OPEN MIC: Pleau's work finally pays off for Blues

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Jim Kelley

No team made more moves in 2001 than the St. Louis Blues. General manager Larry Pleau late last season acquired Scott Mellanby, Cory Stillman and the much sought after Keith Tkachuk. In the off-season, he swapped for Edmonton's Doug Weight, Calgary goaltender Fred Brathwaite and Dallas/Colorado forward Mike Keene, pretty much rebuilding his team on the fly. FOXSports.com this week caught up with Pleau for an Open Mic segment. Not surprisingly, Pleau was watching his minor league prospects in the AHL when we caught up with him via telephone. FOXSports.com: The St. Louis Blues got off to a rough start, but things have turned around of late and with no major changes to the lineup. What's happening?
NAME: Larry Pleau
POSITION: Senior Vice President and General Manager, St. Louis Blues
  • Vice President of Player Personnel, New York Rangers also served as Rangers assistant general manager for player development (total time with Rangers at NHL level, eight seasons).
  • Prior to that Pleau spent 17 seasons in the Hartford Whalers organization (Hartford has since relocated to become the Carolina Hurricanes) as a player, assistant coach, head coach, general manager, minor league general manager and minor league head coach.
  • Played three seasons in the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens (1969-1972) and was the first player signed by the Whalers when that team started in the old World Hockey Association.
  • Pleau was a center/left wing for the Whalers from 1972 until his retirement as an active player in 1979.
  • A U.S. citizen by birth, he competed nationally for the 1968 U.S. Olympic team, the 1969 U.S. national team and for Team USA in the 1976 Canada Cup Tournament.
  • WHY YOU NEED TO KNOW HIM: Took a floundering Blues team and organization and made it into a winner, including winning the President's Cup as the best team in the regular season at the end of the 1999-2000 season. Considered one of the bright minds in the game today and a solid evaluator of talent, as well as a good and fair negotiator. An innovator in the field of off-season minicamps and other hockey trends, Pleau is thought of highly in hockey circles as a forward-thinking executive with an eye for talent and a knowledge of the game. He is also one of its best salesmen, making himself available to media and anyone else with an interest in discussing the game and his and America's role in it.
    Larry Pleau: I think we're playing more like I think we can play and like I thought we could play at the start of the season. We haven't been as consistent as I would like, but we made a lot of changes in the off-season and consistency is something that has to come with time. I think we are a better team than we were at the start, but then I thought we were pretty good then, we just didn't always show it. FOXSports.com: Fair enough, but there were problems at the start and most people would argue that it was because of all the changes. Why is it that hockey, unlike baseball or even football, has so many problems with change. Is it all related to chemistry? LP: Chemistry is a part of it and in our sport chemistry is a big part of what makes a team come together and play for one another, but I think the thing a lot of people outside our game don't realize is that it's a speed game. Other sports have speed come into play, but not like we do. There's running in other sports, but in our game speed creates something of a more spontaneous thing where you react not so much to what you're doing but to the speed of others around you. You react to others. In our game, you make plays and you help each other make plays by reacting to each other and you have to do it at a very high rate of speed and with great skill. I think other sports, they control the speed of how their game is played and a player has a better chance to learn and to react (to what happens) than you do with a spontaneous reaction with a lot of speed. In our game you have to have skill, but you also have to have a feel as to what's going on around you and to what's going to happen as a result of it. It's not always something you can predict, you just have to be aware that things will happen at a high rate of speed and you have to be able to react to it. I think that's why teams take time to gel. You have to create that sense of knowing and you have to work at helping each. That's different than just working against what the other team is trying to do. FOXSports.com: So just going out and getting Player A from here and Player B from there, the New York Yankees plan if you will, doesn't automatically work in hockey. How is it that the Blues have suddenly put it all together and why did it happen now? LP: I was coming to that in a way. The biggest thing as a team and as a group is that we've started to play pretty well defensively. We (management and the coaching staff) have been looking for that more than anything else. I believe that if you do that then the other things come along. I believe that from Day One that if we played fairly well defensively and if our game stayed that way the other parts, things like scoring and penalty killing and the power play and five-on-five play and the like would always come along. Playing well defensively is hard because you have to work hard and sacrifice and work for each other. You have to be willing to play hard for each other. I thought we played OK defensively right from the start, but we're more in tune with it now. You get that going and then the power play and then timely goals and things like that start to come around, because the guys are working and playing off each other. That makes a difference and because we had a lot of new faces at the start, maybe we didn't have that at first. It takes time to work together, to work hard shift to shift as a group. FOXSports.com: OK, you can argue that that is the essence of team building in all sports, players playing for each other as well as for themselves, but one gets the sense that the Blues struggled with that because in addition to all the new faces, there was a sense of failed expectation. The team worked very hard last season. There were times when it looked like the very best team in hockey or at least the very best in the West. It's probably fair to say that goals weren't reached in the playoffs (a loss to eventual Cup champion Colorado in the third round) and when that happened your team, like a lot of others that don't finish where the expectations were, struggled with that. Did it? LP: Isn't that the discouraging part of all pro sports? Aren't all coaches and managers always dealing with that? How do you fight through that type of negativism? I think you'll find in life in general that you are a better person once you've faced adversity and find a way to deal with it and get through it. Leadership, the right kind, definitely helps, but you really do have to go through it to learn from it. You learn a lot more from adversity. Having dealt with it often determines how well you play. What I liked about our team (now) is that nobody tried to hide from it. Our guys knew they weren't playing as well as they could and they didn't try to hide from it. They talked openly about it. Not so much in that they were pinpointing people, it was more in a way that they were holding each other accountable. That's so tough in adverse times, but if you get through it, you're a better team for it. FOXSports.com: Among the many changes you made in the