Doug Armstrong had several options at his disposal last spring following a third straight first-round playoff exit by the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues’ President and General Manager could have decided the veteran core of the team needed to be broken up, trying to acquire more talent through trades or free agency. His biggest move was the attention-grabbing trade that sent fan favorite T.J. Oshie to Washington for veteran forward Troy Brouwer.
Armstrong also at least looked into the possibility of replacing coach Ken Hitchcock, with published reports discussing interest in coach Mike Babcock. Babcock eventually landed a mega-contract with Toronto and the Blues brought back Hitchcock for another year.
As the team prepares to begin its first Western Conference Final appearance since 2001 against San Jose on Sunday at Scottrade Center, Armstrong described the situation following the 2015 playoff loss to Minnesota.
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“I personally thought this year’s team was going to be better than last year’s team, even when we lost,” Armstrong said. “I thought that (Jaden) Schwartz and (Vladimir) Tarasenko were ready to take another step, I thought (Jori) Lehtera was going to have a year under his belt. I thought Jake Allen was going to emerge as a legitimate No. 1 star goaltender, so I thought there were pieces there that were going to make us a better team.
“I never recommended to ownership that we start from scratch.”
Funny how things work out.
Early-season injuries led to opportunities for rookies Robby Fabbri and Colton Paryako to make the team. Both played so well they became integral parts of the roster, as did rookie defenseman Joel Edmundson.
As disappointing as the losses were I didn’t lose sight on how well the team played for six months going into it, too. The two weeks (of playoffs) is so painful for everyone that you can wash away the six months of work, but what this team has done ... this group of players that have been here for five years, accumulated the most points in the NHL. It’s hard to say that’s not good work.
Blues GM Doug Armstrong
While Brian Elliott has emerged as the clear No. 1 goaltender with his outstanding play down the stretch and in the playoffs, Allen was just as sharp earlier this season before being injured.
“You see Elliott and he’s not a young player, but he’s been given the opportunity through Jake’s injury,” Armstrong said. “He took it, never gave the net back up and is having a great run. You don’t really see that I think in other sports, that somebody comes off from an unknown to have such an impact.
“But Elliott’s been fantastic, let’s be honest. We lost two Game 6s and didn’t play great and his Game 7s have been obviously remarkable. He’s showing the mental toughness now that’s needed to get to the third round.”
Those three straight playoff series defeats stung Blues players and management. There was plenty of criticism for all involved, including the architect that had built the team , Armstrong himself.
“I said we should tinker, we have to try to get better,” he said, “but as disappointing as the losses were I didn’t lose sight on how well the team played for six months going into it, too. The two weeks (of playoffs) is so painful for everyone that you can wash away the six months of work, but what this team has done ... this group of players that have been here for five years, accumulated the most points in the NHL.
“It’s hard to say that’s not good work.”
The Blues have rewarded Armstrong’s patience with more good work in the playoffs.
They eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round, then took out Western Conference points leader and Central Division champ Dallas in Round 2. They needed seven games to win both times, but Blues fans don’t care about that with the team still playing hockey in mid-May.
What’s the difference between these Blues and the ones that experienced playoff flameouts the last three years?
“I think it goes back to a timely save and a timely goal,” Armstrong said. “I think the mental toughness of this team has proven itself to be there. Not getting rattled when we had a couple opportunities to take Chicago out and came back and did it in Game 7, not getting rattled when we had an opportunity to take out Dallas and didn’t do it, then go on the road and win in Game 7.
“This is a mentally strong team and I think that starts with the leadership of (David) Backes, (Alexander) Steen, (Troy) Brouwer and (Paul) Stastny. The veteran guys that have been around have really showed (support). Then the support guys like a (Kyle) Brodziak and a (Steve) Ott, these guys that have been around, that have seen it all, have been able to keep this team loose.”
Armstrong doesn’t care if he has a room of model citizens or playoff veterans as long as they get the job done on the ice.
“If you don’t get timely goals and timely saves you’re out of these types of things a lot earlier,” he said.
Western Conference Final
Sunday, May 15
Game 1: San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Tuesday, May 17
Game 2: San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Thursday, May 19
Game 3: Blues at San Jose, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Saturday, May 21
Game 4: Blues at San Jose, 6:15 p.m. (NBC; KSDK Channel 5)
Monday, May 23
Game 5 (if necessary): San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)
Wednesday, May 25
Game 6 (if necessary): Blues at San Jose, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Friday, May 27
Game 7 (if necessary): San Jose at Blues, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)