Blues looking for championship mix
Twenty-five straight years of postseason competition, a current record among all pro teams, is a mark worthy of note if not downright reverence. But look closer and you'll also see an asterisk pointing you to another dictionary term: underachievement.
The more the Blues have spent in pursuit of their first Stanley Cup championship, the further away they seem to get.
Last season, the Blues boasted one of the NHL's top payrolls, starting the season with a shade over $61 million tied up in salary. But injuries to defensive anchor Al MacInnis (an eye injury that now looks to end the 41-year-old's Hall of Fame career) and defending Rookie of the Year, Barret Jackman, devastated the Blues' usually solid defensive lineup.
Up front, the Blues' paltry 191-goal output was the lowest in a full season since the team's inaugural season, 1967-68, an embarrassing fact given the presence of highly paid veterans Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Pavol Demitra, Dallas Drake, Scott Mellanby and Brian Savage.
Struggling through the worst season of Joel Quenneville's tenure, management stunned many by firing the former coach of the year in late February. More surprising was the decision to reward new head coach (and one of Quenneville's assistants) Mike Kitchen with a long-term deal before he'd coached a game.
The Blues righted the ship down the stretch and finished with the seventh seed before dropping a desultory five-game set to San Jose in the first round.
General manager Larry Pleau has been busy this offseason trying to reduce payroll and find that elusive championship recipe. Inconsistent Chris Osgood is gone, as is goalie of the future Brent Johnson. They have been replaced by Patrick Lalime, who wore out his welcome in Ottawa in part because he couldn't win the big one.
Demitra was not made a qualifying offer and, like most of the game's premier unrestricted free agents, awaits the settling of the market. Mellanby is in Atlanta, and more changes are expected.
Pleau spoke with ESPN.com this week about the disappointments of last season and his belief that better times lie ahead.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season, regular season and playoffs?
Pleau: I don't think we were as consistent as we could be. We started out real well and then that disappeared for 25 or 30 games. Our production was way off. I thought we finished stronger and then we didn't play well again in the playoffs. Give San Jose credit. They didn't give us any room to move. They played very well. San Jose played better than we did.
We were very, very disappointed in our season. We expected to be much better. These things happen. We weren't able to pull ourselves out of it. Our goaltending wasn't as consistent as it was in the first 30-something games or so, and our power play wasn't very good.
ESPN.com: It must have been disappointing given the veteran presence that you hope can prevent those prolonged slides.
Pleau: That's what you hope for.
ESPN.com: How about the decision to fire Joel Quenneville and replace him with Mike Kitchen?
Pleau: That was very difficult. But I felt it was needed and the right move. Mike's got a lot of experience. I think he's very eager. I think he's enthusiastic. I think he understands the position. He had been with us a long time as Joel's assistant. He was familiar with the players and familiar with me. And he's got a lot to prove. He worked with Pat Burns for four or five years and with Joel. He's worked with some pretty good coaches.
ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on the team?
Pleau: It's hard to say that there was one player. Christian Backman came along pretty well. I wouldn't say he was dominant, but he came along a little quicker than we thought he would. Because of the injuries, he sort of got thrown into the fire a bit.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Pleau: We've got to do that as a team. I don't think one guy's going to do that. Chris Pronger was very good coming off the injuries he had two seasons ago. But I think as a group we've got to be better. We're not a team that's built around that one guy dominating. But we didn't seem to do that this season. Jackman is like any other player that's been injured and is trying to come back. It's not going to be easy. To say that we expect him to come right back to where he was two years ago, it's going to take some time. I think Barret will be fine over time.
ESPN.com: How about Patrick Lalime?
Pleau: He's got a lot of hockey left in him. He's still a young man. He's got a lot to prove coming out of Ottawa. They had tremendous success there. But for some reason we all want to blame the goaltenders. We expect him to be the No. 1 guy. The team maybe is a lot like him, (with) a lot to prove, a lot of expectations. He comes with the personality that everybody feels will be a good fit in our dressing room.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system, and who's ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
Pleau: Nobody. There's always a surprise at training camp. We'll see who that surprise is going to be. This is one of the first years we haven't had a guy we're counting on coming up and making the team. Last year, it was Matt Walker. We're kind of at that stage. In the trades for Tkachuk and Weight, we gave away some young kids.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Pleau: It's easy to say offense. But I think most teams in the league can say that. We'd like to be better up front if we could. But scoring goals isn't the same as being better up front. Scoring goals is about personnel. You can't have a system that makes you score more goals. That's personnel. And we need to concentrate on our special teams.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Pleau: I don't think you're going to have many favorite moments when the season went the way ours did.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Pleau: Firing Joel.
ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Pleau: I don't know. I do a lot with my family, my wife. To me, I've been in hockey since I was 16. I haven't had a job yet. We've got a grandchild now so I don't play golf anymore. She's 5 months old, Lily. We spend some time in New Hampshire in the summer. My wife spends the whole summer here, and I kind of bounce back and forth.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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