In case you've missed it, the Blues' Schwartz-less training camp is underway, and the team's first pre-season game is tomorrow night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Some people deride camp and pre-season as "fake hockey;" I prefer to see it as an evaluative time period and one in which coach Ken Hitchcock can mix up the lines to his heart's content, hopefully working that temptation out of his system before the season starts.
That last part never comes true.
Regardless of the meanings of training camp, the Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss talked with Hitch about what kind of mood he was in right now.
"We go from Summer Hitch to Training Camp Hitch to Winter Hitch," quipped Hitchcock. "Tomorrow I’ll be in Training Camp Hitch (mode). That’s OK. If we get to Winter Hitch, come write a story. We’re not there. Come write that Winter Hitch story in a few weeks. I hope you don’t write it."
Strauss also asked what the Blues were focused on this year. The players got a challenge to beef themselves up over the off-season, to get more physical. Hitch's goal is this:
The Blues were adept last season at playing position defense. Hitchcock insisted Thursday it’s time to get nastier and quicker. "When it’s on the line, there’s a difference between checking and defending. And we’re going to check," Hitch promised.
Oh, good. I guess this explains why the team brought known physical guy Paul Bissonette into the fold for this camp. Checking. I'm not a professional coach, or an amateur one either obviously, but I do know a couple things about the sport well enough for this to raise a big question mark for me. If you are checking, you do not have the puck. Also, if you are checking, you may not be paying attention to the defending very well to boot.
The Blues didn't lose in the first round to the Chicago Blackhawks because they didn't hit enough - they hit constantly. They hit constantly because the Hawks constantly had the puck and the Blues were constantly at a loss to defend. The Blues didn't whittle away the Central Division title lead because they didn't check enough, the team finished second in the division because they were tired, damaged goods. The increase in muscle mass'll help that a bit, at least in the endurance area. But it's not what wins championships. Offense helps. Having effective centers helps. If the Blues have that this season we could see a different outcome.
Why isn't Hitch focused on that right now? This quote about playoff expectations should explain that question away:
At some point this team must win a second-round series to approach its oft-promoted promise. The Blues remain sensitive to reminders about their abrupt postseason dismissals — they have, after all, lost their last four games each of the last three postseasons. It’s enough to prompt a well-grounded coach to label it "really unfair" to judge a team based on how far it plays into May and June.
"Everybody talks about rounds. ... rounds, rounds, rounds," said Hitchcock, remembering how his 1998-99 Dallas Stars won the Stanley Cup partly due to the Colorado Avalanche eliminating the problematic Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinals.
"There’s no gray area measuring how we lost. We lost to great teams that won championships," he continued, referencing franchises that have either eliminated the Blues en route to the Cup or the year after securing it.
Hopefully the Blues' goal isn't to out-hit the eventual 2015 Stanley Cup champion this season.