The upwardly mobile St. Louis Blues would like to own a town house in the NHL's high-rent district with the Colorado Avalanche, the New Jersey Devils and the Dallas Stars, but they can't seem to move out of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. Not only is St. Louis a nice team—through Sunday the Blues led the league in wins, fewest goals allowed, goal differential and penalty killing—but it's also a really nice team.
The Blues have no AWOL goaltender or goalie controversy (even if one might be warranted), two franchise defensemen who happily defer to each other, a direct coach who tells players what they don't want to hear yet makes it palatable, and a conservative general manager who is not predisposed to do anything more precipitous than chomp on an After Eight mint at 7:45. "This isn't a flashy team," says Al MacInnis, one of the two defensive pillars that support the weight of Stanley Cup expectations in St. Louis. The wacky NHL awards points for overtime losses but not for style, a blessing for the Blues. If they win their first Cup, the postgame question about the chilled stuff sprayed in the dressing room will be whether it's skim or 2%.
The Blues should be enjoying the fruits of their march through the first half of the schedule—including starting the season with only four losses in 32 games, MacInnis's return to dominance after an injury-plagued 1999-2000, the emergence of 23-year-old rookie goalie Brent Johnson—but they fret incessantly. St. Louis is preoccupied with its inability to match the metronomic consistency it showed in winning the Presidents' Trophy last season. "Pretty much the same record, but last year we played extremely well to get there," says Chris Pronger, the other defensive standout, who won the Hart and Norris trophies in 2000. "This year we've just scratched the surface of where we can be."
Rather than taking satisfaction in its ability to rebound from the bizarre, seven-game, first-round playoff loss to the San Jose Sharks—six of the first 12 Sharks goals went off Blues players—St. Louis remains consumed by the defeat. "Until we win in the playoffs, there are a lot of questions," coach Joel Quenneville says. "We absolutely shouldn't be held in high esteem the way Colorado or Dallas or Detroit is. We've got to prove it. We're from Missouri."
Like the teenager who continually examines his pimples in front of a mirror, the Blues only grudgingly acknowledge that despite a few blemishes, they look fine. St. Louis has a splendid foundation, something teams in the ritzy neighborhood—the Nietzsche-deep Devils excepted—might envy. Given the Blues' history, this is a minor miracle.
For most of its 34 years in the NHL, St. Louis has been a seat-of-the-pants outfit, a club that lived in the present because it didn't have much of a past and its future had been traded. In 1990 the Blues dealt their first-round draft pick to the Vancouver Canucks, commencing a string of eight years of profligacy in which they would make only one first-round selection. They were a Rotisserie team, shuttling bodies, collecting veterans, even leasing Wayne Gretzky for two months in February 1996 as Mike Keenan, the coach and general manager at the time, fashioned the oldest team in the league. Those were, as one St. Louis holdover says, "the pins-and-needles years. You'd come to the rink and wouldn't know if your sweater would be hanging in your locker or in the hall. Mike could make a trade just because he was in a bad mood."
Before he was fired in December 1996, Keenan did acquire three of the players who form the core of this year's team—Pronger, center Pierre Turgeon and left wing Pavol Demitra—but general manager Larry Pleau has filled in smartly around the edges. In 3� years he has stockpiled the talent found by Ted Hampson, his highly regarded chief amateur scout. Nine of the Blues' regulars have spent a collective 20� seasons in the minors. The reliance on patience in player development, the backbone of New Jersey's success, was pioneered in the late 1960s by the Montreal Canadiens, for whom Pleau, a center, played three seasons.
"In the early 1990s we all thought we were one good player away," says Pleau, who worked in the front office of the New York Rangers from 1989 through '97 until getting the St. Louis job. "The free-agent market was opening up; unrestricted guys were coming in. Teams were making trades and giving up so much that the organization, if it didn't win, was always trying to catch up."
While other teams would Nasdaq, Pleau clipped Blue chip coupons. The dividends have been solid in cases such as those of rookie defenseman Bryce Salvador and second-year pot-stirring forward Tyson Nash, low-priced free-agent pickups who combined for a numbing seven years of minor league schooling. Salvador, MacInnis's partner, has emerged as a more well-rounded defenseman than expected. Meanwhile Nash, a fourth-liner last season who was so physical that he might as well have been playing without a puck, has become a valued third-line checker and penalty killer. He scored a shorthanded goal in a 4-2 win in Anaheim last week by hustling down his off wing and roofing a puck on Mighty Ducks goalie Guy Hebert.
In the case of the 6'2" Johnson, a veteran of 149 minor league games, the benefits have been spectacular. First in the NHL in goals-against average (1.62) and second in save percentage (.927), Johnson is big, athletic and poised. That last attribute is one that 30-year-old Roman Turek, the nominal No. 1 goalie, sometimes lacks. Turek, in nets for the playoff meltdown last spring, still finds the most inopportune moments for his occasional gaffes, like failing to cover a puck in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 8. After Johnson handled the Ducks in that 4-2 victory for his 15th win, Turek was blitzed the next night in San Jose 6-3, making several spectacular saves but not enough big ones when the Blues were still in the game. Turek has allowed four or more goals six times this season, Johnson once.