PARADISE VALLEY, Ariz. • To see Doug Armstrong in the press box during Blues’ games, the general manager certainly wears his emotions on his sleeve. He’s not the hysterically heated character that Ron Caron could be, but one knows full well how the team is performing.
The Blues’ 7-2 victory over San Jose on Saturday, many could then imagine, alleviated some of the strain that had been building during a stretch in which the club lost six of seven games.
“I thought we played some really good stretches in the games prior to that,” Armstrong said. “But our mistakes have been really big and costly. (Saturday) night seemed to be a more well-rounded game start to finish, and that’s something you can build off of. Now we have to get some points and try and extend ourselves past that quagmire in the wild-card spot.”
The Blues are 23-13-3 for 49 points, which has them in third place in the Central Division, but only four points inside the playoff picture. The season is still young in some regard — the club will suit up for Game No. 40 when it faces Arizona on Tuesday — but teams are starting to distinguish themselves.
Blues fans may be worrying too much if they’re wrapped up in the team’s position in the standings on a nightly basis, but it's not too early to wonder why the team hasn't looked as sharp as when it was drawn up last summer. On paper, it boasts as much skill and experience as it has recently possessed, but on the ice the group has not gelled as envisioned.
“The general feeling is the identity flows from year to year but the reality is you have to create a new identity every year because you’re bringing in different players,” Armstrong said. “We’ve taken our style of play maybe for granted, but you have to get new players to understand and have the same philosophy. Sometimes that takes a little bit longer. I would say I think our identity has been set now. Now we just have to put it into place on a regular basis.”
Two of those new players, however, have yet to look really comfortable.
Defenseman Carl Gunnarsson missed the first seven games of the season rehabbing from hip surgery. He missed 10 more with a concussion before returning for the last two. Center Paul Stastny sat out eight games with a separated shoulder. He has only recently began to look like himself, registering six assists in his last five games.
“Players like Gunnarsson, we haven’t really seen how he can affect our team on a regular basis,” Armstrong said. “So there’s a guy in our top-four defense that we were counting on that has played a very minimal number of games. That’s still a work in progress to see exactly how much ice he can take and where he can take the ice.
“Stastny, sort of the same thing. He came back, but I don’t think he was 100 percent for probably the first two or three weeks. I think the last four or five games he’s looked much more comfortable. So we’re still trying to find ways to get guys back into the game.”
In the meantime, the Blues are trying to get their regulars playing the way fans have become accustomed to seeing. Armstrong believes there’s been a recent progression, particularly from the line of David Backes, Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie.
“Guys are playing to the level that we need them to play at,” Armstrong said. “Not just the points, but the character. ... I think that (Alex Pietrangelo) and (Jay Bouwmeester) have been much better recently, too, so that bodes well. We have players that have been here for a number of years and they’re starting to play the way we know they can play.”
Though some may not see each of those trends the same way as Armstrong does, he says his job is to take the big picture into strong consideration.
“As an organization, you have to stand with players as they go through good and not-so-good stretches,” he said. “You understand that it’s a long season and you’re going to go through these things. But you also make a concerted effort to (know) what’s acceptable. Losing is a part of pro sports, I understand that. It’s how you lose, how you play.
“Some nights we don’t like the way we play and that’s correctable. Whether you lose 2-1 or 3-2, you can play a really good game and lose. But as the manager, you don’t like when you’re not playing the way you can. What you try to do during that time is talk to the coach and understand just what the players are thinking and try to get everyone pulling the rope in the same direction.”
The uneven play of some Blues has led the team to be linked with much trade speculation. The team may get involved at some point, but Armstrong insisted once again that deals are unlikely.
“It’s the manager’s job is to stay in constant communication with other managers, but there’s very few hockey trades any more,” he said. “Usually it’s one team playing for today and one team playing for tomorrow. You just don’t see a lot of trades where both sides are saying, ‘I’ll assume some risk, you assume some risk, let’s see if there’s a better fit for the player.’”
And similarly, Armstrong is less apt to put as much blame on Ken Hitchcock and his coaching staff as some fans have done lately.
“I think that emotions run rampant during periods of bad play,” Armstrong said. “But if you look around the NHL, you don’t make decisions based on a five- or 10-game blocks. You make them based on history. The same thing with players, you stick with them because you know they’re good players and they’ll come out of it, and you stick with coaches because you know that they can find a way to get their team to play.”
The Blues found a way in San Jose, and Armstrong hopes it will continue.
“We certainly hope so, but hoping and doing are totally different things,” he said. “I think the table is set if we can continue to play the way we need to play. I think the wins will follow. But at the halfway point, I have a pretty good feel for where we’re at. I think the answers are starting to outweigh the questions.”