Brad Boyes looks back fondly at the spring of 2009 when the St. Louis Blues sported the NHL's best second-half record and won nine of their final 10 games to secure their first Stanley Cup playoff berth in five years.
Blessed with a group of young forwards named David Backes, T.J. Oshie and David Perron, the sixth-seeded Blues made a valiant attempt to upset No. 3 Vancouver in a Western Conference quarter-final but were swept in four straight games.
"When I played there they had a great team," Boyes said. "It just wasn't put together right."
Well, that all changed last summer when Blues general manager Doug Armstrong brought aboard veteran leadership in forwards Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner and Scott Nichol. He followed it up with the addition of Stanley Cup winning coach Ken Hitchcock, who took over from the fired Davis Payne 13 games into the regular season.
The no-nonsense, defensive-minded Hitchcock, who led the Dallas Stars to a Cup championship in 1999, guided the Blues to a 43-15-11 record and No. 2 seed in the West, their first playoff berth since 2009.
"They're a solid team," said Boyes, who was dealt from St. Louis to Buffalo before the Feb. 27, 2011 trade deadline for the Sabres' second-round draft pick (Joel Edmundson) last summer. "They've got young guys that have been there for a number of years that are getting older, are real talented and are playing well for them."
While Backes, Oshie and Perron were helping the Blues to a franchise-best 65 points at home and just their second playoff appearance in seven years this season, Boyes was enduring a tough first full campaign in Buffalo during which he was injured and made a healthy scratch on a few occasions. It was his least productive of eight NHL seasons with eight goals and 23 points.
Feisty, 2-way forward
In St. Louis, Backes, a feisty two-way forward, took over from defenceman Eric Brewer as captain this season and led St. Louis in goals (24) and points (54). He was also strong in the faceoff circle (48.6 per cent success) and a good penalty-killer.
"He is very, very underrated and a good leader," said Boyes.
Oshie played the most games (80) of any of his four seasons with the Blues, tying Backes in points and establishing career highs in goals (19) and assists (35). Injuries limited the 25-year-old to 49 games last season.
Perron, 23, returned to the lineup in December after missing 97 games with a concussion and scored a career-high 21 goals in only 57 contests. He finished fifth in team scoring (42 points) and was second only to Alex Steen (plus-20) in plus-minus (plus-19).
"Being in St. Louis you don't necessarily get a lot of attention [from national media] but they're very good players and will do very well [in these playoffs]," said Boyes, noting each of the three aforementioned plays a different style that complements the others.
In 2008-09, Boyes had his best of eight seasons in the league with 72 points. As a team, St. Louis averaged 2.77 goals per game and 2.77 goals against. This season, the Blues scored 2.51 goals per contest, but allowed the fewest shots (26.7) and goals against (1.89) in the league in each start, thanks largely to the stellar netminding of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
Of the four times Boyes has been traded - from Toronto to San Jose in 2003, to Boston in 2004 and to the Blues in 2007, he said leaving St. Louis was the hardest on him emotionally.
"When I was there we had a great team," he said, "so leaving didn't change my thoughts at all. I knew they had the potential to be really good, and lo and behold they are."
It shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, given Hitchcock has coached six division champions in the NHL and 10 playoff teams in 15 seasons.
Blues president John Davidson said the team sought somebody "with a resume that was long and Ken was available."
Prior to these playoffs, Perron told reporters that Hitchcock knows what the team needs to be successful, adding the coach has leaned hard on the players and they have responded.
"They're enjoying winning and having fun. With winning they're also getting time off," Boyes said. "They're not at the rink all the time, but I think the right amount of time.
"They enjoy [Hitchcock]. He's intense but he talks to the guys, treats them like people and, from what I gather, cares about them. At the same time, he makes sure the guys are doing their jobs and if they're not, they're going to hear about it."
Don't be surprised if Boyes, who's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, makes an attempt to return to St. Louis. He still maintains a house there, which good friend and former Blues teammate Carlo Colaiacovo is renting.
"I got to know all of [the players] on that team really well and they're awesome," Boyes said. "They're a real good team there and that's good. You want good guys to do well."
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