Blues Become Talk Of Town
Stanley Cup mania started a little after midnight on July 13, when free agent defenseman Scott Stevens officially became a member of the St. Louis Blues. Team president Jack Quinn got the ball rolling by talking about some day "drinking a toast from the Stanley Cup." General manager Ron Caron followed by saying the Blues had "made a commitment to winning the Stanley Cup as quickly as we possibly can."
Suddenly, Blues' hockey became the talk of this baseball town. "How many times has that happened in summer?" veteran Paul MacLean asked. "How many times have 1,500 people come out to watch intersquad games? "The fans are excited. The management is excited. The players are excited." Beating the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers' 10-1 and winning the Epson Cup in a preseason tournament in Duesseldorf, West Germany, only fueled the bandwagon. "Little cups make big cups," Quinn said. Even Rich Sutter, the coach's kid brother, got into, the act. "This is the first of three cups we'll win this year," he boldly predicted, referring also to the Stanley Cup and the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl for making the finals.
Expectations going into the season are higher than ever, and fans have bought into the hype, spending $10.5 million on season tickets. The Blues have sold more than 12,000 season tickets, a big increase over last season despite a big price increase. All of this because the Blues opened the vault to sign Stevens to fill a need at defense, on the heels of resigning their franchise player, Brett Hull. Together, Stevens and Hull will make $12 million over four years, a hefty sum for the once spendthrift Blues. The Blues have spent money to make money, and now they've got to prove that it's been worth it. Their 1990-91 season starts tonight in Minnesota. Now, it's time for the Blues to live up to the high expectations. At the very least, they have to get past the second round of the playoffs, the Norris Division finals, something they have failed to do for three consecutive seasons.
They finished second to the Chicago Blackhawks with 83 points last season, and were eliminated by the Blackhawks in the playoffs' second round. MacLean said anything less than winning the division final in the playoffs "isn't good enough. We've got to win in the playoffs," he said. "If we don't win the division (finals), I think you can say we had a bad year, no matter what anybody says." The Blues are setting themselves up for either a rousing success or a monumental failure.
The prospect of the latter has left some players trying to temper the expectations. "That's one thing we can't think about the Stanley Cup," Stevens said. "We have to think of 80 games and take them one at a time, especially in our division. It's not a division where you can go into a city and know you're going to get two points. No way. Every game is a battle, and you have to start right there. Hopefully, that will lead to a division championship."
Still Stevens admitted that it's hard for the players to remain oblivious to the Cup talk. "Everyone gets wild ideas so quick," he said. "It's a long season there's a lot of ups and downs. Things can happen. There's no question we have a good team and good potential, but we have to put it together." "That may take time," said defenseman Paul Cavallilni, an All-Star last season. With several new faces Stevens, Geoff Courtnall, Cliff Ronning, Mario Marois and Bob Bassen the Blues have some adjustments to make.
Hull, who set an NHL record for right wingers last season with 72 goals, has to adjust to life without Peter Zezel, traded to Washington with defenseman Mike Lalor for Courtnall the day after Stevens' signing.
Center Adam Oates, who broke Bernie Federko's team record with 79 assists, has to adjust to new linemates Hull and Sergio Momesso. Rod Brind'Amour, a left-winger on Oates' line as a rookie, has to make the switch to center on the No. 2 line with MacLean and Courtnall.
Glen Featherstone, who has yet to play a full NHL season, has to step into Lalor's shoes among the top four defensemen.
Bassen and Marois have to get used to their surroundings in a hurry, having been picked up Monday in the waiver draft. "People have to understand that we're a bunch of players who have just been put together," Cavallini said. "We have to learn to play together. The people of St. Louis will have to bear with us and support us as much as possible. The Stanley Cup is something to dream about and hope for, but realistically, it's along way off. We have a lot of work head of us. It's not a time where we should be overconfident."
They can be quietly confident, perhaps, but not overconfident. "You can't start the season and say we're going to win the Stanley Cup," Momesso said. "You can say we have a chance to win it if we work hard. We have the talent to do it. It's hard to predict things because, as players you don't want to say much. You know what you can do, and you just have to go out and do it. We're just as excited as the people are. We know we have a good team. We're better than last year because of Scott and Geoff."
Stevens, 26, adds muscle, toughness and offensive skill to the defense. He's a rare combination of power and finesse. "He's got three dimensions offense, defense and he's a tough guy, you don't get defensemen like that," veteran Harold Snepsts said. "Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque don't have all three like that." They also don't have an offensive player such as Jeff Brown as a defensive partner. Caron projects Brown as a point per game man with Stevens giving him room to maneuver. Courtnall, who scored 42 goals two seasons ago and 35 last season, adds speed and scoring to the left side, something that's been missing since Tony McKegney scored 40 goals three seasons ago. "With Scott aboard and Geoff, it's a tremendous lift," Cavallini said. "They're the key players we need. We've always needed them, and now, we finally have them."
They also have Ronning, back after a successful season in Italy. Ronning actually scored more goals than Hull last year, getting 74 in 42 games for Asiago. He'll be a prime player on the Blues' power play. "We really have upgraded ourselves," coach Brian Sutter said. "Before, we had trouble finding two or three skilled players. Now, we have seven or eight. "The expectations are something to be concerned about, but it comes with the territory. I've set high standards for the team, and I expect a lot from them. It's a good pressure because when have the St. Louis Blues had this kind of pressure before? Talking about the Stanley Cup is a little premature, but it's a great thing for the people to have in front of them. It's something everyone wants to cheer for."
From fans to management, and everyone in between. "Let's hope this season is the one," Caron said.
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