Coach Ken Hitchcock hopes this is the season of the Blues.
The St. Louis Blues are not quite 46 years old and still a bridesmaid, the team with the second-longest active Stanley Cup drought of any NHL team. Wasn't there a movie made not long ago with a similar theme?
Jokes aside, maybe this is really the time for the Blues to...(insert whatever dirty metaphor you want, but I ain't doing it).
At 46 years and counting, the Toronto Maple Leafs have the longest active Stanley Cup drought of any NHL team, but at least there are pictures in existence of Leafs players hoisting the cherished chalice. It happened last in 1967, which just happens to be the same year the Blues came into existence, with the NHL expanding from six to 12 teams in the fall after Toronto’s springtime Cup run.
The Blues are barely ahead of Vancouver and Buffalo for the longest time without a Cup. Which is odd, because for 25 straight seasons—1979-80 through 2003-04–the Blues never missed the playoffs, the third-longest streak in NHL history behind Boston (29, 1968-96) and Chicago (28, 1970-97).
Can 2014 be the year the Blues finally stop being on the outside looking in at all those Cup parades? Of course, it can. But whether the Blues really, truly believe it will still seemed to be an open question despite another great start to this season.
Kevin Shattenkirk loves his team, loves his team’s chances of winning. But the Boston University product is smart enough to know the Cup-less consecutive years streak will be a top topic for media next spring, assuming the Blues are in the postseason again.
“We know that’ll be there,” Shattenkirk told Bleacher Report. “We also know we won’t know ‘til April whether we learned our lessons from last year or not.”
This past spring, the Blues were supposed to have learned their lessons from the previous year. For the second straight year, the Blues played the Los Angeles Kings in the second round of Western Conference playoffs, having been swept the previous year.
The Blues jumped out to a 2-0 lead, and if any bet seemed a mortal lock, it was that the younger, hungrier Blues would vanquish the defending-but-Cup-hungover champion Kings from there.
But then the Kings swept the next four games, and shockingly, they were the Bridesmaid Blues again. So now the meme of hope around the Scottrade Center goes something like this: Now the Blues have really, really found out what it takes to get to the next level. They have gotten their lessons from losing out of the way and are ready to do this whole Cup thing this time. For real.
“Last summer was a little tougher for us because we’d already played another series against L.A.,” admitted Shattenkirk, one of the NHL’s top point producers among defensemen, with 12 points through his first 16 games. "But we know we have the right pieces in here, and I think that’s why (management) didn’t make any big changes over the summer. Hopefully by next April, we’ll keep proving that was the right thing to do.”
Ken Hitchcock is a student of history, so much so that he often participates in Civil War reenactments, alternating between the Union blue and Southern gray uniform. The Blues coach likes to be forward-spinning with his hockey teams, but allows himself a look back to try and gain inspiration for his current squad. His old Dallas Stars teams had to learn from postseason failure, he says, before winning it all in 1999.
|St. Louis||Never (inception in 1967-68)|
|Buffalo and Vancouver||Never (inception in 1970)|
"In ’98, we lost a tough series to Detroit, but I think our players were in that locker room and saying ‘we’re this far away, and we ought to put a little more into it.’ I think what people fail to value with us is how much we improved from one year to the other. We weren’t close two years ago in the first L.A. series. Last year it was right to the wire," Hitchcock said. "I think our players have gained a ton of confidence from that. I don’t think you learn anything from losing, other than more losing. But I think we learned that we’re getting a lot closer. The confidence we gained, I think, is being exhibited this year. Because, when the game’s on the line, we usually dial it up rather than go the other way. We saw how close we are to being a championship caliber team from that six-game series with L.A. and I think our players got excited by that. I think there’s a better buy-in from our players this year than ever."
Whether the players on hand are good enough–or whether Doug Armstrong will need to make another move or two at the deadline, maybe for another top-six forward–make for lively discussion among Blues fans.
The Blues finished fifth in Western scoring last season (129 goals), but have run into trouble against a top goalie such as L.A.’s Jonathan Quick in the playoffs. Some believe the Blues still have to work too hard to score goals. But only when the team is working hard, Shattenkirk says, do the Blues have the best chance for real success.
Well, what do you think? Will the Blues win the Cup this season?
"When we play tough and physical, with that determined mindset, we’re a tough team to beat," Shattenkirk said. "When we try to play a skilled game, it doesn’t really work for us. We just don’t have the single talent that can win a game by himself, like a Sidney Crosby. If you look at the majority of goals we score, it’s rebounds and shots in front off hard work. There was a big question over the summer of ‘where are they going to find goal-scoring’, but so far I think we’re near the top of the league in goals scored. We can score, but we have to work maybe a little harder to do it. But we can put in that work."
The Blues made short work of the Colorado Avalanche Thursday night, thumping the feel-good Avs 7-3 in a game St. Louis also won all the fistfights. The Blues in this one showed they have a little bit of everything—size up front, speed everywhere, physicality, a mobile, two-way top tier of defense and good-enough goaltending.
So what are still the worries going forward? Some of the many scouts on hand for the Avs-Blues game wondered if St. Louis still needs that one big finisher offensively—although that seems weird to say for a team with the leading goal-scorer in the league in Alex Steen, who got his 15th and 16th goals in the win over Colorado.
But will that be good enough against a Chicago Blackhawks defending champion team that just added Kris Versteeg to its already stacked forward lineup? Do the Blues have enough depth to hang offensively with the four-line-rolling San Jose Sharks? And what about another matchup with the Kings if that were to happen? Will Jonathan Quick get in their heads before the series even starts?
Spring will bring flowers, and answers to the Blues' questions. New York Rangers' fans used to have to endure chants of "Nineteen For-ty," but their 54-year Cup drought ended with Mark Messier flashing that big grin in 1994.
The earliest Blues fans can hope for a Cup is next year, year 46. But who's counting?
Adrian Dater has been covering the NHL and the Avalanche for The Denver Post since 1995. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.