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.
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.
The Coyotes called reports of the organization exploring area options in Seattle and Portland “completely false” and a “fabrication.” Even the team doesn’t move, though, expect rumors to persist about the Pacific Northwest landing a team.
How many times in the past five or six seasons have we heard about potential relocation for the Arizona Coyotes? Four times, five times, half a dozen or more? First, it was the near-continuous talk about a potential relocation to Hamilton, which gave way to whispers about the team packing up and heading to Quebec City. Heck, there’s even been a question here or there about the viability of the team in Kansas City.
That's why you won’t find many hockey fans shocked to hear yet another rumor about a potential change of scenery for the Coyotes, this time to either Seattle or Portland.
This talk of relocation was spurred on by the Glendale Star, stating that members of the Coyotes organization have toured locations in Seattle and Portland over the past few months, per local officials. In the time since the report was released, however, the Coyotes have made it abundantly clear that no such tours have taken place.
"Recent reports by the Glendale Star that the Coyotes ownership group has explored arena options outside the Arizona market are completely false,” Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc said in a statement. “The Star referenced an anonymous arena source and an anonymous Coyotes source, and these are a fabrication…We are fully committed to Arizona.”
With Arizona State University pulling out of a proposed arena deal with the Coyotes, it’s no wonder some have begun to again question how long the team will last in Arizona, and that Seattle and, to a lesser extent, Portland have become the latest cities at the center of the Coyotes relocation drama isn’t without reason.
For the better part of the past two years, Seattle has been attempting to land itself a new arena, and it’s considered one of the most intriguing markets not currently occupied by an NHL team. Seattle has been a locale many have kept an eye on since the first murmurs of the 2017-18 expansion came, and it was somewhat surprising not to have an owner step up and make an offer to land a franchise for the city when the expansion process began. Portland doesn’t quite fall into the same category, but the proximity to Seattle and location in the Pacific Northwest seems to check enough boxes.
And while there’s no fire to this smoke yet, one can rest assured that this is only the first of many rumors about potential relocation or further expansion to Seattle, Portland or another viable market in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s why:
It’s ready-made to host the NHL:
The NHL’s focus on building the game in the southern United States has, for the most part, paid off. Teams in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose have been successful, the Lightning have hit their stride in Tampa Bay and the Panthers are starting to make it work in Florida. Then you have successful franchises in Dallas and Nashville, too. The Hurricanes are running into some trouble in Carolina, sure, and the Coyotes have been a headache for much of the past decade, it’s true, but the NHL’s batting average in the south isn’t looking all that bad.
But all of those markets, from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay, weren’t hockey markets that had long histories with the game. Seattle, however, does. As does Portland, Spokane, Everett and Kennewick, Wash., all of which play host to WHL teams. Four of those teams have existed for close to three decades, and the Silvertips have called Everett home for more than 10 years at this point.
Not everyone is going to travel great distances to get to a game 41 times a year, but that hockey-loving population certainly helps support the team. You can almost guarantee that the team wouldn’t struggle to fill the building on a nightly basis.
And the big one when it comes to being ready for the league to make its move to the Pacific Northwest is the size of the television market. It is, after all, a business. The Seattle-Tacoma TV market was ranked 14th in 2016 by Nielsen, two spots behind Phoenix, and Portland was ranked 24th. Together, the Seattle and Portland markets make up more than 2.5 percent of the US. That’s the rough equivalent of Philadelphia’s market size, and putting a team anywhere in the Pacific Northwest is sure to draw viewers.
Providing the league balanced conferences:
It certainly wasn’t the league’s biggest concern when it came to expansion, but there had to be at least some thought given to what would happen should the league also place a team in Quebec City. Already, the conferences are unbalanced, with 16 teams playing in the East and 14 in the West, with a 15th on the way when the Vegas Golden Knights begin play.
The solution, then, would be to either add a new team in the West to push the league to 32 teams with an even split — 16 teams apiece — in both conferences. Alternatively, relocation to, say, Seattle would leave the league with a mere one-team disparity between the East and the West. That’s better than being split by two teams.
It might not matter all that much on the surface, but levelling out the conferences makes schedule building that much easier and it creates an even playing field for each team. Right now, the Western Conference teams benefit from having to battle through two fewer teams in order to make the post-season. That gives Eastern Conference clubs worse odds at making it to the post-season, and there’s an argument to be made that each season there’s at least one team in the East that could have snuck into the post-season if they had been playing in a 15-team conference.
Creating a natural rivalry in the Northwest:
The Oilers have the Flames, while the Kings, Ducks and Sharks have a three-way dance. Come next season, Vegas and Arizona are set to battle it out in the Pacific for control of the desert. And up there in the corner, sitting alone on the coast, are the Canucks.
Vancouver has had its rivalries throughout the years, most recently with the Bruins following the Stanley Cup meeting between the two teams, but Boston being in the East, that rivalry faded quite fast. There was a more fierce tete-a-tete that seemed to last years between the Blackhawks and Canucks, but with Chicago going one way and Vancouver the other, even that has died down despite the teams remaining in the same conference.
But a team in Pacific Northwest? That’s a natural rival for the Canucks, and proximity almost always breeds contempt. Take a look at Flyers and Penguins or the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. Those two rivalries have existed for years and players have become legends for their play in regular season meetings or playoff series between the rival clubs. Rivalries have given the league some of its best moments, so much so that we’ve gotten to the point where there’s a rivalry night each week. It falls flat when it’s the Penguins against the Blue Jackets, though.
There’s a natural rivalry to be had in the Pacific Northwest for the Canucks, and it would be something the league could immediately sell. Vegas is intriguing because it’s new and the Golden Knights will be the first professional team in the city, but Seattle or Portland could be exciting because we’ll get a cross-border clash.
Of course, these three reasons alone won’t be enough for the league to put a team in the Pacific Northwest. There’s still a matter of an arena, an owner and a hefty sum of money, but don’t expect the talk of a team in Oregon or Washington State to settle down any time soon. It was the Coyotes today, it could be the Hurricanes tomorrow and expansion the next. The market is there, it's intriguing and it might be only a matter of time before the NHL finds its way into Seattle.
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