Talented Blues tough to figure

The Blues have made questionable decisions since winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2000.

Updated: August 8, 2003, 11:56 AM ET
By Tom Wheatley | Special to ESPN.com

What are they doing?

Among NHL insiders, that's been the question of the new millennium for the St. Louis Blues.

Joel Quenneville coached what was then a young, hungry team to the 2000 Presidents' Trophy as the league's regular-season champ. The next year the Blues reached the Final Four, losing to Colorado in five games as the Avalanche went on to win the Stanley Cup.

2002-03 BY THE NUMBERS
Record: 41-24-11-6, 99 pts. (8th overall, 5th West, 2nd Central); Home: 23-11-4-3; Road: 18-13-7-3
Goals for/Avg.:
253/3.09 (4th overall)
Goals against/Avg.:
222/2.71 (16th overall)
Differential:
Plus-31 (8th overall)
Power play:
20.5 percent (80-391, 4th overall)
Penalty kill:
81.7 percent (318-389, T22nd overall)
20-goal scorers: Pavol Demitra (36), Keith Tkachuk (31), Scott Mallanby (26), Cory Stillman (24), Eric Boguniecki (22), Dallas Drake (20)
50-point scorers: Demitra (93), Al MacInnis (68), Stillman (67), Doug Weight (67), Mellanby (57), Tkachuk (55)

But in the last two years, the Blues have won a grand total of one playoff round as the payroll skied to $60 million.

What are they doing?

Cutting player salaries and office staff. Taking their top scorer to arbitration and losing. Again.

Banking on cheap, second-tier help in goal. Again.

Frustrating themselves and their fans. Again.

What are the Blues doing?

Paying for getting sucked back into the future-is-now sinkhole left behind by the Mike Keenan regime in 1996.

Curiously, the Presidents' Trophy breakthrough was the trigger for this relapse. That Blues team was upset in the first round by San Jose.

If the Blues' braintrust had stepped back, they would have seen that setback for what it was -- a normal growth pain for emerging powers.

Young teams in Colorado and Detroit climbed to greatness after being toughened by just such an early playoff spill. The Blues' braintrust reacted with panic rather than patience.

General manager Larry Pleau, with the support of new owner Bill Laurie and Quenneville, detonated his steady build-from-within plan. The new plan was Keenan's old quick-fix trap.

Out went developing youngsters who bled Blue and worked cheap. In came veterans like Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight with Ranger-like price tags. Draft picks were expendable. Chemistry was an afterthought. Obvious gaps, like the chasm in goal and the hole in the faceoff circle, went unplugged.

Three years later, the Blues count just five survivors from that rising Presidents' Trophy team -- Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Pavol Demitra, Jamal Mayers and Jeff Finley.

And Demitra came away with a $6.5 arbitration award, the second-highest ever, after having played for nearly $4 million last year on another arbitration award.

The Blues were seriously debating whether to hang onto their 93-point scorer, or let him go and spend the $6.5 million on a couple of lesser lights. But the Blues re-signed him Thursday for the arbitration amount.

Already gone are young talents like Selke finalists Michal Handzus and Chris Conroy -- both strong faceoff men, by the way -- budding sniper Ladislav Nagy, two-way stalwart Jochen Hecht and top prospects Jeff Taffe and Justin Papineau.

Chris Pronger
Chris Pronger and the Blues need to overcome their terrible history against the Red Wings.
Chris Osgood, a two-time castoff since his Cup winning days in Detroit, is the latest goalie by default. Brent Johnson, the heir apparent, partied himself out of the No. 1 job when he returned from injury last season.

Time is running out on MacInnis, the 40-year-old Norris Trophy finalist, and forward Scott Mellanby, the team's other spiritual leader.

All is not gloomy doom.

The Blues still have Tkachuk, Weight and Mellanby leading the charge up front. They still have Pronger and MacInnis anchoring the back side along with Calder Trophy winner Barret Jackman. Bryce Salvador and Sasha Khavanov developed into a legititmate top-four defense pair.

Dallas Drake banged out a career-high 20 goals, many of them clutch, and Eric Boguniecki hustled up 22 in his first full NHL season.

Petr Cajanek, a Czech League veteran whose 170-pound physique took a beating, did a nice job as No. 3 center.

