Blues owner Tom Stillman and his group of investors put many resources into this year’s team, and like the national experts, believed that the club had the potential to win its first Stanley Cup.
The Blues signed Alex Pietrangelo among others to a long-term contract, spent to the salary cap and made a blockbuster deal for goalie Ryan Miller at the NHL trading deadline.
But despite the financial and emotional investment, the Blues’ hopes came crashing down in late April with a first-round playoff loss to Chicago.
In his first public comments since the postseason ended, Stillman sat down for a Q & A with the Post-Dispatch last week:
Q: The buildup to the Stanley Cup playoffs was as big in St. Louis as it has been in many years this season, but the air was let out of the city with the early exit. What was your reaction to the way the season ended?
Stillman: Well, our reaction was great disappointment. We had very high expectations and we didn’t meet them. So we licked our wounds for a while and now we’re back up and working on getting better for next year. It’s all we can do. We’re disappointed, we didn’t do what we thought we could do, but it’s not going to do us any good to pout about it or to throw anybody under the bus. We want to make sure our team is cohesive and performs well next year, so we’re moving forward and we’re going to do what we can to improve our performance. That’s all we can do.
Q: From the owner’s perspective, do you see the Blues as still being positioned well for success, or do you believe any changes need to be made?
Stillman: As much as we were disappointed, at the same time it’s clear that we are not far away from breaking through. Mainly for that reason, I don’t think anybody is thinking that we should blow everything up. Also, even if somebody did think that, it’s not something that you can really do in today’s league. But, again, I don’t think that’s what is needed. The hockey (operations) people, led by (general manager Doug Armstrong), have made a lot of assessments, they’re continuing that work and they are looking at and working on anything that can make us a better team next year.
Q: How did the lack of more home playoff games and thus increased gate revenue impact the franchise?
Stillman: Obviously the result is we didn’t get revenue from a second round, third round or more, so it does hit us that way. But my view of a rational way to construct a budget for a business is not to include revenue that you’re not pretty certain to get. I don’t think it’s a great idea to build a budget and assume lots of playoff rounds. You can’t base your finances on that when you don’t know it’s going to happen. So strictly on the business or financial side, we hadn’t counted on absolutely getting that revenue. We have tried to stay prudent and sound in our financial practices, including our budgeting practices.
Q: How is the organization doing financially?
Stillman: We’re doing better. We’re more stable. But we have a ways to go to reach our goal of being a really sound, stable franchise with a secure long-term future. We still have some work to do.
Q: The 2013-14 season was one in which the NHL salary cap came down and the Blues’ payroll increased, putting the club near the $64.3 million cap ceiling. With the cap projected at $71.1 million in 2014-15, where do you foresee the club’s budget?
Stillman: We haven’t decided on an absolute, final salary number, but I know that we’ll put a competitive team on the ice and our cap number will be very respectable.
Q: New ownership has pulled the trigger on several hefty contracts and signed off on some significant trades, but the moves didn’t produce the desired results. How will that affect your decision-making process in the future?
Stillman: I think that when we make decisions, we need to look forward for the most part. I feel that the vast majority of the decisions we’ve made have panned out very well. I believe Doug has done an excellent job in assembling this roster and putting together trades and contracts that have made us a much stronger team. You’re not going to hit a home run every time you try something. But I don’t think you can react to that by pulling your horns in too much and never doing anything again. I think that would be counter-productive.
Q: How is owning the Blues compared to how you envisioned it?
Stillman: The answer really is, I don’t know that I had a well-formed vision of how this would be. To the extent there was one, it wasn’t a view that we’re going to walk in, take over and everything was just going to go straight through the roof. I’ve had a parallel experience, taking over a beer business 20 years ago, and that was not a smooth ride for a lot of those years. It takes time and effort, and trial and error, to get an organization where you want it to go. On the hockey side, to me, it’s been not very much trial and error. It’s been trial and success with most of the moves that have been made. Again, we didn’t end up where we wanted to this year, but we’re going to keep at it.
Q: Despite the disappointment in this year’s playoffs, do you feel like you still have most fans behind you?
Stillman: Yeah, I do. I’ve been really gratified by the number of people that have come up and said, ‘I know it didn’t turn out the way you wanted to, but it was a great season, keep it up, we’re with the Blues.’ We have a loyal fan base and I think we’re going to have a lot of support going forward.
Q: But there are critics. How do you respond to the “same old Blues” sentiment?
Stillman: I guess the best response is to keep working hard at what we’re trying to do and hope those fans see that. As much as a fan may be disappointed or heartbroken, I hope that he or she understands that we have that feeling on steroids here (in the Blues’ offices). I don’t think anyone wants this organization to get there more than the people who are working on it here day after day. We can say lots of things, but we’re going to keep at it, and I hope people see that.
Q: Brett Hull rejoined the Blues before the season, in part, to help the organization re-connect with the business community. Has Hull’s presence helped and how has he performed?
Stillman: Brett has gotten off to a good start and has done some good work. He’s been able to open some doors and get some revenue-generating deals done. I think he’ll only get better from here. In some ways, I think the organization needs to learn how to make use of Brett better. But I think that’ll just get better and better.
Q: There’s been fairly strong speculation that the Blues will change their uniforms for the 2014-15 season. Is that true?
Stillman: Yeah, I think we should break some news right here. We’re going back to the clown uniforms (with the diagonal red stripes that the Blues wore in the mid-1990s.).
Q: Your smile tells us that you’re kidding about that. So is it true? Will there be a uniform change?
Stillman: Let’s talk about that another time.