ST. LOUIS -- What now?
That's the million-dollar question the St. Louis Blues must answer as they head into another offseason of uncertainty after an early Stanley Cup Playoff exit.
Doug Armstrong and Ken Hitchcock both sat at a table Tuesday in front of media members two days after the Blues, who set a franchise record for wins in a season with 52, were eliminated in a six-game Western Conference First Round series by the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. And their consensus response was simple: The Blues lack a killer instinct.
For the second consecutive season, the Blues led a series 2-0 before losing four straight and were left thinking, "What if?"
Hitchcock, who completed his third season with the Blues and 17th overall as an NHL coach, pointed at the fact the Blues, who also led the Los Angeles Kings 2-0 in the first round last season, did not apply the knockout blow on the road.
"We weren't able to create the gap in Games 3 and 4 and win on the road, which you have to do in the playoffs," Hitchcock said. "That's the killer instinct that you need to have. We weren't able to do it in either series, and it hurts. That's everybody's responsibility … mine, Doug's, players, other coaches, everybody. And that's the part that hurts, is that we couldn't apply the killer instinct when we needed to in (Games) 3 and 4 in both years, and that's something you've got to have a hard look at."
And for the Blues, who finished with 111 points and a second-place finish in the Central Division, they expected more after a season which was deemed "a learning lesson."
"Each year, you peel a layer back and hope you've gone deep enough, and with this year's disappointment, we're going to have to look a little bit deeper to players and to … starting with myself and areas I need to improve to give them the best opportunity to have success," Armstrong said. "These are difficult days because … I don't want to say anything to let the belief out that these are excuses, because there are no excuses. We're in the winning business and we're not winning at the appropriate time of the year and we have to fix that. We lost to a very good team."
The Blues might be in the market to give their core group of players, which includes David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Patrik Berglund and Jay Bouwmeester, a jolt, or perhaps a shakeup. Armstrong gave every indication he will do whatever's necessary to help the Blues push past that barrier that seems to frustrate them when the playoffs begin.
"I felt last year that we were coming off of a year when no one expected us to be good the year before, and we wanted to prove that we were a good team and we did that by securing home ice," Armstrong said. "I expected us to take it to a higher level this year, and the higher level was going to be a consistent regular season followed by a longer playoff run. So this year, there's a true sense, hurt, that we have squandered an opportunity, and opportunities don't come a lot in this League.
"We haven't got it done and we have to find out if the chemistry is correct. It's a difficult League to acquire players in. My job is to find a way to get it done. … We need more from all of our top players. With all due respect, and not to come off as a smart [aleck], but when Barret Jackman and Chris Porter are tied for third for scoring, you need more from other people."
Backes, Oshie, Steen and Berglund have been a part of the "core" group when the Blues first made the playoffs in 2009, when they were swept by the Vancouver Canucks. Including that series, and the past two seasons in losses to the Kings and this season to the Blackhawks, the Blues have lost four straight playoff series in four straight games.
"The six or seven years, I don't really believe in," Armstrong said. "To me, it's the three years. Players were put into positions here to learn on the job, and that's difficult in this League. As they were learning, we went through some tough times. I look at the regular season success this team has had over the last three years. I think our point total is probably in the top three or four in the NHL over that time frame. So, we're doing some things correctly, but we're not doing enough correctly to win in April, May and June.
"Quite honestly, I've got to quit worrying about May. We've got to get out of April first and we're not doing that yet. My job responsibility is to peel back the layers and see if we can work together with this group to see if we can get to a new level or make necessary changes to get to a new level."
Once again, goal scoring seems to be the crux of the issues when it comes to postseason success. The Blues scored 10 goals in six games in 2013 against the Kings. Their 14 goals in six games against the Blackhawks saw them score eight times in two wins, six times in four losses. They were 2-for-29 on the power play against Chicago.
Another pressing matter will be if the Blues and goalie Ryan Miller will have a mutual interest in consummating a relationship moving forward.
Miller, 33, will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but Armstrong said goalie Jake Allen, the American Hockey League's goalie of the year this season with the Chicago Wolves, will be on the roster next season and competing with whomever else is here.
"I view Jake Allen coming in here next year competing for starts," Armstrong said. "Jake Allen's partner is going to have to hold Jake Allen out. Jake Allen is going to have to compete with his partner for ice time."
Miller was acquired prior to the NHL Trade Deadline from the Buffalo Sabres along with another pending UFA, forward Steve Ott.
"It's a two way street with Ryan at this time," Armstrong said of Miller. "He has opportunities. I want to sit and talk to him. I want to get his feelings about our organization, how he felt about coming in, where he thinks we're at, see if he even has any interest in being a St. Louis Blue."