Ryan Johnson, Steve Martins and Steve Dubinsky were handy pickups for third- and fourth-line duty, and Jamal Mayers will be cannonballing around again after knee surgery.

Ex-college star Peter Sejna, who scored a goal in his first and only NHL game last spring, will get a chance to play on the top two lines.

The Blues still had hopes that Martin Rucinsky would re-sign after toe-testing the free-agent market.

But there are problems. Lots of problems.

Blues management finally realized that its small-market revenue could not support its big-market spendathon. The order to cut payroll is a joke because five players earn over $40 million: Tkachuk ($10 million), Pronger ($9.5 million), Weight ($8.5 million), Demitra ($6.5 million) and MacInnis ($6 million).

Throw in Osgood ($3 million), and the six players on the Blues' power play would have out-earned the entire payroll of 17 teams last season. That leaves less than $17 million to be divided among the rest of the roster.

Tkachuk, Weight and MacInnis have no-trade clauses. So a pay cut has to come from somewhere.

That's why the Blues cut loose Cory Stillman and Rucinsky. That saved the team $4 million but cost it 40 goals.

The team saved another half a mil by trading Tyson Nash, the league's worst/best pest. Now rookie Mike Danton must come in and prove he can annoy somebody other than Lou Lamoriello, his old boss in New Jersey.

The Blues need more pop from Tkachuk, who made a team-high $11 million last season. For that the Blues got 51 points, 31 of them goals.

In the two full years since Tkachuk arrived from Phoenix, he has earned $19 million and scored 69 goals. Nagy and Handzus, who were traded for him, have combined for 83 goals while earning less than $4 million.

Tkachuk, who also cost the Blues Taffe and a No. 1 pick, has been suspended twice at critical points for stick violations and been guilty of numerous other hot-headed penalties.

Weight, who found himself at No. 2 center behind Demitra, produced less than a point per game. This was actually a yeoman's effort, since he had revolving journeymen on the wings. And he managed to revive the careers of Drake, Rucinsky, Boguniecki and Stillman.

With Pronger out nearly all season and Tkachuk hurt or suspended for a quarter of it, Weight also stepped up as a leader.

Pronger, the world's best player three years ago, will be welcomed on defense. The question is where to play him.

MacInnis and Jackman were perfect partners and will stay put. Salvador and Khavanov played better with each other than when alternated with Pronger late in the season, because they defer to his masterful presence.

Pronger, who gave up his captaincy to MacInnis while disabled, must find a comfortable place in the team's revised hierarchy.

The Blues must find a way to break an eight-year pattern with the popular Quenneville, the team's longest serving and winningest coach. They excel in the regular season, when Coach Q's puck-moving system gets the jump on teams that don't see it regularly.

Except for the Round 3 high-water mark in 2001, they flop in the postseason, for a litany of reasons that is obvious to everyone in the NHL except the Blues braintrust.

They are always the weaker team up the middle, especially and relentlessly in goal. They get killed on faceoffs, which puts the special teams in a hole.

They overplay MacInnis and Pronger in all situations all year long. That wears them down, makes them easier targets for forecheckers and keeps the younger Blues defensemen from learning to play under pressure.

They are undisciplined, stubbornly unwilling to bend with the officiating breezes. They insist on playing crippled stars -- MacInnis last year, Weight the year before -- rather than trust lesser, healthier role players.

They don't make tactical changes on the fly when other coaches adjust to the Blues' game plan.

They never beat a higher-rated team. The lone exception was in '99 when the fifth-seeded Blues overcame a 3-1 deficit to beat fourth-seeded Phoenix, then went out and obtained two-thirds of the top Phoenix line (Tkachuk and Drake) from the Coyote collapse.

Having said all of that, the latest playoff dud -- a first-round loss to Vancouver -- deserves an asterisk. The Blues had Vancouver on the run, 3-1, before a flu bug decimated them for two games. They also had to deal with injuries to Demitra, Tkachuk and MacInnis.

That does not explain the lackluster effort and lack of discipline that cost them Game 7.

Fans are getting restless with the Pleau-Quenneville regime. Now what are the Blues doing about that?

Tom Wheatley of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He is the co-author of "Bob Plager's Tales from the Blues Bench," due out in October by Sports Publishing LLC.

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