The Blues regret getting to a point where coach Ken Hitchcock was fired, but everything they have faced has galvanized the players and they've turned the corner.
The St. Louis Blues aren’t used to being in this position in the regular season. Sure, there have been playoff letdowns, but the grind they have experienced this year, particularly the stretch that led to the firing of coach Ken Hitchcock, was new.
“It’s been a tough year,” said defenseman Carl Gunnarsson. “We’ve played some really good games, then played some really bad ones. No one wants to see the coach fired because it comes down on us – we didn’t do our jobs. It’s kind of embarrassing someone had to take the blame for it.”
Like several other squads of late, the Blues did rebound with Mike Yeo officially taking over head coaching duties, something he was ordained to do next season already. St. Louis won six of seven after Hitchcock was turfed and the one loss came against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
“At this point, we’re kinda past it,” said blueliner Jay Bouwmeester. “We were spinning our tires and something had to happen. (Yeo) relates to some guys a little differently. Communication has been good, practices have been up-tempo…little subtle changes, nothing huge. But it’s been good.”
The other most obvious change? Goaltender Jake Allen got his groove back. The starter has struggled this season, with December going poorly and January being an unmitigated disaster. Allen even took some time off to reset and it seems to have worked. The 26-year-old has surrendered a grand total of seven goals in five games since Hitchcock was fired and all of a sudden looks like the guy St. Louis chose over Brian Elliott.
“He went through a tough time, but everybody does,” Bouwmeester said. “The problem when you’re a goalie is that it’s magnified; there’s nowhere to hide. He’s had a couple really strong games since the all-star break. He’s feeling good, we’re feeling good with him, so away we go.”
Perhaps what should be most heartening for Blues fans is that the players actually seem a little pumped about the adversity they faced. The firing of Hitchcock? To a man, they all regretted it. But it seems to have been the wake-up call necessary.
“You get some extra energy with a change like that and right now we’re rolling,” said center Patrik Berglund. “But we’re not just having luck; we’re playing the right way and that’s why we’re racking up points.”
The funny thing is, the Blues were never in serious trouble; they were still a wild card team when Hitchcock was fired. But this franchise has become used to life at the top of the Central and things were getting uncomfortable. For a team still waiting to hoist its first Stanley Cup, being pushed out of their comfort zone may end up paying dividends.
“Now you have to keep track of the standings,” Berglund said. “In the past few years we didn’t have to worry. But it’s also a good challenge to have to dig in every single game. Every game is very important and we have to stay focused and keep going.”
That adversity has also had a galvanizing effect on the players. St. Louis experienced a great deal of turnover in the summer with vets such as David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott moving on (many of my peers have already pointed out that such players were known as Hitchcock buffers who could take heat in the right way from the coach), but those who remained aren’t ready to leave the city, despite the mid-season chaos.
“Everyone knows the trade deadline is coming up,” Gunnarsson said. “No one wants to move. We all want to be here, to play our hearts out every night. That’s been the biggest change, so that’s a good feeling in the group, coming from something bad.”
With Minnesota and Chicago so far up in the stratosphere, St. Louis can’t do any better than third in the Central at this point. And slipping behind Nashville into a wild card spot is definitely a possibility.
St. Louis slayed their Blackhawks playoff demon in the first round last year and made the conference final for the first time since 2001. But the Blues have gone through their own version of hell this season and who knows? It may have been the best thing to ever happen to this group.
Eric Staal on life in the NHL before the 2004-05 lockout, and which human body parts he has autographed.
What was your favorite NHL team growing up?
The Leafs. I grew up in Thunder Bay, and it’s mostly Leaf Nation up there, too.
Who did you model your game after?
One of my favorite players was Joe Sakic, because of his clutch ability and because he played at both ends of the rink really well. He’s a good all-around player but was clutch.
Your ‘welcome to the NHL’ moment?
My first year was before the 2004-05 lockout, so any time I got near the net I took about eight cross-checks and slashes. I had a lot of those moments my first year at 18. It was a lot more physical before they changed the rules after that lockout.
First splurge purchase after signing an NHL contract?
I bought a Cadillac Escalade my first year once I knew I was staying and signing in Carolina. I needed a car, and my parents helped me, and I went and got one of those. It didn’t have spinning rims or anything like that, but it was nice.
What’s your favorite way to score?
I like to score from anywhere, but the fun ways to score are the one-timers or a sweet play. But most likely for me scoring, it’s going to be a quick-release shot. It’s going to be five-hole or low blocker. Those are my go-to.
What’s your craziest fan interaction?
