The Blues have been built for a long Stanley Cup playoff run for several seasons, so why is it happening now?
A team that retained its entire staff and kept its roster fairly intact after enduring three consecutive first-round playoff exits will appear in the Western Conference finals for the first time in 15 years when it hosts San Jose on Sunday at Scottrade Center.
The answer starts with a decision by general manager Doug Armstrong last offseason to stay committed to what he had built.
“I personally thought this year’s team was going to be better than last year’s team, even when we lost,” Armstrong said. “I never recommended to ownership that we start from scratch. I said we should tinker, we have to try to get better, but as disappointing as the losses were, I didn’t lose sight on how well the team played for six months going into it, too.
“The two weeks (when a playoff series is lost) is so painful for everyone that you can wash away the six months of work. But what this team has done — this group of players that has been here for five years and accumulated the most points in the NHL — it’s hard to say that’s not good work.”
That group then used the early part of the offseason to reflect on what was needed to improve from within.
“We spent a lot of time this summer looking for answers, looking for what went wrong, what are other teams doing that we’re not, what’s going on that we can’t get over that hump,” Blues captain David Backes said. “There’s a few of us that were here until the first of July to try to sift through what was left.”
The result was a roster with significant yet limited changes. That, coupled with the takeaways from those team chats, came together to create another rousing regular season and a playoff run that, while it hasn’t lasted nearly as long yet as fans hope it will, has captivated the city.
“We are built for this now,” Blues forward Steve Ott said. “We have expected this out of ourselves. The core group has had the mentality from day one here. It started developing years ago and now it is all coming together.”
One of Armstrong’s additions, Troy Brouwer, could see it was close to happening when he arrived in training camp.
“You look around the room and you see the caliber of players and it was impressive just to see even the names that you didn’t really know that well, how good of players they were,” Brouwer said. “So just to see our lineup throughout, it was extremely encouraging.”
Brouwer, who was acquired from Washington in the deal for fan favorite T.J. Oshie, has added to the group. He posted 18 goals and 39 points in the regular season and has five goals and 10 points in 14 playoff games.
“That was a good hockey trade, I think for both teams,” Armstrong said. “Washington is very happy with T.J. and we’re very happy with Troy. He goes to the paint, he goes to the front of the net, he plays in the hard areas, and that’s something that we needed for the type of players we had around him.”
Rookies Robby Fabbri, Joel Edmundson and Colton Parayko were kept on the roster, and while injecting youthful enthusiasm, they have also produced. Fabbri’s 13 playoff points are tied with Vladimir Tarasenko for the team lead.
“This is the first time we’ve had so many young players in our lineup that jump off the charts as being able to play at this level and not be intimidated by the situation,” Armstrong said.
And while the Blues had confidence that Jake Allen was their goalie of the future, the club maintained its faith in Brian Elliott, and he has rewarded them. In two Game 7 wins this postseason, Elliott has stopped 62 of 65 shots.
“His Game 7s have been obviously remarkable,” Armstrong said. “He’s showing the mental toughness now that’s needed to get to the third round.”
But they aren’t the only ones lifting up the Blues.
“We’re getting great efforts from different people,” Armstrong said. “Youth is being served with (Jaden) Schwartz and Tarasenko ... they’re having a huge impact on our game, too. The veteran players have stepped up — Brouwer and (Paul) Stastny and Backes and (Alexander) Steen. We have balance this year. We’re getting timely saves and we’re getting timely goals.”
The performances of these players are possible because of a behind-the-scenes atmosphere that has been smoothed over by a move to mainstream the team’s leadership group and Ken Hitchcock’s decision to back off his aggressive approach.
The Blues had one captain, four alternates and other leader-types last season, but they shrank the pack this year to just Backes and alternates Alex Pietrangelo and Steen.
“It’s something where you’re trying to find the right mix of having enough guys involved and not having too many guys involved,” Backes said. “I think we’ve found a great spot right now ... everything just seems to be a daily routine of we know what’s going to happen and when something comes up, there’s a guy that’s right on top of it, squashing it and communicating to the rest of the guys. It just makes everything synchronize well and the results have shown up on the ice.”
Hitchcock admitted after the Blues clinched their second-round series in Dallas that he has softened his stance.
“I’ve pulled back on this team quite a bit,” he said. “I know some guys probably don’t feel like it some days, but I’ve pulled back a lot from where we were in December and November.”
“He is going to push us, he always has and always will,” Ott said. “That is how he gets the most out of us. (But) you have to put this onus on yourself to make sure you are ready to go. Obviously Hitch lays the structure out but the belief system, every single guy playing the right way, is what is happening. You have to have 100 percent buy-in now and I think you are starting to see it in the group.”
That has allowed the Blues to handle adversity this season as well as they ever have.
“We’ve learned to hang together,” Hitchcock said. “If we wanted to keep getting points, we had no choice but to deal with real issues in real time, and we did it. Instead of waiting for a game to be over to deal with the issue, we dealt with it immediately on the bench, and that’s a big change. That’s an easy thing to talk about but a very hard thing to do and we’ve learned to do it.
“It created an atmosphere where the players feel like we can get energy ourselves without having to wait for the coach or wait for the period to end or wait for the game to end. That’s a big difference and that’s what’s happened here.”
But why now?
“I think a lot of the things that we found that we needed to do to have success have really become the forefront of what we’re doing in this room and why we’re able to be at this stage right now and not have those exit interviews that are so dang painful at the end of April,” Backes said. “We’ve had to sacrifice and do a lot of things to get here and now we’ve gotten a little taste and it’s just made us hungrier to have this opportunity as one of the last four teams. One of these four teams is going to win the Cup and we’re thinking in this room, ‘Why not us?’
“It’s a tall mountain to climb, but as much as it’s taken for this group to get to this point, it’s gratifying — the feeling that you get going through a handshake line and smiling rather than wondering what came next. Those types of feelings just make you yearn for more success and make you want to do it again the next round.”