To St. Louis Blues fans who have endured three straight first-round playoff exits, the 2015-16 season is all about what happens once the regular season ends.
While the Blues cannot fast-forward through an 82-game schedule and accelerate their playoff beards, they can and do understand the huge expectations they are under. Many of this core group of veterans have experienced the early playoff flameouts that have marked the regime of coach Ken Hitchcock, whose teams are rock-solid in the regular season and then seem to fade quickly in the playoffs.
They are tired of following a frustrating pattern of regular-season success followed by watching the majority of the playoffs on television instead of being active participants.
This is a team with 52 and 51 wins the past two seasons, a Central Division champ last season that racked up 109 points.
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Don’t think the fans’ frustrations — or the expectations — are any higher than those shared by the players.
“They get raised every year we don’t win,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “To be honest that comes from us. It’s one thing if we were getting to the Western Conference finals or the Stanley Cup ,but with us going out in the first round the past few years they’re expecting us to do some more, to show something more.”
With this great organization, this great talent, our great fans ... I feel like they deserve to be brought to the promised land. We’re doing everything we can and I’m hopefully driving that bus to where we need to go.
Blues captain David Backes
Blues fans’ patience has been tested repeatedly by a team that has made one foray beyond the first round of the playoff since 2002 and hasn’t reached the conference finals since 2001.
“In here, we just don’t want to seem like we’re a broken record and keep going out the same way although that’s happened the past few years,” Shattenkirk said. “We want to turn the tide here and start to breed success.
“The best way to do that is to win. That’s the pressure that comes from the outside and it’s kind of the kick in the butt we might need.”
David Backes is in his fifth year as the Blues captain. He has seen things turn around during his tenure, but also been part of underachieving playoff teams.
The Blues didn’t clean house in the offseason, but did trade fan favorite T.J. Oshie to Washington for veteran winger Troy Brouwer and allowed veteran defenseman Barret Jackman to leave for Nashville via free agency. They also flirted with a coaching change before deciding to bring back Ken Hitchcock on a one-year deal.
“You saw two of the longest tenured Blues no longer in this room,” Backes said. “To me, that’s significant change. With this great organization, this great talent, our great fans ... I feel like they deserve to be brought to the promised land. We’re doing everything we can and I’m hopefully driving that bus to where we need to go.”
What is motivating the Blues to discover a successful playoff formula?
A eight-year, $60 million contract extension for potential superstar Vladimir Tarasenko, the team’s leading scorer with 37 goals and 73 points last season, should help. So should continued development of high-scroing forward Jaden Schwartz.
It’s one thing if we were getting to the Western Conference finals or the Stanley Cup ,but with us going out in the first round the past few years they’re expecting us to do some more, to show something more.
Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
There also has been am emphasis on faster, more aggressive play starting with a reconfigured defense that now includes rugged Robert Bortuzzo and impressive rookies Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson.
But more than anything else, it’s the motivation cause by losing. The Blues have had more than enough of that feeling.
“It’s three years of losing in the first round,” Backes said. “Some of the guys have been here for that time, some of the guys are new to that and haven’t been part of those losses. A lot of (people) say that the first round’s the toughest round. You get past that and you get that killer instinct and that blood in the water, you just thirst for more to eliminate the next group even quicker.
“From those conversations in the summer and all the work we’ve done, we feel we’ve got some of the things solved that we need to in order to have success deep into the playoffs. Before we get there we’ve got a lot of work to do, an 82-game schedules against a really tough Central Division where seemingly everyone’s gotten better.”
The 30-year-old Brouwer accumulated 46 goals the past two seasons in Washington. Veteran Kyle Brodziak, acquired from Minnesota, should be an upgrade as a fourth-line center, while big winger Dmitrj Jaskin had 13 goals in only 54 games last season and could just be scratching the surface.
After the season, Hitchcock spoke about a new “reckless” style that he and the coaching staff tried to implement during the offseason and preseason.
A group of mobile defensemen, including a healthy Jay Bouwmeester, should help ease the transition.
“More than anything it was just a matter of keeping the offensive mindset the entire game,” Shattenkirk said. “I think we had a tendency to play defensively, especially in Hitch’s system (where) he likes to focus on defense first.
“He’s just pushing us now to really get into that mindset of when we get that puck let’s go — and let’s go score a goal.”
2015-16 St. Louis Blues
Season opener: 7 p.m. Thursday vs. Edmonton at Scottrade Center
2014-15 record: 51-24-7, 109 points; won Central Division
Playoffs: lost to Minnesota in first round, 4-2; Blues have lost in the first round of the playoffs in each of the last three seasons
Coach: Ken Hitchcock (fourth full season; 175-79-27)
Top scorers: Vladimir Tarasenko (37 goals, 73 points), Alexander Steen (24 goals, 64 points), Jaden Schwartz (28 goals, 63 points)
Goaltenders: Jake Allen (22-7-4, shutouts, 2.28 goals-against average, .913 save percentage; Brian Elliott (26-14-3, 5 shutouts, 2.26 goals-against average, .917 save percentage)
Say hello to: forwards Troy Brouwer, Robby Fabbri, Scottie Upshall, Scott Gomez and Kyle Brodziak; defensemen Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson
Say goodbye to: T.J. Oshie, Barret Jackman, Zbynek Michalek, Marcel Goc, Chris Porter, Colin Fraser.
All-star potential: Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jaden Schwartz
Pivotal players: Paul Stastny, David Backes, Troy Brouwer, Jake Allen
Rookies to watch: Robby Fabbri, Colton Parayko