New ownership need to show fans the goods

Updated: April 14, 2006, 9:44 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ST. LOUIS -- On Market Street in front of the Savvis Center, home of the St. Louis Blues, the light posts are festooned with banners bearing the Blues' logo and slogan for the 2005-06 season -- Back in Blue.

Black and Blue might have been more apropos.

St. Louis Fan
AP Photo/Tom GannamSt. Louis Blues fans have not been coming to the Savvis Center much this season.

By next fall, the banners might well read "Show Me The Goods."

Missouri is the "Show-Me" state and, as vice president of sales Bruce Affleck reminds us, Blues fans have shown the ownership how they feel about the team with a prolonged and sustained absence.

"We're in the middle of that ['show-me mentality] right now," said Affleck, a native of Penticton, British Columbia, who played for the Blues for five seasons in the mid- to late-1970s.

The team's season-ticket base has declined by 3,500 since the start of the lockout, which has meant revenue losses as high as $9 million.

Although the NHL has taken every opportunity to trumpet good-news attendance stories across the league, the Blues are the antithesis, ranking 30th in the league with a 24 percent decline in attendance over 2003-04.

As one local broadcaster put it, the NHL's been hosting this exciting, seasonlong coming-out party and the Blues haven't been invited.

The team managed to sell out only one game at Savvis Center this season and that was last Sunday night, when the Blues honored Hall of Fame-bound defenseman Al MacInnis. After cheering MacInnis, the Blues alumni and owner-in-waiting Dave Checketts, and booing departing owner Bill Laurie, the majority of the fans left before the end of the game.

"Show-Me" indeed.

Blake Dunlop, a former Blue who joined the team for the 1979-80 season that began the team's remarkable 25-season streak of playoff appearances, believes the former owners and management made a huge gaffe in handling the transition.

"They've gone through a very difficult couple of years with no management, no direction," Dunlop said. "The real sufferers have been the fans who have been so loyal."

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The Blues will miss the playoffs for the first time since 1979, ending one of the longest streaks in sports. Scott Burnside takes a look at the state of St. Louis:

• Blues historic run comes to an end: The Blues' historic run is coming to an end and the team is at rock bottom. And that's exactly where the team was when The Streak began in 1979.

• Where do they go from here: So what do the Blues do now? With fan attendance down and no playoffs, new ownership's choices will dictate the team's future.

• The last time the Blues out of the playoffs: We take a trip down memory lane and look at the year 1979. What happened during that the year that marked the last time the Blues were out of the playoffs.

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Dunlop, a senior vice president of investments with St. Louis-based brokerage house A.G. Edwards, questions the logic of stripping down the team in the hopes of making it more attractive to prospective owners, while, at the same time, trying to sell tickets to fans.

"It was like trying to sell a house and then knocking out all the windows," said Dunlop.

Will the fans come back? No question, Dunlop said.

"The fans will come back if they feel that they're not being gypped," he said.

Assuming Dave Checketts and his group, well known to commissioner Gary Bettman from Checketts' days with Madison Square Garden and the Rangers, are approved in the coming weeks, the challenge facing new ownership isn't just the windows but the foundation of a once-proud team.

The period between the finalization of the sale (likely late June) and the start of training camp next September will be the most important period in the team's history.

Checketts must decide whether to maintain the current management team, including president Mark Sauer and GM Larry Pleau, who arrived in June 1997, as well as determine the fate of the coaching staff led by Mike Kitchen.

Kitchen, a longtime assistant to Blues coach Joel Quenneville before being hired as head coach at the end of the 2003-04 season, has been praised by opposing coaches as having a well-prepared, hard-working team, in spite of the dearth of talent at his disposal.

Still, that may not be enough to save his job.

Each move made in the coming weeks will set the stage for the next move and so on. For instance, the Blues will have one of the top three picks in the draft.

Because the team has decent defensive depth with Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman and Christian Backman, it seems offensive prodigy Phil Kessel would be the most attractive player if he's available. Kessel would also be a significant marketing tool.

But that selection may hinge on the strategy Checketts hopes to employ when it comes to free agency. The coming market may be the most talent-laden in history.

But who will do the signing?

Rumors are rampant that top hockey analyst and former netminder John Davidson (drafted fifth overall by the Blues in 1973) will take over as president and then hire his own GM.

Pleau's record in acquiring free agents and trading for proven talent in recent seasons has been questionable, although sources told ESPN.com he was pressured into making the deals for Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight that cost the team considerable depth while yielding little in terms of playoff success.

Whoever does the signing, the Blues will have significant cap room when the free-agent period begins in July. Depending on whether club options are exercised on current players, the team will have between five and 11 players under contract. So, the potential to improve the team in a short period of time is there. But among the lessons learned from the first postlockout season in places like Pittsburgh, Boston and Long Island is that you can't simply throw a team together and expect results, regardless of how much money you spend.

Checketts told Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he believes the future of the team is in making sure there's a strong nucleus of home-grown talent.

"I've had experience running teams in very big markets, very rich markets like New York," Checketts told the paper. "I've run teams on a shoestring in Utah, a very small market. The equation really doesn't change. What's critical is being responsible about it. It should be good news to the St. Louis fans that I understand what we did right in New York with the Rangers, and I also understand what we did wrong.

"Where we started to go wrong with the Rangers is when we got away from a drafting, developing, being careful about team chemistry approach ... with an owner that just wanted us to buy every big name in the business. That doesn't work in hockey.

"I knew it then; I especially know it now. It doesn't mean we shouldn't have the right mix of stars and young guys, veterans. But I want people who are committed to wearing [the Blues] sweater ... who consider it an honor to put it on ... who play hard for that uniform ... who protect their teammates. That's the kind of organization I want to have."

Pleau would not discuss the team's strategy this season, which included trading former Norris Trophy and Hart Trophy winner Chris Pronger and declining to sign any significant free agents.

He did say, however, that the team has been working for weeks now to sow the seeds of a brighter future. The scouting recently had their contracts extended and they have been been preparing for the draft in Vancouver in late June and the free agency period that will follow.

Tkachuk, who some expected to be dealt at the trade deadline, insisted he wanted to stay in St. Louis and be part of the rebuilding process. When he is healthy, he has been the team's best player.

"Things will head in a new, positive direction next year. I like what I saw from the young players," Tkachuk said this week. "It's been a difficult year for everybody. But I enjoy playing hockey. That's the bottom line. I love it."

The play of netminder Curtis Sanford was the highlight of the season and coincided with the team's best stretch of play. After his season-ending injury, Jason Bacashihua showed he will be in the mix next season as well, although the prevailing thought is the Blues will try and sign a frontline netminder.

Lee Stempniak, a fifth-round selection in 2003, came up from the minors and delivered 25 points in 54 games.

"We are what we are right now," Pleau said. "We're not looking at wins and losses. That's not where we're at right now. You're looking at how people handle themselves in tough situations.

"We're on the move, we've already started to move forward."

As for the uncertainty of working toward a future that might not include him, Pleau is pragmatic.

"Everybody's human. You'd always like to know what you're going to be doing the next day or six months from now," Pleau said. "My approach has been that I'll be here."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.