NHL Notebook: After roster renovation and coach firing, Blues finally on track - InfoNews

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NHL Notebook: After roster renovation and coach firing, Blues finally on track

St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong speaks during a news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, in St. Louis. Doug Armstrong had pushed just about every button he could. The general manager of the St. Louis Blues rebuilt a significant core of his roster over the summer that included the acquisition of Ryan O???Reilly, and when things didn't go right early this season, he fired the coach. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff Roberson
March 27, 2019 - 1:05 PM

Doug Armstrong had pushed just about every button he could.

The St. Louis Blues general manager rebuilt a significant chunk of his roster over the summer through free agency and trades after his team missed the playoffs by one point last spring.

When things didn't go right early this season, he fired head coach Mike Yeo.

Still, Armstrong's Blues were struggling and tied for last in the NHL's overall standings on Jan. 1.

But thanks to the emergence of a star rookie goalie and a renewed dedication to team play, St. Louis has the league's second-best record in 2019 and look as dangerous as any club with the playoffs just around the corner.

And not a moment too soon.

"If we had stayed where we were — bottom three or four in the league — we would have had to go look at our core group of players and see if there had to be changes made," Armstrong said. "I'm very happy we didn't have to make those decisions, because I really believe in that core group."

St. Louis has gone 26-9-4 since falling 2-1 to the New York Rangers on New Year's Eve, sitting just two points back of the Presidents' Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning over that span.

"I'm more surprised by our October, November than how we've played recently," Armstrong added. "Even when we lose now we're competitive, we're playing strong games. It's a good feeling."

Ryan O'Reilly has come as advertised as a true No. 1 centre after the Blues acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres in a blockbuster deal on July 1, and Vladimir Tarasenko, who had just nine goals in his first 31 games, now stands at 29 and on the cusp of another 30-goal campaign.

Rookie netminder Jordan Binnington, meanwhile, has forced his way into the Calder Trophy race by going 21-4-1 with a 1.81 goals-against average and a .930 save percentage since being recalled in December.

The 25-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., went on a personal nine-game winning streak as part of the Blues' 11-game surge from Jan. 23 to Feb. 19 that saw the Blues go from 14th in the Western Conference to fifth.

"Every year the NHL has a couple of great stories, and we're fortunate he's one of them," Armstrong said. "He basically started training camp as our fourth goaltender, went down to the American Hockey League and got an opportunity. He played well there and got an opportunity (in the NHL). He's played great for us.

"He's given our team a lot of confidence."

After playing just 13 playoff games over his first nine NHL seasons, O'Reilly said he's enjoying the ride as the Blues, who sit comfortably in the Central Division's No. 3 spot, look to push even higher with six games left on their schedule.

"You constantly have that building mentality where everyone's working together, working for each other," O'Reilly told reporters in St. Louis after Monday's 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights that came on the heels of Saturday's 4-3 triumph against Tampa. "It's just such a collective effort."

Interim head coach Craig Berube focused on making the Blues tougher to play against — especially in the neutral zone — but Armstrong pointed to a togetherness in the group as another main factor in the turnaround.

"The pride of our players started to rise up," he said. "They're proud people and they were tired of reading about underachieving. I don't think they're overachieving.

"They're achieving at the level we thought we were going to be at."

In seasons past, playoff teams had more or less separated themselves from the pack by late November, but that's not been the case in 2018-19, where movement up and down the standings has been the rule instead of the exception.

"For us, thank God," Armstrong said with a grin.

And after a few campaigns in recent memory where the Blues coasted into the playoffs as a top seed, Armstrong is eager to see what this group, one that was written off just three months ago, has in store this spring.

"Nashville beat us as the eighth seed in the West (in the second round in 2017) and made the final," he said. "You've just got to get to the dance."

RACES TO THE EAST, RACES TO THE WEST

While six clubs have clinched playoff spots, and six more, including St. Louis, all are but assured of getting in, tight races remain for wild-card berths in both conference. In the East, Montreal is in a battle with Carolina and Columbus for two spots. Montreal's visit to Columbus on Thursday could well decide which of those teams gets the nod. In the West, meanwhile, Dallas and Colorado had the upper hand heading into Wednesday's action, with Arizona knocking on the door and Minnesota in need of a lot of help.

GOALS GALORE

Edmonton teammates Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl, and Anaheim rookie Sam Steel each recorded hat tricks on Tuesday to bring the NHL's overall total to 93 this season — the most since the 112 scored in 1992-93. Nugent-Hopkins and Draisaitl also became the first set of Oilers to record hat tricks in the same game since Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri in December 1985.

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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday

News from © The Canadian Press, 2019
The Canadian Press

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