In the days following a quick exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock talked about the evolution of his team, understanding the components necessary to succeed in the Western Conference and learning from the lessons provided in losing. Hitchcock said multiple times that the six-game series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference First Round provided the Blues a complete evaluation of where they stand and what they still needed to do to become a Stanley Cup contender.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong has tried to use that free-of-charge and oh-so-painful evaluation as his blueprint for the summer.
The Blackhawks showed the Blues that they needed to be better down the middle, so Armstrong signed Paul Stastny, the best center available on the free-agent market, to a four-year, $28 million contract. He also signed Finnish center Jori Lehtera, who tied for third in scoring with 12 points in 10 games at the 2014 IIHF World Championship, to a two-year, $5.5 million contract.
The Blues realized the imbalance on their defense with three right-handed shots versus one left-handed in their top-two defense pairs. Armstrong countered by sending righty Roman Polak to the Toronto Maple Leafs in exchange for lefty Carl Gunnarsson, who is expected to be paired with Kevin Shattenkirk.
Goalie Ryan Miller didn't have the desired effect what with his .897 save percentage in the playoffs, so the Blues didn't try to re-sign him. They instead decided it was time to give 21-year-old Jake Allen his chance after he became the goalie of the year in the American Hockey League last season. But they buffered Allen's promotion to the NHL by signing Brian Elliott to a three-year, $7.5 million contract extension.
Hitchcock talked with NHL.com about some of the changes and offered his thoughts on how they could improve the Blues, who finished second in the Central Division last season with 111 points.
Here are Five Questions with … Ken Hitchcock:
Where do you think Paul Stastny fits in with your group and what are your thoughts, as you entertain them now, as to who he could play with?
"Well it's not just Stastny. It's Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom and Stastny. There are three guys who are all point producing, scoring players so it's going to be a little bit of an experiment during training camp, for the first week to 10 days, because we have a number of opportunities in front of us. But a lot of it is less about Stastny and more about how Lehtera and Lindstrom look. Those are things we have to sort out. We have an opportunity to play Paul with the two kids, [Vladimir] Tarasenko and [Jaden] Schwartz. We have an opportunity to play him with a line with [Alexander] Steen and [David] Backes or Steen and [T.J.] Oshie. We have so many opportunities here, but where Stastny fits depends on where Lehtera and Lindstrom fit."
When you think back to last season, if you had a center such as Stastny, would it have drastically changed your lineup and potentially the end result? Does a guy like Stastny have the ability to do that?
"It's about understanding the landscape of the West. The landscape of the West is there are at least eight or 10 teams that are extremely deep and it's about having enough firepower in your lineup to control the puck. You score more when you control the puck more, so Paul's patience and the way he plays the game, how responsible he is in both ends of the rink, he really fits our team. He fits the way we already play.
"I mean, we've got a really good hockey club, but there are other teams out here that are really good too, so just adding a point-producing player doesn't get it done. You've gotta add a real player and Paul really fits the way we play and the style of game we want to play.
"I think his greatest strength is his ability to make little plays in around the net area, which I think is really going to help us. We've got a lot of guys who are more than willing to go to the net, a lot of size and a lot of tenacity, but now we have a couple of centers in Paul and Lehtera who are really good at getting the puck into those areas."
Speaking of Lehtera, you saw him at the Olympics, where he was impressive. He was also impressive in the World Championships. What did you learn about him at the Olympics and what more do you know about him now that he's signed with the Blues?
"I think the thing that impressed me about Jori at the Olympics is when the Olympics started he was the fourth-line left-winger; the tournament finished with him being the second-line center iceman. He worked his way all the way up the lineup and he was a really trusted player by the coaching staff. What I really noticed was when the game was on the line that coaching staff trusted him more and more. When the World Championships were on, he was their No. 1 center. He played in every situation, almost 20 minutes per night, same coach, same trust. That doesn't go unnoticed.
"I think the thing that comes to mind for me when I evaluate him is he's going to find a place to play on our team because he's competitive, he's smart and he's got great hockey sense. I don't know where that place is, I don't know how far up or down the lineup it's going to be, but I just know he's going to find a place to play."
But you did lose Vladimir Sobotka, who is going to the KHL. We know he was an important player for the Blues last season, a player who was used in all situations. Can you quantify that loss, what it means, and how it changes things or alters your lineup?
"Losing Soby [Sobotka], he's a good player, he played in every situation. When we had to move him up the lineup because of injuries he held his own. But I think the coaching staff here is really grateful that Doug [Armstrong] kept a relationship with Steve Ott because Ott was arguably our best forward in the playoff series against Chicago. He was really effective. He played left wing, took faceoffs at center, killed penalties, played net-front on the power play. He played every situation.
"They're different players, but what we lose in Soby, the speed and patience with the puck, we balance that with the way we play and the way Ott fits. Steve is like Stastny, he really fits the way we want to play. The nice thing about both Soby and Ott is they can play anywhere in your lineup -- left wing, center, right wing, third line, first line, up and down the lineup. I think it balances out. What we're really grateful for is Doug kept the lines of communication open with Steve and his camp.
"And now we get a healthy Steve. He wasn't healthy when he came to us and he was banged up in the playoffs. We get a healthy Steve and that's a good player. And Steve has a big impact in our locker room in a very positive way because he's a guy that's not afraid of the competition. He really fit with our leadership group. It was almost like he'd been here for 10 years the way he fit in with everybody. It's going to make for a good transition. We're going to miss Soby in certain elements of our game, but I think Steve is going to be able to balance that. We're going to be fine."
Does your goaltending with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen make you nervous because you're going into the season without a proven No. 1?
"Well, I'm a big believer in Brian Elliott. I know how good Jake is and I know how good he's going to be, but there's going to be an adjustment phase for Jake because he's only played 10 games in the NHL. We know how talented he is. He's had a great career in the American [Hockey] League, but he's still got the daily adjustment he has to go through. I'm a big believer that Brian has gotten better since he's been here and I thought last year was his best year. When we traded for Ryan Miller we were obligated to give Ryan every opportunity, but nobody lost sight of how good Brian Elliott was the whole year.
"Jake is the perfect example of a player who has earned the right to enter the National Hockey League. He's earned the right to do this, but whether the adjustment takes two weeks or two months, there's still going to be an adjustment phase. We're going to have to be patient with him and get him so he can get his feet wet. We can't just expect a guy to walk out of the American Hockey League and say, 'OK, I'm here, ready to play every game.' This is the first time Brian gets to carry the ball for a little while and I think you're going to see Brian play better because he knows he's going to be really counted on now. I look at Brian as No. 1. Whether Jake is a 1A or a 2, we're going to find that out, but right now Brian is No. 1 and our hope is Jake is 1A."