Whisper it quietly but the St. Louis Blues have stealthily taken over first place in the Central Division. Although they have gone 2-2-0 since resuming play after the Olympic break, the Blues have retained their lead in the division and are four points behind Anaheim for the top seed of the Western Conference and the President’s Trophy as well.
This season has a quest for redemption for Ken Hitchcock and the Blues. After suffering two first-round defeats to the L.A. Kings during the last two seasons St. Louis has thus far played this present season with a grim determination and an indefatigable desire to overcome the gremlins which have dogged the Blues franchise in playoffs past and bring this team to the Stanley Cup finals—and the Cup.
The challenge for Ken Hitchcock is not so much tactical as it is psychological. Hitchcock in a 2013 interview stressed the need to foster that inner willpower that transcends physical injuries or unlucky breaks during the regular season; to maintain and harness it so that in the end, the team not only triumphs physically but also psychologically as well.
Chicago’s Cup victory last season is a classic example of this and Ken Hitchcock wants the Blues to take communion from that same cup and stand glorified and regnant as Stanley Cup champions. Already this season the Blues have dominated their division rivals with a record 15-0-1 record (their only division loss has been to the Winnipeg Jets).
Their path to first place has been an ensemble effort: The two Alex’s: Steen and Pietrangelo supplying the offense; Center Jaden Schwartz displaying superb two-way skills on the ice; Power forward Chris Stewart providing the muscle; while Center David Backes pulls the trigger on the power play. As always with a Ken Hitchcock team the defence remains fundamentally strong. The Blues are third only to Boston and the Kings in defence and penalty-killing but the Blues are not one-dimensional. They rank among the top five in the NHL in overall offense, defense, and in their special-teams.
They also are playing with greater meanness and venom, ranking in the top five in the NHL team penalty minutes. One senses in the Blues an edginess and a desire to get the regular season out of the way so they can show their real stuff in the playoffs. But they’ve gone only 7-11-2 against the NHL Pacific Division and that will be a troublesome factor come playoff time; especially if they face the top three teams in the Pacific: Anaheim, San Jose, and Los Angeles. The Blues are 1-8-0 against all three teams.
Still the acquisition of goalie Ryan Miller and center Steve Ott is meant to overcome these deficits. Miller has earned two gritty victories for the Blues while power forward Ott lends strength and character to a young team like the Blues.
Like Joel Quenneville of Chicago, this season offers Ken Hitchcock a golden opportunity to advance himself in the pantheon of NHL coaching. According to my rating system, if Hitchcock maintains his present pace and wins the Central Division title then he will have leapfrogged over such hockey coaching luminaries such as Punch Imlach, Lester Patrick, and Tommy Ivan in terms of career value regardless of whether the Blues win the Stanley Cup or not. If the Blues do win the Cup then Hitchcock will rank among the top five greatest hockey coaches of all time.
If the Blues fail to win the divisional title or the Cup but are still able to maintain their present pace Hitchcock will still enter the top ten ranks in terms of career value.
His stint in St. Louis can be seen as hockey’s ultimate challenge to a truly great coach who not only teaches but in his own words constantly learns from his players and his assistants alike; and by learning from his players and subordinates it helps Hitchcock remain the great leader of hockey players he has always been and will always be.