- George Johnson, NHL
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Andy Murray's sales pitch was simple.
"None of those businesses are healthy because this team is not winning. And if you do not play well, if you do not play hard, those individual businesses, which each of you have spent a lot of time and effort to establish, will not survive."
They obviously bought the pitch. Because at the moment, business is positively booming. While a lot of attention had been focused on Wayne Gretzky's hauling of the Phoenix Coyotes up out of the muck back in mid-December, the undeniable impact of Murray on the St. Louis Blues since he took over for Mike Kitchen has gone largely unnoticed.
Maybe it's because they were so depressingly downtrodden to begin with. Murray's results, however, have been even more spectacular than Gretzky's under the desert sky. In a quiet, low-key sort of way. But then, Andy Murray's a quiet, low-key kind of person.
Emerging from the haze of an 11-game pratfall, the Blues have gone 13-3-2 in their last 18, and 13-5-4 after the management team, led by first-year president John Davidson, decided to make the switch behind the bench on Dec. 11. They've also won seven of their last nine, moving up to third place in the Central Division, leapfrogging both Columbus and Chicago.
A 6-3 loss to the conference-leading Nashville Predators on Sunday at the Scottrade Center might have taken a bit of the shine off the apple, but it hasn't in any way compromised what they've started to re-establish.
Inevitably, any new coach brings a jolt of enthusiasm off the spin, a sudden, dramatic upswing in a franchise's fortunes. Teams invariably pick up their socks, and their game, for a short, intense period of time before reality hits home and the leveling-off effect takes hold.
"We talked about that as a team. That grace period, the energy a new coach produces, usually lasts [about 10 days]," Murray said. "At least, that's been my experience. We're well past that initial phase now, and the players are still working hard. That's been extremely positive.
"Look, don't go handing out credit at my doorstep. Coaches only facilitate performance. We just help lead people in the right direction. I fully believe you get from people only what you expect of them. And we expect a lot from this group."
There's a slew of veterans set to become unrestricted free agents this summer, most notably Tkachuk, Guerin, Legace and defensemen Eric Brewer and Jamie Rivers, and a few will be considered before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
"There are 49 alumni living in this area," Murray said. "Obviously, players enjoy playing here, enjoy living here. Well, if they want to remain here, and they're good players, we want to keep them."
After being jettisoned by the Los Angeles Kings this offseason after seven years behind the bench, Murray was in no frantic rush to dive back into the coaching pool. Instead, he followed his heart.
"I was so fortunate, so incredibly lucky, to be able to work in the Montreal Canadiens organization for two or three months, and for someone like Bob Gainey," Murray said. "I was a Habs fan growing up, so it was, in all honesty, an opportunity I couldn't pass up.
"I hadn't watched the Blues once this year, and I think that certainly helped taking this position. I came in here with no preconceived ideas about players, about what was wrong or right, about anything."
-- Blues coach Andy Murray
"I still have my business card -- Andy Murray, Montreal Canadiens, Consultant -- and I'll keep it forever. I guess some people might laugh at that. 'You've been a head coach in the league for a long time' and whatnot. But the organization in Montreal is so solid, so steeped in history and tradition, it was a thrill to be a part of it, however briefly."
Being part of the Kings for so long, Murray found the short switch in conferences interesting, and highly beneficial from a perspective viewpoint. He hadn't seen much of the East since the unbalanced schedule was adopted, and the first couple months of this season, nothing to speak of out West.
"I hadn't watched the Blues once this year, and I think that certainly helped taking this position," Murray said. "I came in here with no preconceived ideas about players, about what was wrong or right, about anything.
"Since I got here, I've seen the Manny Legace who played in Detroit last year. He may have had a pretty good team in front of him, but look at his save percentage and his wins. This is a very good goaltender.
"I've seen the Eric Brewer I remember from the gold-medal world championship team in 2003. I've seen the Bill Guerin from three years ago, not the last two. I've seen the Keith Tkachuk I coached in Winnipeg.
"Everything so far has been positive."
Entertaining actual playoff aspirations might seem a bit whimsical under the circumstances. Despite this renaissance, the Blues still find themselves a full eight points back of the eighth and final playoff slot in the West. Murray reckons they might have to win 24 of their last 33 to give themselves a legitimate shot, but this last month has, if nothing else, brought credibility back to town.
It's far too early in the process to imply that the St. Louis Blues are alive and kicking, but at least a pulse has been detected.
"Well, we had nowhere to go but up," Murray said. "The last time I looked, there was no such thing as a 31st-place team in this league."
George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance