The Blues enter today’s NHL draft between a puck and a hard place, a locale that offers hard financial truths and difficult perceptions stemming from an abrupt postseason exit.
Good enough to enter a lockout-shortened season billed as a viable Stanley Cup contender, the Blues lost their first-round playoff matchup against the Los Angeles Kings without selling out at home. Worse than just losing, they teased a fatalistic fan base by winning the first two games and leading the fourth by two goals before being dismissed in six games.
The Kings might have been defending Cup champions but for the second consecutive spring they entered seeded lower than the Blues.
A year ago, the Kings rolled the Blues. This time the Blues played the Kings shift for shift, a show of progress. However, losing by a sliver rather than a chasm only enhanced a sense of “what if?”
The Blues see themselves as a team still ascending but a crestfallen fan base sees a team that failed to duplicate its opening series win of 2011-12 and suspects a plateau, even regression.
So close to breaking out its city’s third pro sports franchise, the Blues instead hear the “same old” accusations.
New ownership and a decorated general manager and head coach see momentum. Much of their fan base is getting over the irritation from being asked to commit to a season-ticket price hike in order to retain priority for this year’s playoff seats. A number of fans saw the demand as insulting so soon after a lockout truncated the regular season by 34 games.
Ownership compares the franchise now to where it stood two seasons before – nearly bankrupt and not part of the postseason. The fan base awaits its first Cup since the club’s inception almost a half-century ago. It’s no fun being labeled “the Chicago Cubs of the NHL.”
The Blues see themselves doing it the right way, developing their own talent, refusing to overextend for players past their prime.
Fans wonder if the franchise has the jack to push itself over its historical hump. Meanwhile, owner Tom Stillman pledges payroll will escalate significantly before next season.
The Blues have indicated a willingness to retain their restricted free agents and have opened talks with unrestricted free agent defenseman Jordan Leopold. Financial pressures, insists Stillman, will not manifest themselves on ice.
“We didn’t buy this team with the idea of just participating,” he says. “The intention here – the plan – is for this team to win Cups. That’s plural. And I’m not backing away from that.”
There is much to like about a franchise that boasts local ownership and men such as general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock who have constructed a champion in Dallas. The Blues remain a young but not necessarily inexperienced team. If the adage holds that a player fully develops after appearing in 300 games at this level, only star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo awaits further definition. A postseason that a front office might consider invaluable to taking the next step may strike many outside the building as underachievement stacked atop immaturity.
The Blues can endure a difference of opinion with their fans. They can not, however, survive disconnect.
Stillman purchased the team from a carpet-bagging front man while hopeful that the lockout would provide small-market teams another $10 million or so via revenue-sharing. Whether naïve or sandbagged, it doesn’t really matter. Stillman’s group got nothing except another year of operating in crimson.
Popular as the sport is here, hockey has not worked in St. Louis for decades.
The Blues operate with an atrocious concessions deal negotiated in a fit of desperation by former owner Dave Checketts to enhance cash flow. That same leadership fabricated attendance figures. A poor deal with cable rightsholder Fox Sports Network doesn’t expire until 2018, when a partnership with the Cardinals on a regional sports network may prove appealing if this group can hang on. The Blues don’t enjoy the same tax breaks as the behemoth down Clark Street. Stillman pared more than 40 jobs from the franchise’s business side after purchasing the club. He sold the Peoria affiliate. But sources insist the club isn’t close to breaking even.
Loathe to provide specifics about the team’s balance sheet, Stillman has set a goal of advancing revenues by at least $10 million before next season. A ticket price hike covers a small fraction. Stillman’s emphasis is on the local and regional corporate community.
“That’s our project for this offseason,” he says. “Our group came in. We reduced the debt in half. We cut non-hockey payroll expenses. We cut our other expenses. We started increasing our revenue in various ways. But now we need to develop a much bigger increase in our revenues. That has to come with more businesses on board. We’re grateful to the companies that give us great support. You can see those names around the arena. We need to get fuller participation from the business community. We need to get that participation or I don’t see how the Blues can be successful long-term here....We need to do it now.”
Stillman faces an uphill climb. The city has bled corporations for the last decade while others embrace the Cardinals or Rams. Making the Blues cool – something success typically accomplishes – seems imperative.
The Blues have not cut hockey operations. And Stillman insists he has not plans to do so. Pursuing the kind of player needed by an offensively-challenged roster, the Blues have engaged free agent and former Tampa Bay Lightning center Vinny Lecavalier in talks, according to league sources. Also, Armstrong is aggressively defining the potential market for goalies.
Any suggestion that the Blues were satisfied with their first-round exit causes Stillman’s voice to raise an octave. He squirms a bit in his seat and tries to control his decibel level. Complacency, he realizes, would be a death sentence to this ownership group.
Success on the ice hasn’t guaranteed profits in the past but a lack of success will certainly assure an erosion of support.
“Believe me, we know what’s at stake here,” Stillman says. “We’re not sitting idle. Everything we discuss is about getting better, not just staying where we are.”
There are worse things than to be caught between a puck and a hard place. You can move the puck. Freezing it, however, is no longer acceptable.