar but the expectations are not. The bar sits high. For the first time in a long, long time, the Stanley Cup will be a legitimate season objective.

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Jeff Gordon

This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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