- Scott Burnside, NHL
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ST. LOUIS -- It's picture day for the St. Louis Blues at Scottrade Center.
Everyone is here. GM Doug Armstrong. Head coach Ken Hitchcock, en route to a remarkable seventh season with 45 or more wins. Head trainer Ray Barile and strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte. The players. Their families. Office staff. Even the Blues mascot is on hand.
If you are the wiseacre type, you might suggest there is only one thing missing from this picture. It stands about 35.25 inches tall, is shiny and has lots of names on it.
It's called the Stanley Cup. You might have heard of it.
The Blues know of such a trophy, but only from a distance. They are aware of it only in the abstract, what it might mean, what it might feel like. The "what-ifs" of dreams now carried forward for almost 50 years.
Part of the NHL's first major expansion, in 1967, the Blues are the last of those first expansion teams without a Stanley Cup. No NHL team has a longer current Cup drought. Moreover, they have not even flirted with the big prize. The Blues have not been to the Stanley Cup finals since 1970, when the league, in its infinite wisdom, thought it would be a good idea to have all the new teams in one grouping playing the Original Six teams, and the Blues made the finals in their first three seasons, getting swept each time.
They have failed to advance beyond the second round since 2001. But if you walk into a downtown establishment like Hair of The Dog, you'll find anticipation is percolating in St. Louis in an unprecedented fashion. A mural painted on a column in the Washington Street establishment features the World Series trophy, local landmarks and sports icons. There's also a blank outline of the Stanley Cup. Inside is written "Coming soon." The artist has been put on notice to fill in the outline the moment the Cup dream is realized.
"It's a long time; 1967's a long time," former NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a popular broadcast analyst for the Blues, told ESPN.com. "The Toronto Maple Leafs last won a Cup in 1967 and we know what it's like in Toronto listening to their fans. You'd think it's a thousand years."
But with the Blues aiming at setting franchise records for wins and points, there is reason to believe that this might be the season that all of that ends.
"Pressure, build-up, expectations, as high as ever right now," Pang said of the Blues.
Look up the definition of building an NHL winner and you might just see a picture of Armstrong and the Blues' familiar blue-note logo. The team has followed the blueprint step by step, drafting top building blocks such as Alex Pietrangelo, destined for Norris Trophies down the road, emerging young forwards Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and cornerstone players such as captain David Backes and T.J. Oshie. There have been shrewd trades, including the acquisition of Jay Bouwmeester last season and, most recently, netminder Ryan Miller and forward Steve Ott.
All the team lacks is, well, the championship to go with the championship blue print.
"Let's say a couple of years ago you think Ryan Miller with a limited no-trade clause looks around and says, 'OK, that's the team I want to go to. And potentially that's the team I want to stay with'?" Pang asked. "You think Jay Bouwmeester gets traded here and before his contract expires, he signs an extension at a dollar value that is certainly a great deal for the Blues and it's a long-term good deal for him?
"Players have so many choices now. It's not about how good your towels are in your locker room. It's about how you're managed, whether the ownership is going to give you every opportunity to win, and it's about the city."
In the first period intermission of Saturday's game against Dallas, Hall of Famer Brett Hull, repatriated to the Blues as the team's executive vice president, poses for pictures with adoring fans. Hull won a Cup in Dallas but remains one of the most endearing of hockey stars in St. Louis. He believes the changes to the lineup coupled with the team's maturity over the past couple of seasons suggest good things are in the offing. Hull rhymes off the qualities he likes about this version of the Blues: Big, strong, disciplined.
"This team is as good, as playoff-built, as any team I've seen," Hull told ESPN.com.
But when it comes to success, the Blues are also a team that provides a kind of cautionary tale for all pro sports markets. In spite of the fact the team is near the top in the NHL in point production and considered one of a handful of strong Cup favorites, they do not sell out every single home game as a matter of course. The Blues rank 25th in the NHL in home attendance percentage, filling the Scottrade Center to 88.2 percent of capacity, on average (through last Thursday) and did not register their first sellout of the season until Dec. 28. They had just nine sellouts through Saturday's sold-out home date against Dallas.
Some of that is a function of a wacky schedule that saw a preponderance of home dates early in the season, when they were competing with the baseball Cardinals, who advanced again to the World Series in October. And Scottrade Center is a big barn, with a capacity of 19,150. And the team is no longer in the business of simply giving tickets away to artificially inflate attendance numbers, as was the case in the past.
But an undeniable factor in explaining why this building isn't filled to the rafters every night is the fact that the team has been on the verge of greatness several times and has never been able to get over the hump. The Blues were swept in the second round two years ago against the eventual Cup winners from Los Angeles, and then blew a 2-0 series lead against the Kings in the first round last spring.
"It's a blue-collar town," Armstrong explained. "We have to put a product on the ice. We're not a corporate-driven team."
This is not to suggest St. Louis isn't a good hockey market. It is a dynamic one. Has been for years and years. They have sold out nine of their last 17 home games through Saturday, so fans get that the Blues are the real deal -- or at least appear to be the real deal.
