- Scott Burnside, NHL
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When you ask people around the game about who might emerge from the the next five months of hockey frenzy, there's always this caveat: too many variables to lock in on one potential Stanley Cup winner.
Many believe the New York Rangers, with Rick Nash aboard, are poised for their first Cup win since 1994. Others believe a Los Angeles Kings team with essentially the same lineup that waltzed through the playoffs with a 16-4 record might be the first team to repeat since Detroit collected rare back-to-back Cups in 1997 and 1998.
One agent's advice was simple: Don't waste any money in Vegas betting on a Cup winner at this stage.
But in a season when goaltending and coaching acumen might be the two most important assets a team possesses, we turn our eyes along the Mississippi and suggest that the Gateway Arch might just be a pretty good place for the St. Louis Blues to host a Stanley Cup parade next June.
It's a mug's game at the best of times, of course, trying to pick a Cup winner before the first shift has been played, let alone at the outset of a season truncated by a labor dispute. But if there is reason to believe in the Blues and their ability to seize this moment and come home with the franchise's first championship, it's because the man who stands behind their bench has been there, done that, and then some.
Ken Hitchcock is the defending coach of the year, after taking over for Davis Payne 13 games into last season. He chalked up 43 wins in 69 games to lead the Blues to their second-best point total in franchise history. The Blues, under Hitchcock, boasted the best defensive record in the NHL. At one point they went 10 straight games without giving up a third-period goal. They went a month without giving up a power-play goal, killing off 51 straight attempts. Hitchcock guided the Blues to a Central Division title, their first since 1999-2000, and he guided them to a first-round playoff victory over San Jose, the team's first playoff series victory since 2002.
And then the Blues ran into the buzz saw that was the Los Angeles Kings and poof ... in four games it was over.
And that moment, that splash of ice-cold water to the face, will be the litmus test for the Blues and whether they are prepared to push that heavy stone even farther up the hill, at the crest of which sits the Stanley Cup.
Hitchcock doesn't know how it will turn out, of course, although he knew weeks before his team was flattened by the Kings that Los Angeles was building toward something special.
"We have to be careful in just expecting to take a step forward because we're a year older," Hitchcock said in a recent interview.
The Central Division (let alone the Western Conference) has a lot of good teams -- teams that have made a habit of winning, teams that have created a culture of success.
"The pedigree of winning is very strong here, and it's not just L.A.," Hitchcock said. "It is really going to be a battle. I think our players understand that right now."
Hitchcock likes to say that there is a line that separates good, which is what the Blues were last season, and great, which is where they want to get to. It is the difference between playing through people and not to people, Hitchcock said.
From about the two-thirds mark last season, Hitchcock noted a change in the way the Kings were approaching games. "I could see a different mentality. They were going through everybody," he said.
There are lots of reasons to be optimistic the Blues can achieve that same kind of change, become that kind of team.
Last season, key players Andy McDonald, Alex Steen, David Perron and Matt D'Agostini were all dealing with concussion issues. This season, all four are healthy. "There's no hesitation in anything that they're doing," Hitchcock said.
The Blues will add promising young prospect Vladimir Tarasenko, but he won't be asked to do anything he's not capable of doing, given the team's depth, and neither will Jaden Schwartz, another young offensive prospect who was the 14th overall pick in the 2010 draft.
On the blue line, the Blues boast one of the game's brightest young defensive stars in Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in 2008 who seems destined for Norris Trophy discussion.
Defensively, the team should again pose problems playing a dedicated but not particularly conservative brand of team defense, a nod to the evolution Hitchcock has undergone as a head coach.
"We don't play defense in a cautious manner," Hitchcock said. "We play defense with a lot of risk sometimes."
But that kind of game -- pressuring, working the entire length of the ice -- requires a full-on buy-in from the players. The buy-in was obvious last season, but the ante is higher now. It has to be.
"There's a difference between buying in and embracing the buy-in," Hitchcock said. "I think you have to see it in the hunger in their eyes, you have to see it in their attention to details."
