GLENDALE, Ariz. — Scotty Bowman never thought much about building a tradition when he got his first NHL head coaching gig in 1968 with the expansion St. Louis Blues.
"I was just hoping to get the ship righted," said Bowman, an assistant who took over the team mid-season when coach Lynn Patrick resigned after a slow start. "We didn’t even make the playoffs until the final week of the regular season. We had a lot of work to do."
In an era when the NHL had the league divided into an Original Six division and an expansion division, Bowman took the Blues to three straight Stanley Cup finals, where they were swept by the mighty Montreal Canadiens twice (’68 and ’69) and the Bobby Orr-led Boston Bruins once (’70).
Unfortunately for St. Louis, Bowman left in 1971 due to a dispute with team ownership. While he went on to post the most coaching wins (1,467 regular season and playoffs) and Stanley Cups (nine) in NHL history, the franchise he left never built on his promising start. St. Louis has not been back to the finals since those early years, making it the oldest existing NHL franchise never to have won a Cup.
"For fans and people that have been around for those years, it probably weighs on them a lot more," Blues forward David Backes said as the team prepared to face the Phoenix Coyotes on Sunday. "Not to take anything away from those other guys, but we weren’t part of those teams. We don’t feel like there’s a curse or a jinx on the team. We’re trying to write our own story."
The Blues have scored the third-most goals in the league this year and allowed the third-fewest.
The overwhelming opinion is that the Blues helped the narrative with the acquisitions of goalie Ryan Miller and edgy forward Steve Ott from the Sabres in exchange for goalie Jaroslav Halak, forward Chris Stewart, prospect William Carrier and a first- and third-round pick.
The Blues’ special teams both rank in the NHL’s top six, they’ve scored the third-most goals (196) in the league and they’ve allowed the third-fewest goals (137) behind a talented blue line corps and a big, physical, defensively responsible group of forwards that Ott will only bolster.
The perceived weakness was in goal — a weakness most pundits believe has been addressed with Miller, putting the Blues squarely in opponents’ crosshairs as Stanley Cup favorites.
"It’s very flattering," Miller said upon arriving in Arizona on Saturday. "I think there’s a lot of great teams, especially out West here — it’s very competitive. But that’s the great part about the challenge. There’s going to be a lot of expectation put on the two of us after a trade like that. I’m just really hoping to get settled in with the team so that we can help deliver."
Miller, who won the Vezina Trophy in 2010 and was named MVP of the Olympic hockey tournament that same season, is considered a perfect fit with the Blues’ defensively oriented game because of his size (6-2), his positioning and his quickness. The deal had long been rumored, but with other teams potentially in the mix, Backes joked that while he played with Miller for Team USA at the recently concluded Olympics in Sochi, Russia, "everyone I think was trying to claim him while we were over there."
Miller had a limited no-trade clause, but he said he gave the Sabres a list of seven teams with which they could pursue deals.
There’s going to be a lot of expectation put on the two of us after a trade like that. I’m just really hoping to get settled in with the team so that we can help deliver.
Ryan Miller on trade sending him and Steve Ott to St. Louis
"I was kind of thinking about the possibility of St. Louis, and now that it’s happened, it’s gone through, I’m really excited to be here. It’s a great team," said Miller, who boasts a .923 save percentage despite Buffalo’s struggles. "I do think it’s a good fit. I like that competitive nature, and it seems like guys are pretty accountable to each other.
"That’s not an easy thing to build. I feel like earlier in my career, I was on some teams where we had some success and we kind of came across it naturally, and as you lose players from that team, you try to rebuild that feeling, that accountability, and it’s not as easy as it looks."
Coach Ken Hitchcock understands why the all-in perception exists for the Blues this season now that they’ve acquired Miller and Ott. But he doesn’t view the upcoming playoff run as make-or-break for St. Louis.
"Our players are all in the prime of their career. Up until we made this trade, we were one of the youngest teams in the league," he said. "We’re all in because we paid our dues five years ago. We put younger players in the lineup and got them used to playing in the National Hockey League. We bit the bullet. We’re all in, and we’ll be all in the next year and the year after that and the year after that."
Just before the trade, Bowman noted that goaltending would be the key component in the Blues’ playoff hopes, but "they’ve got a lot of other good pieces in place where they don’t rely on just one or two guys. They really look like they’re headed in the right direction."
Olympic hero T.J. Oshie has one direction in mind.
"This is my sixth year, and even through the bad times, the fans have always been amazing," he said. "To bring a Cup down Market Street would be pretty special."