The St. Louis Blues
entered Thursday night's home game against the Anaheim Ducks
leading the Western Conference with 91 points -- which also tied them with the New York Rangers
in the race for the Presidents' Trophy.
That's pretty impressive stuff for a franchise with just one playoff appearance to its credit in six seasons coming out of the work stoppage, and enough to even catch its general manager Doug Armstrong a little bit by surprise.
"We thought we were ready to take the next step and become a competitive team and fight for a playoff spot. But to say I thought we'd be first overall in points early in March and on top of the West would have been a lofty goal," Armstrong said while appearing as a guest on "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman."
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"But one of the things that's interesting is, as we've progressed this season and played good hockey, our team is -- one of those clichés you always hear about, one game at a time, but our team has really embraced that. They don't get too caught up in our wins, and they haven't looked back and said 'wow' at what we've accomplished and they haven't looked too far ahead. It's been a good journey, but it has been a very workmanlike team this year."
Making the Blues' current standing all the more improbable was the mediocre month of October they suffered through -- they were 6-7-0 before Davis Payne
was fired on Nov. 6 and replaced by veteran coach Ken Hitchcock. Almost immediately, the team took off and began its climb up the standings.
"We've been through a growth process here where, when (team president) John (Davidson) came into this organization with (owner) Dave Checketts, they understood the blueprint, and it's a painful blueprint when you want to build from within," Armstrong said. "And so we had gone through that process for four or five years, and I thought this team was ready to make the move, as John did.
"We didn't get off to the start that we wanted, and we wanted to bring in an experienced coach and someone with like 1,000 games like Ken Hitchcock has. Our players were tired of losing. They wanted to go to the next step. We needed someone who had that 'been there, done that' experience, and when Ken came in, he had a group that was willing to listen and willing to learn.
"He stayed very current with today's game when he got let go by Columbus. Some coaches will get into the broadcasting ranks; Ken did not do that. He went back, he reconnected with his roots in junior hockey, he worked with CBC and did a lot of coaching of youth teams for CBC during his time off and also worked with the American Hockey League. So he stayed very current and I just think it was the perfect coach for a team that was trying to get better. And he's done a really, really solid job.
"Obviously you look at his record, but I think we also have to understand it's a player's game and you could be the best tactician, if you don't have athletes that are capable and willing to perform you're not going to be anything. So Ken gets a lot of credit for being the architect -- but also I think 80 or 90 percent of the credit has to go to our players for following through on those plans."
The Blues have been the best defensive team in the League, allowing the fewest goals (132) and posting the best goals-against average (1.88). Brian Elliott
leads all goaltenders with a 1.63 GAA and is tied with the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist
for first with a .937 save percentage. Jaroslav Halak
's 1.89 GAA ranks him third, while he and Elliott have each posted six shutouts to tie for third.
It seems amazing now, but Elliott was brought in to training camp simply to compete with minor-leaguer Ben Bishop
for the backup job to Halak -- in the coming months, Elliott would earn an invite to the All-Star Game in Ottawa as well as a contract extension from the Blues, leading to Bishop's eventual trade to the Senators for a draft pick.
"We thought we were ready to... become a competitive team and fight for a playoff spot. But to say I thought we'd be first overall in points early in March and on top of the West would have been a lofty goal." -- Blues' GM Doug Armstrong
"Brian made our team basically based on the fact Jaro didn't have a great preseason and we went with the more experienced player in Brian Elliott
to work with Jaro," Armstrong said. "And then Brian got a chance in San Jose right at the start, and he hasn't looked back. He's been phenomenal right from the start of the season, and he was rewarded with a lofty contract for a couple years. It's worked out very well. And then quite honestly, since about Nov. 1 I would imagine Jaro's numbers are at the top of the NHL in every category. He's played just tremendous.
"So right now we have a confident group that no matter who's in the net, we're going to have a chance to win, and I think that's so important for us as we head down the stretch here, where points are paramount. Obviously you fight for a playoff spot and now our goals have shifted, we want to get home ice and potentially win our division. So we're going to need good goaltending every night, and that's the backbone of our team, and Jaro and Elliott have done just an outstanding job."
Armstrong, who got his big break as an NHL executive working in the hockey operations department for Bob Clarke with the Minnesota North Stars, also credits Bob Gainey with the Dallas Stars
and Davidson as influential figures in his career. He said that while the Blues' focus is on getting prepared for the Stanley Cup Playoffs and not winning the Presidents' Trophy, he certainly wouldn't mind achieving that as well.
"Right now, where we sit, our goal maybe on Jan. 1 was to make the playoffs, and then maybe three or four weeks ago it was to get home ice," he said. "But now I think we have to keep reaching, and there's a pretty good chance if you win our division you're going to be in position to win the Presidents' Trophy.
But he knows that winning the Central Division, let alone finishing first in the Western Conference or tops in the NHL, won't be easy.
"Detroit is just a phenomenal organization and they're there year in and year out," he said. "And you see how Chicago and Nashville are playing right now. Chicago might not be at the top of their game right now, but they're still a dangerous team. So we think we're going to be battle-tested.
"I'd love to win the Presidents' Trophy. I'd take a lot of pride in that as an organization. I've been fortunate to be part of an organization to have won that twice, and a third one certainly wouldn't hurt my feelings."