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Same coach, same old shit

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  • Same coach, same old shit

    By Jim Wilkie
    NHL Insider

    Mike Kitchen took over as head coach of the St. Louis Blues with 21 games remaining, so he doesn't have much time to introduce drastic changes.

    Kitchen served nearly six seasons as an assistant to Joel Quenneville, who was fired Feb. 24 after more than six seasons as the Blues coach. The two are close friends and share similar philosophies, so Kitchen doesn't have the inclination to introduce radical changes in an attempt to save the Blues' season.

    "Joel and I go way back. We played together," Kitchen said Saturday before the Blues lost 2-0 at Vancouver. "Joel was with Marc (Canucks head coach Crawford) in St. John's (the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate) when I was (an assistant) in Toronto, so we know each other's personalities and we weren't afraid to say, 'OK you know, did you ever think of this?' We'd give him the information, whether he wanted to use it or not that was his choice because he's got the final decision."

    After losing 1-0 Sunday at San Jose, the Blues are 0-2-1 under Kitchen. The results haven't been much different for the swooning Blues, confirming nearly everyone's suspicions that Quenneville wasn't the problem for the injury-riddled and underachieving team.

    "Taking over at this time with all the emotion going around is a little difficult," said Kitchen, who played with the Colorado Rockies and New Jersey Devils with Quenneville. "Players realize they let Joel down, too."

    On Dec. 18 the Blues were 20-6-2-1 and just a point behind Central Division leader Detroit. Since then St. Louis has gone 9-19-6-1 to fall to ninth in the Western Conference, four points out of the playoff picture.

    "When you lose your confidence it goes right to your legs and your hands and it looks like you're not in shape," Kitchen said. "And that's not the truth; it's just that you're thinking out there. And that's probably another area that we're trying to get away from is be a little more predictable in what we do and just react to the situation. And that's all part of knowing each other's responsibilities on the ice."

    In becoming the winningest coach in Blues history, Quenneville was one of the most respected head coaches in the NHL. It's widely held that he unfairly took the fall for the team's problems, the biggest of which were season-ending injuries to defensemen Al MacInnis and Barret Jackman. Now it's up to Kitchen to make sure the Blues extend the NHL's longest active playoff streak to 25 seasons.

    Kitchen believes he's in a better position than an outsider coming in because he knows the team's personnel, knows personalities and "how to tweak them here and there." At the same time, the Blues' personnel are also a downside for Kitchen. For all their talent, they've fallen from Stanley Cup contenders to a bubble team.

    The new coach, who was responsible for the team's defense when he was an assistant, is trying to get the Blues to play better defensively while playing a simple game, advancing the puck with minimal risks and breaking the game down into little areas. Kitchen said part of the team's problems have been caused by trying to be too fancy.

    "I think that's what happens to our team is that guys will want to make that one extra move instead of putting the puck towards the net, when you've got someone going to the net," Kitchen said. "And then they turn over the puck or the defenseman pinches at the wrong time, he's outnumbered on the (counter-)attack, just a lot of responsibility on the players' part."

    So far the defense has been fine, allowing five goals in three games. But the offense continues to struggle, scoring just the two goals in Kitchen's debut Thursday night when the Blues tied the Colorado Avalanche 2-2. The Blues rank 23rd in offense (2.28 goals per game) entering Monday's action.

    "They're all frustrated because we're having a hard time scoring right now," Kitchen said after losing to the Canucks. "But you know, you have to get over that. You have to work your way through those things. I can understand some of their frustration. You have some chances, pucks are rolling across the crease, we shanked the puck, we can't put it in the open net right now.

    "We've just gotta stay with it. And it's gonna come, it's gonna break. I know the guys are frustrated but we have to be better than that."

    Blues general manager Larry Pleau said it's too early to evaluate the changes under Kitchen, who was given a multiyear contract.

    "You've got to look long term at that. We're in a fight to get in the playoffs and we've got to get more consistency in our play and we haven't been very consistent the last couple of months," Pleau said. "I think that's going to be the key -- predictability and how we play from shift to shift. We've got to get a little more consistency in the net than we've had and our power play hasn't been very good in the last couple of months."

    St. Louis has converted just twice on its past 27 power plays and ranks ninth with the man advantage (17.1 percent) after it was fifth (22.2 percent) back on Dec. 8.

    But penalties have hurt the Blues the most as their 17.5 minutes per game rank fifth in the NHL. Combined with the 19th-ranked penalty killing (83.9 percent), it shows a lack of commitment to the team.

    On Thursday the Blues were short-handed for 7 minutes and 4 seconds of the first period, including an early five-on-three disadvantage, despite Kitchen's urgings to stay out of the box. The Blues managed to kill five of six penalties that night, but they were stung again on Saturday despite going 6-for-7 on the kill against Vancouver.

    Forward Keith Tkachuk took a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yapping at the referee midway through the third period with the Canucks leading 1-0. But Vancouver got a big insurance goal from Mattias Ohlund with 4:05 remaining when St. Louis couldn't kill defenseman Chris Pronger's roughing penalty.

    "We were having a pretty strong game. I like the way we played," Kitchen said afterward. "We were in the game and then those two penalties took us right out of the game. I mean, undisciplined penalties, we can't have that. Our effort was good. We did everything we wanted to do.

    "I mean (Canucks goalie Johan) Hedberg played really well and Ozzie (goaltender Chris Osgood) played really well. So we're right in the game, it's a hard-fought game and we take two unnecessary penalties and it just kills us."

    The Blues got the message Sunday against San Jose, killing both penalties. But they still couldn't find the net.

    Despite a first-round exit against the Canucks in last year's playoffs and reportedly enduring huge financial losses, Blues owner Bill Laurie allowed Pleau to keep the team together for one more run at the Cup. It's not looking like Laurie will get much, if anything, in terms of a playoff windfall for the $62 million payroll that ranks sixth in the NHL.

    Even if the Blues sneak into the playoffs, their roster will likely undergo some big changes after the season. The club will have to try to keep 29-year-old superstar Pronger, who is in the final season of a contract that will pay him $9.5 million. To keep his rights, the Blues must give him a qualifying offer at the same figure or he will become an unrestricted free agent.

    Tkachuk still has two years and $20 million, plus an option year at $5 million, remaining on his contract and Doug Weight has two years left on a five-year, $40 million contract. Center Pavol Demitra, who will make $6.5 million this season, can become a restricted free agent July 1, Osgood ($3 million) will probably be let go as an unrestricted free agent and MacInnis ($6 million) will probably have to retire because of his eye injuries.

    Those six highest-paid Blues make more than the entire lineups of seven teams.
    ESPN Insider....

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy
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