We have reached a defining moment for the St. Louis Blues franchise. What is on the line for the game Wednesday night for this team and its fans is huge, probably the biggest moment for the Blues in nearly two decades.
The fate of the head coach and possibly the general manager are on the line tomorrow night. If this team comes out flat and looks disorganized and simply not ready to play a huge game, the players will shoulder the blame, but the person who will pay the price is the coach. I don't care what you think about Ken Hitchcock. He is coaching for his career Wednesday night. Three straight first-round eliminations with home ice advantage will be hard to overcome in a future hiring process.
And while many of the players on this roster were drafted and matriculated up the system before he took over as general manager, do not believe for one second that this isn't GM Doug Armstrong's team. Of the core guys, he trimmed the ones he didn't think fit and gave new contracts to the ones he thought did. Other than goaltender (he could have tried to re-sign Ryan Miller, mind you), every position reflects players he's either directly acquired or chose to keep here.
Speaking of those players, the core of David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Patrik Berglund, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman are in the spotlight now. They've had time together. This is the fourth consecutive playoffs for this team. Their championship window is wide open. This is their opportunity to go for a deep run and see what happens. And they're not taking advantage of it. And they may never.
Change is coming. Vladimir Tarasenko will be a restricted free agent. They want to keep him happy. Robby Fabbri and perhaps Ivan Barbashev could push for NHL jobs next year. They are cheaper alternatives. Petteri Lindbohm is ready. Jake Allen has shown he's more than ready.
If the Blues go quietly into the night, this will have to be a different team next season, and not just to improve playoff performance. The Blues are playing for the trust of St. Louis sports fans. I'm serious, stick with me.
We know the Cardinals come first. And when the Blues are getting ready to open training camp, the Rams have started their regular season. While that doesn't seem like a big deal, it means all three professional teams are competing for the same entertainment dollars in early October (assuming the Cardinals make the playoffs again, which has been a safe assumption for several seasons). If the Blues disappoint the city this week, they will feel it at the ticket window in October, November and much of December. The proof is in the attendance numbers this season. (attendance figures through mid-January are listed below)
The Blues opened the season Oct. 9, a Thursday, against the New York Rangers. Guaranteed a sellout, the Blues announced the paid attendance as 19,183. A sellout is officially 19,150, so they eked out a sellout by 33 tickets. The following Saturday against the Flames, they sold 17,120. The following Thursday against Vancouver, they sold 16,099.
The next sellout came in the next home game, Oct. 25 against the Hawks. Any Hawks game is going to be a sellout simply because of the Hawk fan attendance, but a Saturday is a slam dunk. The Blues then played six home games before another sellout, only cracking 18,000 once — the Predators on a Saturday. When the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin came to town Nov. 15, the Blues sold 19,339. And then in their next five games, the Blues only topped 18,000 once, when the Islanders were in town.
The next sellout for the Blues was Saturday, Dec. 27. That's just two days after Christmas, so a lot of family is in town. Schools and colleges are off. Holiday cheer and all that, the Blues routinely sell out that game and games that follow. In fact their next three games were all sellouts.
The calendar plays a role, but let's look at one more game. Tuesday, Jan. 13. The Blues played the Oilers and drew 18,279. Compare that to the day after Thanksgiving when the Oilers were also in town. The paid attendance was 17,666. Two factors: another student night with most colleges still on winter break and the fact that the Blues had played pretty well and were in the midst of a super strong January that set them up to be in position to win the division. Fans were starting to get on board in January while it sure seems they had a wait and see attitude on Black Friday.
Of course, there is an issue with selling playoff tickets. The Blues announced a sellout, but there were empty rows in the mezzanine Saturday afternoon as the Cardinals played an early-season baseball game down the street. Rumor has it the actual attendance was somewhere around 17,000.
I said all that to say this. Other than two givens (the home opener and the Hawks), the Blues had one sellout before Christmas weekend, and that one seems to be match-up driven with the Capitals. I have to believe St. Louis sports fans were reluctant to jump on board after two straight first-round playoff eliminations. The Blues do not want to see what attendance will look like if they lose their next two games. There will be blood.
I hate worrying about the finances of the ownership group, but this is related. Since the Tom Stillman-led group took over in the lockout-shortened 2013 season (no games were actually played in 2012), this team has added payroll and nudged up against the salary cap after being the waxy buildup on the salary floor since its inception in 2005. While there are successful business leaders in the group, there isn't one exceedingly wealthy person who is part of the ownership. Without a long playoff run, without creating more fans, without being successful in the second season when it matters, how long can they afford to spend to the cap? We've heard about the team's challenges to grow revenue. This team is working its ass off to build the fan base. Instead, the players are setting it on fire with their play Monday.
I am a hardcore, diehard dedicated fan. I have to be to run our fan-run paper. I got frustrated last night, but I didn't get mad. And I wasn't shocked. It felt familiar. And that sucks. It sucks personally because I know I'm not going anywhere and I am eager to see this team try to turn it around. I'm anticipating Wednesday's game. And Friday's. You probably are too. We are in the minority in this city.
Yes diehard Cardinals fans have become spoiled. There are a couple of generations of fans who only know winning. If you're 25 or younger, you have predominantly exciting and successful memories. It's not your fault. And if you're 25 or younger you know only disappointment with the Blues. The contrast could not be starker. The Blues are trying to change this perception. The players are pouring quick-dry cement and laying bricks to solidify it.
Wednesday's game is for all the marbles for the Blues in St. Louis. Lose and look bad doing it, shit will hit the fan. Fans will want heads on flagpoles outside the building and then they still might not buy tickets next fall. Win and the Blues create another turning point of the season on Friday night. One more loss would be devastating. Two more would be catastrophic.
The solution for this team is simple. Come out and play like they did Saturday. Dominate the game, win convincingly and then come home Friday night and repeat that performance.
Easier said than done.
Blues Attendance October-Mid-January
- Home opener vs. New York Rangers on a Thursday: 19,183
- Calgary on a Saturday night: 17,120
- Vancouver on a Thursday: 16,099
- Blackhawks on a Saturday: 19,434
- Ducks on a Thursday: 16,723
- Avalanche on a Saturday: 17,088
- Devils on a Thursday: 16,523
- Predators on a Saturday: 18,869
- Sabres on a Tuesday: 17,570
- Predators on a Thursday: 15,702
- Capitals on a Saturday: 19,339 Nov. 15
- Senators on a Tuesday: 16,680
- Oilers on a Friday (Black Friday): 17,666
- Panthers on a Monday: 17,330
- Islanders on a Thursday: 18,028
- Kings on a Tuesday: 17,212
- Stars on a Saturday (after Christmas): 19,683
- Avalanche on a Monday (between Christmas and New Year's): 19,749
- Sharks on a Tuesday: 19,220
- Hurricanes on a Saturday: 19,411
- Oilers on a Tuesday: 18,279