|Davis Payne was hired as the new coach of the Blues on Jan. 2, 2010 (Getty Images). |
CALGARY -- Hockey has taken Davis Payne to 10 zip codes across the United States -- from Greensboro to Greenville, from Rochester to East Rutherford, from Providence to Phoenix to Peoria.
And prior to Jan. 2, it had brought him to precisely one NHL city -- Boston, where he played 22 games for the Bruins over parts of two seasons in the mid-1990s.
The new coach of the St. Louis Blues understands the privilege of playing in the greatest hockey circuit in the world. He expects his players to understand that, too.
"I would hope so. The last thing you want is to have a player’s senses dulled as to how special this opportunity to play at this level is," Payne, the Blues’ interim head coach, told NHL.com on Monday morning, while preparing for an evening game in Calgary against the Flames.
"Be it a large reminder or a small reminder, we all have to understand that this is a special situation for every player, every staff member, every coach to be involved in."
Payne, who replaced Andy Murray behind the Blues’ bench on Jan. 2, took command of a club with talent, leadership, an exciting youthful nucleus with the likes of Erik Johnson, Patrik Berglund
, Roman Polak
, T.J. Oshie
and David Perron
, and seriously underwhelming tendencies in the first half.
At 39, Payne, of King City, Ont., is the second-youngest head coach in the NHL. But he has certainly paid his dues, with seven seasons as a bench boss in the ECHL before joining the Blues’ top affiliate, the AHL’s Peoria Rivermen, for the 2008-09 season.
Club president John Davidson, who remarked that Payne "might be our coach long term" when making the announcement, said the former Michigan Tech forward was more than ready to take the step up.
"You don’t put people in positions to fail," Davidson told NHL.com on Monday. "Davis had a chance to join another NHL team this past summer, and chose to stay and continue with our Peoria club. We liked that sense of loyalty.
"When we made this change, we gave him the opportunity to prove himself. And that’s what we’re in the middle of right now," Davidson added. "He deserved it. This isn’t charity. He knew our players after running our orientation camps with the young players the past couple of years. We felt he was the right guy, and we think he can do the job.
"Davis has studied the game. He’s open to finding ways of making himself better as a coach. He uses the people around him very well. When you study the resume, he’s got a wealth of experience at all levels. He carries himself well, and he certainly got the respect of the players right out of the chute, which is something we watched for."
After Monday's game vs. Calgary, the Blues (23-21-8) are 6-4-2 with Payne at the helm, sitting 13th in the Western Conference and four points out of a playoff spot.
They are still working to establish more consistency, but Payne has made an impact in the locker-room.
"He’s very well-prepared. He’s really good at managing the players. Cleaning up our game is what we need right now, and that’s what he’s very good at," defenseman and alternate captain Barret Jackman
told NHL.com. "Whether it’s looking at film or watching the game for a period, he’s very good at making changes on the move, putting us in better position to handle the opposition.
"I don’t know if the message was stale, or things just needed to be changed within our structure. Davis has mixed and matched, and brought some good energy to our team.
"Right from the first moment he walked in the room, he gave us a very good speech. He told us he’s not going to come in and revamp everything, but that he’ll work with our team. He demands energy and passion, and that we respect each other, because you play for the guy next to you. Right from Day 1, he connected with the players right away."
Last season, the Blues used a second-half surge to make playoffs, with a League-best 25-9-7 record over the final 41 games.
The club likely won’t need anything quite so dramatic this spring, but Payne says it’s time to start moving forward -- steadily, consistently.
"We have to be a great working group. We have to be a group that trusts each other, and we have to be a group that plays with a lot of passion," said Payne, a 1989 draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers.
"We have to hold the young guy and the old guy accountable to the whole process. There are certain times for understanding, and the soft sell, and there are certainly times for the demanding and direct approach."