The Blues possess one of the most active, vibrant alumni groups in the league. In fact, when it comes to winning a Cup, veteran defenseman Barret Jackman figures the alumni he runs into on a regular basis either at team functions or around the city might be more pumped about this team's prospects than the average fan. That kind of emotion, the yearning for a winner from former Blues, is not lost on Jackman, who is the team's elder statesman, having joined the team full time in 2002-03, after which he won rookie of the year honors.
Yes, there's a certain amount of pressure, a kind of burden that comes with carrying the torch for a legion of former Blues players who are waiting for a chance to celebrate the Cup win they couldn't deliver themselves, but it's also something that is being embraced by the current team, Jackman told ESPN.com.
"It would be really special to share that with them," said Jackman.
As for the fans, yes, the team feels their rising excitement too, with the playoffs just around the corner and a shot at what would be the team's second Presidents' Trophy.
"I think the fans are just waiting to explode in St. Louis," Jackman said. "I'm sure it's been building for a long time."
Bob Plager has been with the team since the beginning, since that expansion season. He credits new owner Tom Stillman with pulling out all the stops to bring a winner to long-suffering Blues fans.
"This owner showed the city that they are committed to win and win now," Plager told ESPN.com.
As much as he'd love to be part of Stanley Cup festivities, Plager said it's the fans who have stuck with the team through the decades that deserve it most.
"Does this city deserve a Stanley Cup parade? So bad," he said. "More than anything, I want to win and I want a Stanley Cup for our fans. Will they go crazy? This city will go crazy."
Hull, likewise, can only imagine the celebration that would accompany the end of the Blues' Cup drought.
"I can't even fathom it," he said. "It would be absolute bedlam."
Armstrong knows the numbers off by heart. Since Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne during the 2011-12 season, the Chicago Blackhawks lead the league with 277 points, the same number as the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Blues have 276, and Boston has 270.
"The only difference is that three of those teams have a Cup," Armstrong said.
The GM knows what goes into building a Cup winner. He was in Dallas as assistant GM and watched firsthand as GM Bob Gainey built a winner there in the late 1990s, culminating in a Cup win in 1999. He recalls working on a contract with veteran Guy Carbonneau and, at the time, it was possible to write in a playoff bonus.
"He said, 'I don't want that that, I want to win Cups,'" Armstrong recalled. The implication was clear; if just making the playoffs is the goal, you'll never get to the end of the road.
Armstrong also understands what it would mean for St. Louis to win a Cup. He recently attended Mike Modano's jersey retirement in Dallas and remains struck by the bonds from that 1999 Dallas Stars Cup-winning team. Blake Sloan and Hull, Brad Lukowich and Modano, "have a bond that will always be there. And that bond can only be formed in one way in our sport," Armstrong said.
And that's by winning a Cup.
"I think about that a lot," the GM said.
Are they ready? The Blues knocked off San Jose in the first round in 2012 and many thought they were ready last season to take that big step. And when they took a two-game lead over the defending Cup champs from L.A. in the first round, it looked like they had arrived. But they learned a hard lesson in winning -- and losing -- when the Kings reeled off four straight victories, all by the slimmest of margins.
"We learned a hard lesson last year and had a long summer to think about it, and hopefully we'll be better going forward because of that," captain David Backes said in an interview.
Not that the Blues didn't come up with the effort needed. That series might have been the hardest-hitting of the entire playoff season.
"I really felt for the players last year," Hitchcock, who won a Jack Adams Award as coach of the year in his first year in St. Louis, told ESPN.com. "They poured so much into that series. But we weren't rewarded. That's the playoffs. That's just the way it is."
The Blues scored just six times in the four losses against the Kings, allowing just 10 goals. But the goaltending wasn't quite where it needed to be against a team such as the Kings, who have Jonathan Quick in goal, and so the Blues added former Vezina Trophy winner Miller at the deadline this season.
"It gives them presence," Pang explained. "Gives them the ability to look at other teams' goalies in the eye and say, 'We've got a Vezina Trophy winner here.'"
Glenn Healy, another former NHL netminder who has established himself as a top analyst, agreed, saying the Blues might not have a game-breaker offensively like Western Conference game-breakers Ryan Getzlaf or Patrick Kane or Jonathan Toews, but they added the next best thing, an elite netminder. Healy cited Miller's play at the 2010 Olympics, when Miller was named MVP.
"You know he can play at a high level and at a high pace," Healy said.
Beyond that, Healy said this is the time for the Blues to go for it. The salary cap is expected to continue to rise in the coming years and it's perhaps unrealistic for the Blues to spend to the cap, if the cap goes to $85 million or $90 million.
"This is the time to make the move," Healy told ESPN.com.
Like all players, Backes is fueled by the Stanley Cup dream. He also understands that this hunger extends across the team's fan base, which has watched for decades as other cities have hosted parades, feted their champions.
"Since you've been three years old and started liking hockey, you've dreamed about winning the Cup and envisioned what it's like hold that thing or to kiss or to have your day with it or to be in a parade or whatever," he said. "And you see other guys going through that and you want to have that experience for yourself and for your teammates. And then for a city that's supported this team for 47 years and hasn't gotten there yet, it'd be a nice treat. But it's a lot of work to be done. We've got 28 games potentially in playoffs where we've got to play solid hockey for that whole time. But we think we've got a great group assembled here that can take that task head-on."