Armstrong, Hitchcock both still digesting playoff flop

ST. LOUIS (AP) St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock sat side by side, presenting a united front for a franchise bleeding from its latest playoff flop.

Armstrong on Tuesday praised Hitchcock’s job in transforming the Blues from also-rans to legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, but both said they were still searching for reasons why they were eliminated in the first round for the third straight season.

The GM said he’d evaluate the operation from top to bottom, but gave no timeline for any decisions.

”It’s a raw time for the organization,” said Armstrong, who added he was ”keenly aware how 10 days to two weeks can evaporate” any accomplishments during the regular season.

”Ultimately, I’m going to do what I have to do,” Armstrong said. ”I don’t want to tear it up but I’m not afraid to make changes.”

Hitchcock has said he wants to come back, but said he’d need to reflect on the latest postseason failure by a team that surged past Nashville to win the Central Division, then lost in six games to Minnesota. He said the team had too many ”wild ebbs and flows in our game,” but wasn’t sure why play dropped off when the stakes got bigger.

”I need some time,” Hitchcock said. ”Period.”

All-Star defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk wanted his coach back, saying, ”We’re not in this position without Hitch.”

Offseason priorities are signing star forward Vladimir Tarasenko to a multiyear extension, and re-signing forward Vladimir Sobotka, who played in Russia this season after contract talks broke down. Tarasenko had six goals in the Wild series, including the franchise’s first playoff hat trick since 2004, after ranking among the league leaders with 37 goals during the regular season.

”He’s the primary guy,” Armstrong said. ”He knows it, the hockey world knows it.”

Tarasenko wants to be back, but referred comments to his agent.

”Wrong question to me,” he said. ”Not to me.”

Sobotka is a tenacious checker, extremely difficult to knock off the puck, and among the best in the league at faceoffs. Armstrong said the team definitely missed Sobotka but didn’t think that addition alone could have gotten the Blues to the second round.

”I’d welcome him back with open arms,” Armstrong said. ”I love what he brought to our team.”

Both GM and coach mentioned several times that they’d let down a loyal fan base. Neither thought the roster needed a massive makeover.

Players definitely weren’t shirking responsibility for the fade-out.

”Every day you feel worse,” Tarasenko said. ”After you keep watching some highlights and news about hockey you feel like, we can be there.”

Captain David Backes said it was puzzling why the Blues weren’t ”red-lining for every game” in the playoffs. They peaked in Game 4, a 6-1 win in Minnesota, and then tapered off.

”You’ve got a smaller time frame, that should make it easier,” Backes said. ”It’s a huge failure I think for every guy in this room.”

Armstrong thought the Blues had made a ”quantum leap” in four seasons under Hitchcock, but wasn’t shying away from fan criticism. Hitchcock disclosed that physical forward Robert Bortuzzo wasn’t used because he was dealing with an injury.

”I appreciate the anger because that means they care,” Armstrong said. ”We’re open season for a couple weeks. Take your shots.”

Armstrong expects to again have a goalie tandem of Jake Allen and Brian Elliott. The 24-year-old Allen started all of the playoff games and was outstanding early, but allowed two soft goals and was yanked in the season-ending Game 6 4-1 loss.

Elliott is under contract for two more years.

”It’s not easy when you play all year and then you’re sitting on the bench and you don’t really feel like you can make a difference,” Allen said. ”It’s always tough for anybody when you’re kind of on the outside looking in.”