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Blues players, management bracing for change

by Louie Korac /

HAZELWOOD, Mo. -- It's a question the St. Louis Blues were hoping to avoid after past Stanley Cup Playoff failures but one that became unavoidable following another defeat in the Western Conference First Round.

What's next?

That's the lingering question the Blues can't seem to shake following a third straight defeat in the first round, this one against the Minnesota Wild, who will face the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round.

According to players, they expect personnel change, which made saying goodbye tougher.

"More saying goodbye to everybody when you know that there's guys that won't be here next year in the locker room," defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. "You just kind of have to deal with that harsh reality that things are going to change. It's never easy to really to deal with that."

The Blues have had a core group in place for four straight playoff seasons and one series victory. General manager Doug Armstrong said after last season's first-round loss to the Blackhawks that it was a missed opportunity but one that included keeping the core group together to see if it can elevate its play.

But another first-round defeat was not what Armstrong had in mind, which raises the question of what will happen to forwards T.J. Oshie, David Backes, Alexander Steen and Patrik Berglund, and defenseman Barret Jackman, the Blues' first-round pick (No. 17) in the 1999 NHL Draft and the longest-tenured athlete in St. Louis.

"I'm sure [Armstrong's] going to sit down and look at every individual from top to bottom," said Jackman, who will be an unrestricted free agent in July. "He's the one that makes the decisions. He's got a good group around him to help him out, but [Armstrong's] going to make changes where he sees fit, and I'm sure there will be quite a few of them."

Coach Ken Hitchcock said Tuesday he needs time to think about his situation. The 63-year-old had a one-year contract that ran through this season. Armstrong, who signed centers Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera during free agency and traded for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson last year, said he will take his time to go over every possible avenue when it comes to the proper decisions.

"We're not naive of the fact that we let the fans down this year with our postseason play," Armstrong said. "It's something we need to find a way to address, we need to find a way to overcome. The job of the general manager in this situation is to evaluate the hockey operation area in every aspect from scouting, to management, to players, to coaching, to trainers. That's what I'm going to do over the next little while. I'm not going to give a definite timeline on any decisions I will make moving forward. It's a raw time right now I think for everyone in the organization. It's a very raw time for myself right now."

The Blues' core is a young and talented group that includes Shattenkirk, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, and goalie Jake Allen. But it hasn't provided the necessary results in the playoffs. That's what Armstrong said needs to change but not at the price of tearing down what's in place.

Steen, Backes, Stastny and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester are among the players with no-trade clauses.

"I think we win as a team, we lose as a team. But the reality is, there's been a number of us, myself included, that have been here through the disappointments," Armstrong said. "We entered a window four years ago and the window doesn't stay open forever. I don't want to diminish the work that Ken and the players do in the regular season. It does bring the people into the building, they're excited, they go home happy. It's a great group to be around. But we're not getting it done at that time of year, and I think that group you just said bears the responsibility, but no more than I bear it and no more than Ken bears it. But they're the leaders. They have to bear the equal responsibility at a minimum to what the rest of us bear.

"... I'm not afraid to make changes if I think it will help the team. But I don't really want to orchestrate an option to the owner to get rid of nine or 10 guys and bring in draft picks. That's an option, I've seen teams do that. ... I'm a steward for the franchise and I'm going to take the direction from ownership, but my recommendation is going to be let's live to fight another day. Let's go back to work, let's prop this group up, let's find out what's holding us back, let's attack it."

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