On Jan. 18, the chase finally ended for Ken Hitchcock.
Five years earlier, while coaching in Columbus, Hitchcock and Blue Jackets management pursued unrestricted free-agent defenceman Wade Redden, who was fresh off a 38-point campaign in his 11th NHL season with the Ottawa Senators.
"I coached him in the World Cup [of Hockey in 2004] and [the 2006] Olympics and I coached against him a lot when him and [Zdeno] Chara were a pair for Ottawa, so I knew him really well," Hitchcock, now head coach of the St. Louis Blues, said in a phone interview this week.
Unfortunately for Hitchcock, the New York Rangers signed Redden for six years and $39 million US in hopes he could rejuvenate their power play. But he ended up scoring just two power-play goals over the next two seasons before Rangers general manager Glen Sather sent Redden and the burden of his contract to the American Hockey League to start the 2010-11 season.
It wasn't until the official end of the lockout earlier this month that Hitchcock had much hope of luring Redden to St. Louis since Blues general manager Doug Armstrong had no interest in taking on the final two years of the defenceman's contract and $6.5 million annual salary cap charge.
However, under the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, Redden's salary no longer could be hidden in the minor leagues, so the Rangers used a compliance buyout on Jan. 17 to rid themselves of his contract and Armstrong pounced, signing him the following day to a one-year, $800,000 deal.
Both Armstrong and Hitchcock hoped they had a potential defence partner for young standout Alex Pietrangelo after choosing not to re-sign oft-injured Carlo Colaiacovo (now with Detroit) and releasing Colin White, who was at training camp on a pro tryout contract.
They wanted to add depth to the left side of the Blues' defence, with Kevin Shattenkirk, Roman Polak and Pietrangelo manning the right side.
"Our pro scouts had seen a lot of Redden the last two years to make us feel comfortable he still had NHL game in him," said Armstrong. "He's a very dependable, smart player [and] lets the puck do the work for him."
So far, the puck has found the back of the opposition's net, with Pietrangelo setting up Redden's first NHL goal in two seasons on Jan. 26 at Dallas. Redden also scored the next night against Minnesota to match his goal total in 75 games with the Rangers in the 2009-10 season.
"It was the perfect fit for us and Alex Pietrangelo," Hitchcock said of the Redden signing. "Redden makes all of the little plays that at the end of the night add up to easier exits [from the defensive zone]. They need to get on the ice where they don't get bogged down in their zone, and that's where Redden really helps."
At 35, Redden doesn't have to be the go-to guy on the Blues' back end, but rather play a support role for the 23-year-old Pietrangelo, a lanky rearguard who wields a stick and, like Redden, is a quiet man. He's also the youngest defenceman in franchise history to record consecutive 40-points seasons.
Armstrong, who watched Redden play a couple of games with the Rangers' AHL affiliate in Hartford, Ct., said the veteran blue-liner appears to be a strong complement for Pietrangelo because his game is defined and not sporadic.
"He's just a steady player," said Armstrong of Redden, who has posted a positive plus-minus in 11 of his previous 13 NHL seasons. "One of the things I've seen here is he lets the puck do the work for him. And Alex knows where he's going to be."
It appears Redden has made a seamless transition back to NHL hockey, having scored twice in three games after collecting 20 points in 49 games for the Connecticut Whale during the lockout. Hitchcock pointed to conditioning for Redden's impressive return and said the native of Lloydminster, Sask., brings a sense of calm to the 5-1-0 Blues.
"I go back to junior and he was a calm player there [for the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings]. He's in a different place in his life now," said Hitchcock, who has Redden killing penalties but envisions him playing the point on the power play in the near future. "Wade plays for the right priorities.
"He wants to have his children see him play hockey. He wants to prove to himself that he can be a contributing member on the team. I think when you're at peace with that stuff you got the good mindset going."
Armstrong said having someone with the quiet confidence of Redden on the team with other veteran players such as Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and Jackman will help in educating the youngsters on different situations they will face in their NHL career.
"When [the Rangers] assigned him to the American Hockey League ... he could have just cashed a paycheque and [accepted] his lot in life," said Armstrong. "But he took a leadership role there [as team captain] and he was a good mentor so I think it shows a lot about his character.
"It's not where he wanted to be but he showed [his Connecticut teammates] that sometimes hockey can throw you curveballs and you gotta stand in there and keep swinging."
One day, it might lead to the chase for a Stanley Cup title.
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