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Blues establishing a new identity

by Dan Rosen
The negative connotations attached to the word "rebuilding" are too severe for St. Louis Blues General Manager Larry Pleau. He doesn't mind using the word "restructuring." "Youth movement" is OK, too. "Establishing a new identity" also works.

But not rebuilding. Never rebuilding.

"To say we're rebuilding, the veteran guys don't like to hear that," Pleau told "They want to win today."

OK, we won't call it rebuilding either, but it's not like you need a code word to figure out exactly what the Blues have been doing since 2006.

The Blues are in Season Three of one of the biggest, uh, let's call it overhauls, in recent history. The results have varied from good to bad to ugly, but the early results this season suggest the Blues are on the right path back to respectability.

After Saturday's 4-0 win over the Florida Panthers, the Blues are now 5-3-0 on the season. They won three straight before losing to the Detroit Red Wings last Wednesday night at Scottrade Center, and then were shut out on home ice by the Kings Friday, but it's all part of the process of growing up.

"It's a painful process at times," Blues VP of Hockey Operations Al MacInnis told "You want to maybe be impatient, but if you can see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel ... we're fortunate to have had a great scouting staff the whole time and we're starting to reap the benefits of that."

The Blues adopted their current philosophy in the summer of 2006 after bottoming out in the 2005-06 season with a League-worst 21 wins and 57 points.

David Checketts' group bought the team, and John Davidson was pulled from the broadcast booth to run the Hockey Operations Department. They came in with a fresh organizational philosophy to remodel the brand and they haven't steered away from it.

Since that summer, the Blues have drafted in the first round six times and in the second round another five. Three of the first-round picks (Alex Pietrangelo, Patrik Berglund and David Perron) play in the Blues' regular lineup when healthy and a fourth, Erik Johnson, would be if not for a season-ending knee injury.

The other two first-round picks, Ian Cole and Lars Eller, are big-time prospects. Cole is at the University of Notre Dame and Eller is getting one more year of development in Sweden before he moves to North America.

"You have to believe in your scouting staff," MacInnis said. "These are the guys that are out there, pounding the pavement, seeing games, seeing players and doing their homework on these players. Yeah, you hope they're right, but that's the gamble you take."

The Blues gambled knowing full well the results wouldn't be so fan friendly for a while. They finished 15 points out of the playoffs in 2006-07 and fell six spots and 12 points shy of the postseason last season.

Jobs aren't on the line yet, but the pressure to win is growing.

"You have to restructure without being at the bottom 5 or 6 years in a row because the same management that started it is not going to be there to finish it," Pleau said. "There can be too much negative when you are trying to change the face of your team. Sometimes people don't last because it's too negative. It's not that they're doing a bad job, but they're not there to reap the rewards."

Pleau never mentioned his name, but you could tell he was speaking specifically of Craig Patrick, the former GM in Pittsburgh who acquired a lot of the players that led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final last season. Patrick lost his job after the 2005-06 season, but left a lot of the current pieces in place for current GM Ray Shero, who stops at nothing to praise the job Patrick and his staff did.

"If you want to get to be a good team again, you've got to pay the price," Pleau said. "There's got to be some of what you call the ugly. It takes time and sometimes it's not fun."

Accepting the idea that they were going to take their lumps while drafting well and developing from within added to the challenge of acquiring some difference-making veterans.

"It takes a player willing to give his time and his experience to young players to let them know what it's like to go through tough times," Pleau said. "You're hoping for players that have been in the League for a while that are going to be part of the structure in not just being there, but leading the way and helping."

The Blues already had a few of those on the roster when Checketts and Davidson came on board, including Eric Brewer, Keith Tkachuk, Barret Jackman, Dallas Drake and Bryce Salvador.

Davidson, Pleau and MacInnis have done a masterful job of not only keeping most of the veterans they already had, but adding key guys to the mix.

Manny Legace, Jay McKee, Paul Kariya and Dan Hinote have joined the remodeling as unrestricted free agents since 2006. The Blues traded for Brad Boyes at the 2007 deadline and signed him to a long-term deal late last season, when he scored 43 goals. Brewer, Tkachuk and Jackman have since earned new contracts as well.

Andy McDonald, who was acquired last December, could be the next to re-up.

"These guys know it doesn't take as long as you might think," MacInnis said. "Look at Pittsburgh. They have a young team and I don't know if people would have put a lot of money on them going to the Stanley Cup Final last year because they always say, 'It's a young team and when the playoffs come maybe they don't have the experience.' Well, they were beyond that.
"It's a painful process at times.  You want to maybe be impatient, but if you can see a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel ... we're fortunate to have had a great scouting staff the whole time and we're starting to reap the benefits of that." -- Al MacInnis
"Our middle, tier 2 guys, they see it. If I'm one of those players, for our team to get better, not only do I have to improve and provide the leadership, but also I want these guys to grow and get better because that's how our team is going to get better."

Although it's still early, we can say the Blues have gotten better.

They've received a jolt of energy from youngsters Pietrangelo, Berglund, Perron, Roman Polack, Chris Porter and T.J. Oshie.
Tkachuk is playing like he's 26, not 36. Boyes is living up to his contract. Kariya and McDonald have been excellent.

Defensively, Jackman has been strong and Steve Wagner has fit in and is playing more than 20 minutes a night. Brewer is playing upward of 26 minutes a night.

"The immediate goal is to make the playoffs," Brewer said. "Anything less than that is not considered good enough. That's something that maybe needs to be talked about more."

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