Sunday NHL Insider: This is the Year of the Blues -- really

  • Updated: November 30, 2013 - 6:17 PM

Early dominance aside, Ken Hitchcock’s team is built for a long playoff shelf life.

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St. Louis Blues captain David Backes, of Spring Lake Park, has 24 points in 24 games for a well-balanced team, but no one on his team is taking the squad’s 18-3-3 start for granted.

Photo: Jeff Roberson • Associated Press,

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This time, I really mean it. It seems every year for the past three, I write a column on this being the “Year of the St. Louis Blues.”

Turns out I was just ahead of the game — or completely wrong.

Two years ago, St. Louis’ 109-point season was spoiled in a sweep in the second round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Kings again dispatched the Blues last season in a hard-fought 4 vs. 5 matchup in Round 1.

This year? Nobody’s beating the Big, Bad Blues.

At 18-4-3, they’re one of the best teams in the NHL, a well-balanced team from top to bottom with four lines that can be rolled, a deep defense corps of six and two great goaltenders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.

Offensively, they rank second. Defensively, they rank fifth. Their power play stands atop the rest. Their home rink has been a place of dominance.

“Hopefully we crescendo at the right time, and that’s at the end of the season and into the playoffs,” captain David Backes said.

The Blues have made it clear the window is now. It started in 2011 when the Blues traded Erik Johnson as part of a deal to Colorado that brought Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk.

Last season, the Blues acquired defensemen Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold, then extended both contracts after the season.

Backes called the Johnson trade the first “wakeup call for everyone. The guy you draft first overall, for him to be traded, you’re going, ‘No one is off the hook here, everyone is accountable. You’ve got to make sure you’re helping our team or else you might be saying goodbye the next day.’ ”

Backes called the Bouwmeester blockbuster the next realization that management was for real.

“The time is now and there’s no more rebuild,” Backes said. “That time has come and gone. We do have a great core of guys that’s grown together through some tough times. Now with ownership getting guys like Bo and Leopold and other guys we have that accentuate some of the other pieces, it’s a sign that we’re committed, we’re all in and it’s time to produce.”

Backes, a native of Blaine and former Spring Lake Park standout, is off to the best start of his career, scoring 12 goals and 25 points and being a plus-11 in 24 games. He has played on a line in every game but one with Blues third-leading scorer T.J. Oshie (22 points) and leading scorer Alex Steen, who is tied for first in the NHL with 20 goals and tied for second in the NHL with 31 points.

Steen, the son of former NHLer and Wild pro scout Thomas Steen, is as dangerous as they get in the offensive zone. He never stops moving and pucks seem to find him.

“He’s just a complete player,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “It’s everything else he does that makes him a good player, not just popping in a few goals.”

Hitchcock has been as impressed with Backes, who has had some slow starts in his career. But last summer, Backes changed his workout regimen. Instead of going months working solely on strength and endurance, Backes began skating at Fogerty Arena in June.

“He looks quicker,” Hitchcock said.

The strength of the Blues is they have the ability to transition quickly out of their zone, chip the puck deep and go to work on the forecheck.

“We have four lines bound and determined to win their matchup,” Backes said.

Still, as the Blues have proven in the past, it’s a long season and the most important thing is peaking in the playoffs. Hitchcock is doing everything he can to guard against his players thinking they’re the best team in the league.

“Hitch does a good job in video sessions showing us what we’re doing wrong and what we can improve on,” Oshie said humorously.

Still, this Blues team is for real. This will be the “Year of the Blues.”

Bank on it, unless this column appears again next year.

NHL short takes

Building a fort on an NHL bench

Avs coach Patrick Roy took some potshots at Blues coach Ken Hitchcock after Colorado’s loss Wednesday to St. Louis because he was still upset that in his mind, Hitchcock took some shots at him for the opening night scene when he tried to push the glass partition between the benches onto Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.

Roy was upset that 2013 No. 1 overall pick Nathan MacKinnon was kneed late in the game.
I talked to Hitchcock on Monday about that incident, and he joked that he planned to “put up a fence” Wednesday.

“When you coach junior hockey, you are the father figure to those players,” Hitchcock said. “You have an emotional connection to those players. You are responsible for them 24 hours of their life, not like you are in the pros.

“It takes a few years before you get to understand that there’s a separation like there is in professional hockey. I get what he was thinking. [MacKinnon’s] a young player that he had a personal attachment to watching him grow up and play. I get that part. I just know from my standpoint, I’m building a fort [Wednesday].”

Swedish through and through

St. Louis’ Alex Steen might have been born in Winnipeg, but make no mistake, he’s Swedish and will represent Sweden in the Olympics.

“That ship has sailed, unfortunately,” said Hitchcock, Team Canada’s assistant coach.

Added American David Backes, the Blues’ captain: “I believe he’s got the crowns on the chest. He’ll throw Swedish in there now and then just to reaffirm that.”

Etc.

• Two weeks after surgery to repair his broken tibia, Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos is already walking without crutches.

• Disgruntled Washington Capitals forward Martin Erat has requested to be traded, saying he’s never gotten a chance since arrival in a trade from Nashville.

Wild’s week ahead

Monday: vs. Philadelphia, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

Thursday: vs. Chicago, 7 p.m. (FSN)

Friday: at Columbus, 6 p.m. (FSN)


Player to watch:

Claude Giroux, Flyers

Considered a true superstar, the Flyers center has gotten off to a dreadful start (three goals in 25 games) for a Flyers team that is on the rise.

Voices

"It’s not the easiest, but I’m not going to complain about being up here."

Wild winger Jason Zucker on being like a yo-yo between Minnesota and Iowa.

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  • New York Rangers’ Brian Boyle, right, celebrates with Chris Kreider after Kreider scored during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks Saturday, Nov. 30, 2013, at Madison Square Garden in New York. It was Kreider’s third goal for a hat trick and the Rangers won 5-2. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

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