I’ve signed people’s body parts. This one guy in Carolina, the whole team that won the Stanley Cup, he had everybody’s name tattooed to him. So he went around and basically got everybody that was on the team to sign, I think it was his leg or his calf or something, and he ended up tattooing everyone’s signature to his body. Hey, whatever you want to do. That was interesting.
Best thing about being an NHLer?
The fact I get to play a game for a living. How many people get to say they play a sport for a job? If I didn’t have this for a job, I would love playing beer-league pickup hockey with my buddies, because I love the game. I get to do that and get paid to do it, so there’s nothing better than that.
Worst thing about being an NHLer?
Travel. When you have a wife and kids, it’s hard being away. It’s hard for your wife when you’re busy and the kids are in school and hockey and everything else. It’s no fun being away. You always want to be around and be a part of everything, but the reality is we play 41 games on the road. That’s the hardest part.
There's no "generational talent" at the top of the draft this season, but there is a nice battle for the top spot between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier.
It’s time for draft rankings, people, and it’s getting very interesting out there.
The 2017 draft class has already been pilloried quite a bit this season, but I think we just have to appreciate it for what it is: a chance for teams to get better. We’ve been spoiled by “generational” talents such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews lately, but that can’t happen every year. Instead, we have a nice little battle shaping up at the top between Nolan Patrick and Nico Hischier. And don’t be surprised to see even more movement as time goes on.
I have Timothy Liljegren third, but I’m kinda conservative when it comes to moving top players down. Recognize that he may slide as other blueliners make their cases, or if it appears we’ll have another run on centers at the top this summer in Chicago. Whatever happens, here’s the first round as I see it right now.
1. Nolan Patrick, C, Brandon (WHL): Back from injury and from all appearances, not suffering. Patrick has the size, skill and all-around game to be an instant NHLer
2. Nico Hischier, C, Halifax (QMJHL): The high-end skills and smarts are so tantalizing. Hischier is certainly giving Patrick a run for his money and surpassing the Wheat King is not out of the question.
3. Timothy Liljegren, D, Rogle (SHL): Liljegren seems to be back on track after illness and a loan to Timra. His skating and offensive instincts are excellent and he’s getting some nice responsibility with Rogle.
4. Gabe Vilardi, C, Windsor (OHL): Skating is the knock, but scouts are already downplaying it by hyping up his other skills. Vilardi is big, smart and talented and really, the speed isn’t that bad right now.
5. Owen Tippett, RW, Mississauga (OHL): A weaponized winger with size, speed and a big-time shot, Tippett doesn’t have the versatility of Vilardi, but the physical tools are beguiling.
6. Klim Kostin, RW, MVD (Rus.): Surgery ended his nightmare season, but Kostin is enough of a known quantity thanks to earlier international duty. He’s a big, powerful kid with loads of talent.
7. Casey Mittelstadt, C, Eden Prairie (Minn. HS): The Minnesota commit wanted one more shot at a state title, so Mittelstadt is currently laying waste to high schoolers with Eden Prairie. Tons of skill and he put up numbers in the USHL, too.
8. Michael Rasmussen, C, Tri-City (WHL): Starting off with his nearly 6-foot-6 frame, there’s a lot to like about Rasmussen. Naturally his reach is good, but his hands are also pretty sweet and he can play with an edge.
9. Eeli Tolvanen, LW, Sioux City (USHL): A wicked shot in a smaller package. The Boston College recruit is a pure goal-scorer and draws penalties with his skill. Mixed opinions out there on his feistiness.
10. Miro Heiskainen, D, HIFK (Fin.): Smooth-skating defensemen are in and Heiskanen may even challenge Liljegren for draft stock. Some scouts thought he was Finland’s best blueliner at the world juniors.
Vancouver GM Jim Benning said he’d evaluate the deadline situation after they play their next five games, but even if they win every game, the Canucks should be selling come March 1.
With less than two weeks to the trade deadline, the Vancouver Canucks somehow sit a mere five points out of a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Given the way the season started in Vancouver, that’s nothing short of miraculous because there was a time when fans were thinking more about what number Nolan Patrick would wear when he joins the Canucks than the possibility of post-season play.
The wonders of league parity have been at play, however, allowing Vancouver to pick their way back up the standings, fight their way into the conversation as one of the league’s bubble teams and make the trade deadline all the more confusing than it ever should have had to be for GM Jim Benning. For much of the early season, the Canucks were firmly in the seller category and speculation circled about which free agents-to-be would be gone come March. Now, instead of a fire sale, there seems to be real, honest to goodness talk about whether Vancouver is going to be selling or buying come the deadline.
