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Blues Take Big Step Forward in 2011-12

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

It didn’t feel very good watching Blues players clean out their lockers and leave the practice facility for the last time this season.

But then again, it never does.

The book has officially closed on 2011-12, and while a second round elimination from the Playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings hurts right now, there’s a lot to learn from it that will help the club in the future.

“History shows you that your first time making the playoffs in (awhile), to just wipe the competition and have a jaunt through the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup is not historically what happens,” captain David Backes said Tuesday. “You get to a couple rounds, learn from it, learn your faults, learn what players on your team cracked and you learn a lot about yourself and the next year you’re stronger for it. Maybe next year it’s the Conference Finals or the (Stanley Cup) Finals, and maybe the year after that, after you’ve learned all your lessons, it’s time to put something through.

“(This season) is not all in vain. It’s a great lesson learned and next year we’re going to better for it. We’re not saying the third round is our goal next year…we want to the win the Cup, but we’re going to use the experiences we’ve had this year to draw upon and have more success in the Playoffs.”

Added defenseman Barret Jackman, “Unless you’re holding a Stanley Cup and going out and doing the celebrations, you’re not satisfied.”

There’s no dancing around it: the Blues aren’t a happy group right now. But if you take a step back and look at the big picture, there sure is a lot to be proud of.

The Blues put together one of the best seasons in franchise history, posting a record of 49-22-11 for 109 points, which ranks second all-time and helped them to a second-place tie overall in the League standings. Counting this season, the Blues have topped the 100-point mark only five times in 44 seasons.

The club set a new franchise record with 30 wins at Scottrade Center this season, topping a previous high of 29 during the 1980-81 season.

The Blues also earned their first Central Division title in more than a decade, finishing ahead of the always-tough Nashville Predators and annual powerhouses like the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks.

“It’s tough to take away from 109 points,” Chris Stewart said shortly after the Blues were eliminated from the postseason on Sunday. “We obviously had a career year as a team, and that’s a great thing to look forward to for next year.”

The Blues also won their first Playoff series since 2002 by beating the San Jose Sharks in five games.

“You could say if we went through LA, maybe we have a chance to go all the way,” David Perron said. “But there’s only one team winning every year and there are 29 other teams disappointed and we’re one of them right now. That’s why each of us has to go back, train as hard as we can to get ready for next season.”

As the team waits for next season to start, several members of the organization are up for awards next month, which is even further validation of what a tremendous leap forward the 2011-12 season was. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock is a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, which is given each year to the NHL’s top coach. Doug Armstrong is a finalist for General Manager of the Year, while Backes is in the running for the Selke Trophy, given to one of the League’s best defensive forwards.

In addition, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are guaranteed to have their names etched on the William Jennings Trophy, which is given to the goaltenders on the team that allowed the fewest goals during the regular season. Plus, it won’t be long before Alex Pietrangelo ends up as a Norris Trophy finalist, despite the fact that his name was already mentioned this season as a likely candidate.

While the honors and accolades are nice, Armstrong warns that with a good season usually comes higher expectations.

“The key for us is to want to play another six weeks, to take the accolades we’re going to get as an organization about the improvement and how things are on the right track…it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t respond and get better. We say thank you and go back to work,” Armstrong said. “Ultimately it’s up the guys that are coming back. How full are they right now? If they’re full, then we’ll probably be in the same spot a year from now. If they’re hungry, we’ll probably be further ahead. They’re the only ones that can answer that.”

When Training Camp starts in September, the Blues will be able to add Jaden Schwartz to the mix and possibly Vladimir Tarasenko, too, if he decides to come to the NHL. Adding those players, along with a bit of roster tinkering from Armstrong, should help the Blues ice an improved lineup to a team already on the rise.

After years of building mostly through the draft, the young Blues are maturing and getting better.

That might be hard to notice right now, especially while dealing with the pain that comes with losing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But rest assured, the best is yet to come.

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