In the days following a third straight first-round playoff exit, St. Louis Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock didn't dwell on the what ifs or sit around wondering if general manager Doug Armstrong would relieve him from his job.
He went to work, trying to figure out what will help what is a regular-season juggernaut under his watch to be more successful in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"I needed some time to reflect and observe," Hitchcock said at Tuesday's news conference to announce his third one-year contract in St. Louis. "Six games in the playoffs [against Minnesota] felt similar to games that I coached in the regular season. I went back and watched around twenty-four or twenty-six games of similar competition [to the post-season]. I needed to see why our team performed like we did with the peaks and valleys."
Playoff Blues under 'Hitch'
- 2011-12 regular season: 49-22-11, 1st in Central Division
- Playoffs: Lost 4-0 to L.A. in West semfinals.
- 2012-13 regular season: 29-17-2, 2nd in Central
- Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to L.A. in West quarter-finals.
- 2013-14 regular season: 52-23-7, 2nd in Central
- Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to Chicago in quarters.
- 2014-15 regular season: 51-24-7, 1st in Central
- Playoffs: Lost 4-2 to Minnesota in quarters.
Hitchcock said the six-game loss to the Wild was a direct reflection of the regular season.
"The first three games we were inconsistent. Then, boom, turn it on and play like crazy in Games 4, 5 and 6," said Hitchcock, the NHL's fourth-winningest coach who returns for a fifth season. "I needed to see if it [inconsistent play] had occurred during the season and it did. Once I had that information, it allowed me to look at the personnel and look at the players and start visualizing how could I help us keep up and excel."
Hitchcock learned that the pace of the NHL game "is like never before" and said it will be his job and that of assistant coaches Kirk Muller, Ray Bennett and Brad Shaw to get the most out of each player.
"I think, internally, we can really quicken our team," he said, "and we're going to have to, to keep up to where the league's at."
The Blues captured their second Central Division title under Hitchcock this season also boast the best regular-season record during the Edmonton native's four-year tenure at 175-79-27. Problem is, they last competed in a Western Conference final in 2001 under Joel Quenneville, now with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Ken Hitchcock gets a stay of execution. Still a great coach, just hasn't been able to take STL to next level. Muller in wings, I imagine.— @JSB_FOX
Hitchcock, 63, sports an all-time regular-season record of 708-429-185 but his post-season mark over appearances is less flattering at 76-72, but does include a Stanley Cup title with Dallas in 1999.
St. Louis has gained a playoff berth in each season under Hitchcock as well as three 100-point seasons and two Central championships.
Hitchcock has enjoyed other successes including:
- Becoming the fourth coach in NHL history to reach 700 regular-season victories on March 12, 2015.
- Becoming the fourth coach in Blues history to be named NHL coach of the year in 2012.
- Leading his teams (Dallas, Philadelphia, Columbus, St. Louis) to eight division titles and 11, 100-point seasons.
- Coaching Canada to a silver medal at the 2008 world hockey championship.
- Winning an Olympic gold medal as associate coach with Canada in 2002, 2010 and 2014.
But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk was St. Louis' leading scorer in these playoffs with eight assists while right-winger Vladimir Tarasenko, the team's top point-getting in the regular season with 73, added six goals and seven points in the post-season.
T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, David Backes, Paul Stastny and Ryan Reaves combined for six goals.
Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said there was a decided change in the style of players added for this season, a list that included forwards Stastny (four-year, $28-million US free-agent contract) and Jori Lehtera.
'We are going to have a different look [to start next season]. We're going to explore improving our team to levels that we haven't explored in the past, but it has to make sense.' - Blues GM Doug Armstrong
"We went through the ebbs and flows of those types of players," Armstrong told reporters. "I'm not saying they're not competitive players … but when you spend upwards of four, five years before Ken got here and what we were trying to build and you add different style of players in there, I thought there were some bumps in the road that we haven't had in the past. I thought those bumps continued in the playoffs.
"We are going to have a different look [to start next season]. We're going to explore improving our team to levels that we haven't explored in the past, but it has to make sense," Armstrong added.
The GM's immediate focus will be re-signing the Blues' restricted free agents, a pool that includes goalie Jake Allen, defenceman Robert Bortuzzo and Tarasenko. Armstrong also mentioned there could be a conversation with the representative for left-winger Schwartz, who will be a RFA next summer.
"We believe we're fortunate to have two cores — an aging core of players in their late 20s to early 30s and we have a young core in their lower to mid-20s," said Armstrong. "I want to make sure we're servicing both of those cores but understanding the long-term look at this franchise is with Schwartz, Tarasenko, [defenceman] Alex [Pietrangelo], Shattenkirk [and] Allen."
Hitchcock said it's the first time since he arrived in St. Louis that he sensed anger and disappointment from his players following a playoff loss.
"This is the first time I've seen that the players feel like we underperformed in the playoffs from what we did in the regular season," he said. "I think we're going to see an even higher level of focus [next season] than we've seen. I think we're going to see a whole other gear."