“We’ve got five more games before the trade deadline,” Benning said in an interview with TSN 1040. “We still have some time. We want to see where we’re at going into the deadline and then, like I’ve said all year, we’ll talk to players, find out what their thoughts are and go from there.”
You can maybe understand where Benning is coming from. The Canucks made the post-season in his first year as the club’s GM, but the 2015-16 season was a disaster and 2016-17 started much the same. The playoffs are enticing, and with the West looking more wide open than in years past, there’s certainly some appeal to trying to sneak in, capture some magic and go on a deep run. But for Vancouver to do anything but sell right now would be absolutely foolish.
It’s not what one would call a bold prediction, but the Canucks aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this year and it matters naught who they add come the deadline. The pieces, simply put, aren’t there. Daniel and Henrik Sedin still have magic left in their sticks as they inch closer to sailing off into the sunset, but on a team-wide basis, this isn’t a Vancouver club that’s in position to do much damage at all.
Look at it this way: Yes, the Canucks are five points out of a playoff spot with five games to go before the deadline, and yes, that means the Canucks could potentially have 66 points to their name by the time deadline day rolls around, but Vancouver has just 21 regulation or overtime wins to their name, tied for fourth-worst in the league, have a minus-30 goal differential, also tied for fourth-worst in the league, and they’ve produced a grand total of 138 goals this season, which is, you guessed it, fourth-worst in the league.
This is to say that to this point, Vancouver’s reaching this level of success this season has largely been a mirage, something underlying numbers also point out. For instance, Vancouver ranks 21st in the league in Corsi For percentage at 48.6 percent, they have the fifth-worst scoring chance for percentage in the league at 46.9 percent and, as far as expected goals for go, only the Colorado Avalanche and Arizona Coyotes rate worse at 5-on-5.
Even if Vancouver were to wiggle their way into the post-season, the Canucks’ stay would almost undoubtedly be a short one. And if all that adding a few pieces at the deadline is going to net you is a couple home games and a bit of extra revenue, why bother?
In their current position, the Canucks have to be thinking about long-term gain over short-term pain. Getting involved in buying at the deadline would be a fool’s errand for a team that should be retooling at this point. Sure, Vancouver stands to potentially inject some hope, however false, into the fan base, but it almost assuredly won’t pay off. This should be the time for the Canucks to look at the Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Toronto Maple Leafs, teams who have stockpiled picks in hopes of a bright future, and bring a piece of that to the West Coast. The rebuild doesn’t have to be the same or nearly as extreme, and it definitely won’t be while the Sedins remain in town, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be similar.
That’s why making an acquisition at the deadline, no matter who it is, wouldn’t make all that much sense. First and foremost, the price for any player, no matter who, is upped at the deadline, and there’s simply no point in the Canucks participating if it means they’re giving up assets that could potentially be a fit down the line.
Say what you will for the first round of the upcoming draft — there’s a reason talk has been first-round picks could be thrown around without so much as a second thought — but there’s always the chance one of the draft picks the Canucks would potentially give up could hit. The same goes for prospects who haven’t quite made it yet. It always helps to have more potential, more chances, to find someone who can fit the organization than it does to have less. And you never know when a player might find their game.
The shame of it all is that Vancouver isn’t really in a position to be a big-time seller, either. Alexandre Burrows is the top UFA-to-be on the roster and he could draw some interest as a depth scorer, agitator and penalty killer. There could also be consideration given to shipping out Jannik Hansen or Alex Edler, and maybe someone would be willing to throw a pick Vancouver’s way for Jack Skille and Jayson Megna, both of whom are set to walk in July if they so choose. But even if the return is minimal on what Vancouver does have to sell off, now’s the time to do it.
In the coming seasons, the Canucks stand to bring Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and goaltender Thatcher Demko into the NHL, and that can add to a more youthful core highlighted by Bo Horvat, with Sven Baerstchi, Markus Granlund and Troy Stecher as the secondary players. That’s a solid group to work off of and build a future around, but buying and giving away assets now when a Stanley Cup is nothing more than a pipe dream would jeopardize the future. For the young core the Canucks are building to be successful in the future, they need to be supplemented by players who can contribute, not middling players barely able to move the needle.
The next few seasons are going to be the most important for the Canucks, as rebuilding the right way can make the future brighter than it has been in the past. Going in too soon, though, and buying into the status as a bubble team only serves to damage what could be. Regardless of the result of the next five games, the Canucks should either sell or stand pat. They’ll be thankful for it down the line.