After purchase, Stillman’s work has just begun

ST. LOUIS – From beer to the Blues, Tom Stillman’s work has just begun.

He stabilized a franchise after its two-year search for a new owner. He represents a future that could build upon gains from last season. He offers local ties and a hockey background that allowed him to become a regular at the St. Louis Blues’ alumni skate sessions.

But can his group extend the Blues’ momentum? Can his reported $130 million purchase help make the Blues a consistent late-season contender?

Above all, can he help bring a Stanley Cup to the Gateway City?

The answers will shape the legacy of his leadership. On Wednesday, the NHL Board of Governors approved the sale of the Blues to a group headed by the St. Louis-based beer distributor.

Stillman will be introduced Thursday at Scottrade Center as the eighth owner in Blues history, five years after he became a minority owner of the club. Mayor Francis Slay and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman will be on hand to speak about the future of hockey in a city that’s still searching for its first Stanley Cup despite 36 trips to the postseason.

Now the Blues have direction. What happens next will be most interesting of all.

“It gives the leadership of the team more direction as far as what they can and cannot do financially,” said Patrick Rishe, director of Sportsimpacts, a national sports consulting firm based in St. Louis. “I’m sure, with Stillman getting on board, the team will now have the ability to game-plan financially about what they will be able to do in the offseason for free agents and retaining and relieving certain players of their duties.”

Stillman, CEO of Summit Distributing, is more than an untrained observer. He was a member of the Middlebury (Vt.) College hockey team before graduating in 1974. He brings a former player’s perspective to the position. The Blues will benefit from it.

Ultimately, though, talent on the ice will determine the franchise’s success. Make no mistake: Stillman and his group represent stability, not a guarantee of deep playoff runs in the near future.

Still, there are reasons to believe the purchase could enhance the Blues’ chances of playing in June one day. The group reportedly includes several local businessmen as well as US Senator John Danforth (R-Mo).

Ownership with a strong connection to the region should grasp what the Blues mean to a passionate fan base. Their 30-6-5 record at home in the regular season energized the area for much of the past winter. It brought to mind an earlier era when the Blues were one of the most consistent organizations in the league.

Consider: They made the Stanley Cup playoffs each season from 1980-2004. The last 11 years of the streak included four trips to the Western Conference semifinals and one appearance in the Western Conference finals.

But then a decline happened. The period under Dave Checketts/SCP Worldwide was marked by struggle. St. Louis has just two postseason appearances since 2006. The Blues hadn’t won a playoff series since 2002 before reaching the Western Conference semifinals last season.

Now, Stillman’s purchase means opportunity. It presents a chance to remake the franchise’s identity with stable financial support.

That plan should include more resources for general manager Doug Armstrong. He did a quality job in crafting a roster that produced the Blues’ first Central Division title since the 1999-2000 season.

Roster decisions will be made this offseason. The Blues could use a skilled defenseman to complement Alex Pietrangelo, who had a career-high 51 points this winter.

There also are choices on restricted free agents (T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Chris Stewart) and unrestricted free agents (Jason Arnott, Carlo Colaiacovo, Barret Jackman, Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol, Chris Porter and Kent Huskins). Securing prospect Vladimir Tarasenko could be a priority as well.

Yes, the purchase is a positive development for a franchise that must work to continue momentum from its best season in more than a decade.

Finally, the Blues have direction. Now the work begins.