off-season was in goal. You traded your starting goaltender, Roman Turek (to Calgary). There was a school of thought that said in doing that you were putting all the blame on him. Was that the case? If goaltending is so important to winning, why did you make such a change? LP: Goaltending is a major part of any kind of success in the NHL. The goalie has to play well. I think our decision, people thought was a knee jerk, because of the playoffs (the Blues lost to Colorado in a series in which Turek did not perform at his best), but we looked way beyond that. We looked at the years before that and the play of our goalies in the regular season and what was in store for us beyond. We had success with Roman and wouldn't have had some of that without him, but we also looked at the fact that he would be unrestricted (and open to free-agent offers) at the end of this year. With that in mind we felt we had to look at the whole picture, including playoffs and what went on there and we felt when you took in everything, we needed a change. Part of our thinking in that regard wasn't just change for the sake of change, we felt we got some players who could help us right away and some young prospects. I think every team has to look at the opportunity to get young players into your system any way you can. You always have a need for some young prospects, but you don't always have the opportunity to get them. FOXSports.com: True enough, but that also left you with the relatively inexperienced Brent Johnson in goal and Fred Brathwaite, one of the players you got from Calgary in the Turek deal. That's not quite the same as say a Dominik Hasek. LP: We knew Johnson was talented and we liked what we saw, but we also new he was far from bringing what an experienced No. 1 can bring you on a regular basis. We believe he will get there, but we also felt "Let's deal through that." He has that ability to be that player but we also get a player (Brathwaite) who has been around for awhile and has that experience and we got some young kids and you don't get a chance for that very often. FOXSports.com: But you were very much involved in the Hasek talks? LP: That's right, we were, but at a certain point we said let's move on and live with whatever happens. We felt we were close on Hasek and then we felt that night (the night before the Sabres had to either trade him or pick up the $9 million option) we had to go in another direction (Hasek ended up in Detroit). We felt, and it came down to a group decision, let's live with our goaltending and our budget. Our payroll already was up some $20 million. That's a drastic situation and we decided it was impossible to have both (improvements like Keith Tkachuk from Phoenix and Doug Weight from Edmonton) and Hasek. It's a situation that happened and, right or wrong, we were determined that we would live with it. (Editors note: Hasek was being shopped by the Buffalo Sabres because he was entering an option year in which the club was obligated to pay him $9 million. Hasek had made it clear he would rather move on to a team he felt would be a Stanley Cup contender this season. Sources have told FOXSports.com that St. Louis was in the mix right up until the night before the deal with Detroit was made.) FOXSports.com: With that same higher payroll has come higher expectations. Is your team finally starting to meet them? LP: You know I had this conversation with another writer just a little while ago. It was about a month ago and we were about five or six games over .500 and we were being called disappointing, but that's because of the money. If we were five or six over (.500) at $30 million, we've be looked upon as overachievers, but because our payroll is much higher than that (a reported $57 million plus) we're viewed as underachieving. With a high payroll come high expectations, obviously. Our ownership has made it possible for us to go in a different direction than some other (clubs), but we still had to prove what kind of team we were. We have to prove it over time. We're doing that, but I think we still have a lot to prove. FOXSports.com: Does that mean you have to win in 2002, and what does it take to win in the NHL in 2002? LP: Good question. You try your best to win every season. To do that, you have to have good goaltending. I'm not saying it has to be great, but it needs to be good and consistent. Look at that (Cup) final series last spring. (Colorado's Patrick) Roy won that first period in the sixth game (vs. New Jersey). He was outstanding there and that's where they won it. Mentally, you lift your team when you have a goaltender that's good consistently. At that point in the series it was still there to be won, but the Devils were at home (in Game 6) and they knew the importance of winning that game and they threw everything they had at him in that first period and he withstood it. I really believe he won it right there. He was consistently good and then great when he had to be. After that you need a defenseman or two who can help out offensively. In today's game the transition game can make such a difference. To really be successful offensively you either have to have defensemen who can put points on the board or move the puck so other can. It can be done either way, through their getting the points or through the transition, but you have to have that. So many games can be won by how you handle yourself through the neutral zone, how you skate through it or how you get the puck through to your forwards. It's a big part of scoring success, what goes on when you transition the puck. Then you need offensive flow. From the top of the circles to your blue line, you have to be moving with speed. Not so much faster (than the other guy), but quick, quick with the movement of the puck. People say that the game is faster than it was 15 or 20 years ago. I'm not certain that's the case, the players were fast back then, too, but it is quicker. A lot more things are being done at a very high tempo and you have to have people who can do that. Quick movement and control of the puck is so important today. You see that a lot in that teams that win, they've got more of the puck. To me those are the keys. There might have been a time when you could spend more time in your own zone and still win, but not today. You can't play in your zone. You have to get it and move it. You have to transition the puck well and that's why speed through the middle is so important. You also have to be strong at center ice. That's a position where you need depth of skill, size and physical play. Those guys also have to be able to win faceoffs and then you have to have role players who can kill penalties and do things like that for you. FOXSports.com: And toughness? Isn't that still part of the game? LP: Always. I'm a big believer that the game was never about this or that or swing from one thing or set of rules to another. You have to have a physical aspect of your game. If you don't have it, you don't win because there is always an intimidating factor in hockey. In my mind the biggest difference between winning in the regular season vs. the playoffs is that in the playoffs you face the same team every night and you have to have that physical factor in your lineup. It's a part of the game, always has been. Jim Kelley can be reached at his email address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
    Tagged: Sabres, Flames, Red Wings, Canadiens, Devils, Rangers, Blues, Dominik Hasek, Keith Tkachuk, Cory Stillman, Doug Weight, Scott Mellanby

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