Tonight, Blues coach Ken Hitchcock is in Las Vegas. For the fourth time in his career, he has been nominated for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year. Hitchcock is 0-3 so far, but he's got a good chance to take home the award this time.
Last week, I sat down with Hitch and talked to him about the Blues' playoff loss to the Los Angeles Kings, the need for a playmaker at center, Chris Stewart and potential line combinations. Here are some highlights from the interview...
• Hitchcock said that watching the LA Kings go on to win the Stanley Cup didn't take away any of the sting in losing to the Kings in the second round. But it did help the Blues realize the level they need to reach. "Every player that I've talked to feels that there's another gear in us, and we can get to that gear now that we have that experience," Hitchcock said. "I think what really showed in the playoffs was that we were inexperienced at the level of commitment necessary to win against a really good team. The temperature of the games went up and we hadn't been involved in anything like that before. It was like 'on-the-job training.' Now we know what it's like and our players won't be surprised by it."
• Hitchcock still believes in the potential of the Blues' top-six forwards, despite the lack of production against LA (scoring just two of the team's six goals in the series). "I think a lot of guys being a year older will understand it," Hitchcock said. "I think being able to reflect on what happen in the regular season and in the playoffs will help them a lot. Also, having to fight through things, like we did against LA, how hard it was to create opportunities, I think everybody's eyes were opened about the difference between the series against San Jose and LA. I think guys will get a lot better knowing what it's like now."
• David Backes, a candidate for the NHL's Selke Award, had a productive season with a team-high 24 goals, 30 assists and a share of the team lead with 54 points. But along with Patrik Berglund's 19 assists, the Blues' top two centers combined for just 49 assists. Do the Blues need more playmaking in the middle? "No, I think everything in the NHL is by committee now," Hitchcock said. "I don't think it's you need a center that's a playmaker. I think you score in the NHL by committee. The formula for winning is the same. It's three competitive center-icemen, good depth on defense and great goaltending. That's what wins in the NHL. You look at all the teams that did well this year, that's what they've got. We've got it within our group. If we're healthy, it's sitting there in our group."
• Hitchcock has had discussions within the organization about how to use Vladimir Tarasenko when he arrives. "Yeah, we've talked about it," Hitchcock said. "He's obviously a right winger coming off the off wing, and I think he needs to play with people who have the ability to play a similar style. Look, he's a really determined, reckless offensive player. He's going to go into scoring areas and carry his size into those scoring areas like a lot of 27-year-old men do. He's going to be able to do things because of his determination and size that a lot of other people won't do ... can't do. So he needs people he can play with, that can hang onto the puck while he gets open. For him to be effective, he's got to play in the top nine. I don't think we're thinking that he's a 20 year old. I think we're thinking that he's a young guy that's had great experience that's really going to help him. I've talked to people that have coached him. They know yeah age-wise he's not an older player, but experience-wise he is."
• Despite a down season in 2011-12, recently re-signed Blues forward Chris Stewart is still a top-six forward in the NHL in Hitchcock's eyes. "Oh for sure, he's a legit top-six forward," he said. "He's got to play with a high level of physicality for seven months, nine months. That's a long time. You can't do it unless you're in optimum shape. His season was a roller-coaster. He was up, he was down, he was up, he was down. In order to play the type of game he needs to play, it requires an unbelievable level of fitness. It's not a game of skill. It's a game of grit and skill. In order to play that game, you've got to be in unbelievable shape. Otherwise, you break down."
That's why Hitchcock was glad to hear that Stewart hired a high-level fitness trainer this summer. "I'm really excited because, to me, Stewy is starting to turn the corner we've needed him to turn," Hitchcock said. "He has elite skill, he's an elite athlete, but now he's followed it with a high level of fitness training. Like, we're talking high level. Where he's at, the people that he's working with, it's a real high level of fitness training. He's getting pushed hard every day and he's responded. So, he's started to figure it out, and he's starting to figure out that you can't just rely on your skill level ... because when you just rely on your skill level, you go through peaks and valleys. You score 30 one year, 10 the next. When you just rely on your skill, people you play against end up outworking you. Stewy's figured out that he wants to have a long career. It's not like he's suddenly found a trainer. What he's found is that he can only get so far himself doing the training. Now he's got somebody pushing him really hard everyday. I'm really proud of him."
• Hitchcock didn't want to get into potential line combinations in June, but he gave some indications. It seems likely that if Stewart can perform at a higher level than last year, he could begin the season with Patrik Berglund and David Perron. David Backes and T.J. Oshie are expected to stay together with a left winger yet to be determined. That could be a spot for Matt D'Agostini. It's likely that you'll see Andy McDonald and Alex Steen stick together, as they were at the end of last season. With Vladimir Tarasenko playing right wing, he could be a fit on the McDonald and Steen line, meaning there's a chance McDonald or Steen could play center. Steen is the likely bet.
• Prior to the re-signing of defenseman Barret Jackman, Hitchcock sounded as if he's in the camp to bring back veteran players such as Jackman, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol. "I don't know many coaches that want to give up any veteran players," Hitchcock said. "No. 1, they want to keep around as many players as possible. No. 2, they never want to let go of veterans. I think (Jackman and Langenbrunner) gave us a lot. I think Jackman has really found a way to be a support player for Shatty, or at times for Petro. I don't want to say he's reinvented himself, but I think Jacks found a niche of the way he needs to play to play with a partner. Jamie is like a coach in the locker room. He's able to project our message without us saying anything. He knows what the message is without having a meeting. That's a real ally for us. On the ice, the thing I would like to use Jamie more on, I would like to use him in a role that Kirk Muller played for us in Dallas ... in front of the net on the power play. He's got great hand-eye coordination and I think that's what we need at the front of the net on the power play. I'd like to see him play more minutes on the power play next year."
• Hitchcock agreed with Armstrong on the possibility of right-handed defenseman Alex Pietrangelo playing on the left side. "I don't think he has to play on the right side," Hitchcock said. "I think whoever we find there has to be a player that can help him move the puck. Their ability to exit the zone quickly is going to be really important. Whoever (Pietrangelo) plays with, he's got to be a guy that can really transition the puck. I think more than anything, that's going to be critical. Petro is not going to be an affective player if he's got to spend too much time in his own zone. I thought the difference in the two (playoff) series, all year we played defense by not spending any time in our zone. And we did the same in the San Jose series. But we got occupied in the LA series. They took advantage of our size there. They were able to control the play and wear on us a little bit. I don't think it makes Petro or Shattenkirk affective if they get occupied."