(HockeyStL) - If there has been one thing Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock has wanted his players to learn over the past two seasons, it is that good defense wins hockey games.
From day one, Hitchcock has been preaching to his players the importance of good defensive play. Now, as the Blues head into the new season, they have one of the top defensive groups in the NHL, and their defense could become their best offense.
The Blues started camp last Wednesday, and are now gearing up for another long season, or so they hope. The club was knocked out of the playoffs in the first round last year, and expectations have risen for the year ahead.
The Blues made several changes this off-season, bringing in additions to improve their offense, as well as their depth.
The club learned the hard way last season that they have to score more goals. It’s no secret that the Blues weren’t as offensively blessed as they would have liked. They are hoping key additions this off-season will help. However, the team did not spend time or money searching for help on defense, but devoted time and energy to ensure the existing defensive corps stayed together.
When all was said and done, the Blues’ defense boasted some very solid stats, aided by the two deadline additions of Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold. The club finished fourth in the league in takeaways, seventh in goals against per game, and seventh in total goals allowed for the season. Not only was the Blues’ defensive game solid at their own end, but also they were able to contribute offensively.
Two of the Blues’ main offensive contributors on defense were Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo. Pietrangelo had 24 points, while Shattenkirk had 23. They both finished in the top-25 for total points among defensemen. The Blues made locking up both players this off-season a priority, and with both returning for the long haul, the potential for the team’s defense is certainly high.
Shattenkirk signed a four-year, $17 million contract early on in the off-season, while Pietrangelo took longer to sign. The Blues finished their off-season business on Friday by announcing that they had reached an agreement with Pietrangelo on a seven-year, $45.5 million contract. With Pietrangelo re-signed, the club enters the upcoming campaign with arguably the strongest defense in the league.
“As far as our defense, self-serving for sure, I think we have the best defense in the National Hockey League,” said Armstrong. “I’m excited to work with these guys; I’m excited to watch them perform.”
“I think that when we go into any building, teams are going to say, wow that’s a heck of a team they have.”
The Blues’ defense underwent substantial improvement last season. Armstrong managed to trade for two talented defensemen in Leopold and Bouwmeester at last year’s trade deadline, and both signed extensions this summer. The Blues also inked youngster Ian Cole to an extension this off-season. The defense, barring any unforeseen happenings in camp, will be almost identical to what it was at last year’s season end.
“(We have) offense coming from the back end. There are six players that have average a half a point per game over the last three years and we have two of them (Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk). That’s pretty impressive, and they are 23 years old. Those two players with their offense, Bouwmeester, who is just a minute-munching machine, we’ve got the nasty in (Roman) Polak and (Barret) Jackman, you’ve got the grey beard in Leopold and you have Ian Cole who is pushing and prodding, and wants to get into that group. It’s an exciting defensive group now, and more importantly, it is going to be an exciting defensive group moving forward,” Armstrong said.
Six of the seven players Armstrong mentioned are a lock for a roster spot. The seventh, Cole, will have to battle in camp for his spot, though early on he has impressed Hitchcock. Cole’s biggest competition will come from veteran Ryan Whitney, who has joined the club in camp as a professional tryout. Armstrong likes Whitney and has no problem keeping him on when camp ends, which could make for some interesting competition between him and Cole.
“He’s not here just for per-diem,” Armstrong said when asked about Whitney. “He is here to make a statement. He is here to make a push for making this team.”
While many look to Armstrong as the one that deserves credit for putting together the Blues’ defensive group, sometimes the suppliers of the money Armstrong spends are forgotten. Since Tom Stillman put together an ownership group and bought the Blues two seasons ago, he has shown his commitment to the team by spending money to improve. Stillman gave Armstrong a very generous budget this off-season, one that has allowed the Blues the skills to be Stanley Cup contenders.
“Our belief is that a team is built through the middle of the ice,” said Armstrong. (Which includes building) goaltending, defense, and center icemen. I think we have had a seismic shift in commitment from the ownership group here in St. Louis over the last two years.”
“The trade (last year) of Jay Bouwmeester is a really good indicator that championship hockey is what this ownership group wants. Then, the signing of Jay Bouwmeester to an extension over the summer says that, the signing of Kevin Shattenkirk says that and now (the Pietrangelo) signing says that.”
The recently-extended Pietrangelo furthered the comments of Armstrong.
“To see that type of commitment from Tom and the ownership group, obviously it is very appealing to a player looking to commit somewhere long-term,” he said. “Obviously Shattenkirk and Bouwmeester could be number one defensemen on any team. Like Doug said, to put those guys into our top six, it’s looking pretty solid right now.”
With a little bit of everything on defense, the Blues could frustrate a lot of teams this year. The key right now, as always, is to stay healthy. If the defense can manage to stay on the ice, it has the potential to be the best in the league, as well as the potential to be the backbone of a great 2013-14 campaign.