Between the pipes, the Blues boast the best one-two combination in the NHL last season with Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. The two shared the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL, and one imagines that they will continue to push each other after combining for 15 shutouts, tying a modern-day mark that was established in 1969-70.
It is the nature of the business that as a team enjoys success, it also can count on teams using it as a benchmark for itself and its own evolution. In short, the Blues aren't going to sneak up on anyone this season.
"We were a good team but now we're going to get everybody's best game," GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com before inking a new five-year contract extension, an illustration of the confidence new ownership has in the team's direction.
And so the pieces appear to be in place in St. Louis for something significant, dare we say historic.
Keith Jones, a national analyst and longtime NHLer, believes a championship is possible.
"I think, yes, they absolutely are a contender," Jones said. "I think they'll get a lot out of their experiences from last year, especially winning the division.
"Hitch is a terrific coach with a good team."
Former NHLer Ray Ferraro, now a national analyst based in Western Canada, saw a lot of the Blues, including their four-game sweep at the hands of the Kings, and likes what he saw. He's still looking at the Kings as the team to beat, "but I'm sold on [St. Louis] as a top, say, four team in the conference," Ferraro told ESPN.com.
"They're extremely well-coached," he said. "And young Pietrangelo, he is a phenomenal player."
Can those players absorb the experience of the loss to the Kings and synthesize it into another element of their arsenal?
Ferraro thought, for instance, that Shattenkirk looked "a little gun shy" against the Kings. Can he grow from that? Ferraro questioned whether the offense will take pressure off a defense that was superlative almost every night.
"Will they score easily enough? You can't grind out every single goal," Ferraro said.
Ferraro applauded the team's decision to move Steen to the middle, where he played during the lockout. "I think he's a really good fit there," he said.
Often players whose teams are eliminated from the playoffs turn away, unable to bear to watch others carry on where they fell short. Last spring, though, Blues captain David Backes watched the Kings, wondering if they would break stride.
"I wanted to see if they could keep it up. I wanted to see if they could sustain that level of dedication," Backes told ESPN.com.
Not surprisingly, Backes is a believer in the process of becoming a winner, that walking comes before running, and so on, and that last season was important for the Blues to achieve something greater.
History shows you that not many teams go from not making the playoffs to winning the Cup, he noted.
"I think we really have a good core of guys that did learn lessons last year," he said.
As for discussion of a Cup in St. Louis?
"I think it's a little bit of uncharted territory for the guys in our room," Backes acknowledged. But it's better than the alternative, being thought of as a team that will have to struggle to make the playoffs or a favorite to be a draft lottery candidate.
"Those days are long gone, thankfully," Backes said.
Hitchcock recalled coaching a very good Dallas team in 1997-98. After beating Detroit in overtime in Game 5, Hitchcock thought the Stars had Detroit's number in the 1998 Western Conference finals.
"We thought we were good enough," he recalled.
In the sixth game of that conference finals, the Wings simply took their game to a place the Stars couldn't yet go, closing out the series with a 2-0 victory.
"In 1998, I learned more coaching in that one game than I had in 20 years of coaching," Hitchcock said.
The next season, the Stars won their Cup.
Maybe this spring someone will say the same thing about the Blues, how they didn't know about going from good to great until they played the Blues on their march to the 2013 Cup.
After all, when you eyeball the teams and think, which team is poised to push that rock just a little further, who comes to mind?
We saw Pittsburgh and Detroit do it in a special way in 2008 and 2009, somehow beating the odds to face each other in two classic final series. Chicago proved its mettle the following season and then Boston, after an incredible playoff meltdown in 2010 found, the resolve it had been lacking.
In reality, it could be any of five, even 10 teams this season.
"If it's not L.A. this year, it'll be another team that'll go up the line," Armstrong said. "The way I look at it, it might as well be us."
We couldn't have said it better ourselves.
13dScott Burnside and Craig Custance