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Despite new ownership, Blues face challenges

Jul 18, 2012, 3:48 PM EDT

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Bettman and Stillman

If you didn’t hear, it’s St. Louis Blues day on PHT. (Fireworks show to follow.) As part of our look at the surprise team of the 2011-12 season, we’d be remiss to overlook its new ownership group.

In May, a collection of local investors led by former minority owner Tom Stillman was formally announced as proprietors, thus closing the book on a tenuous time in franchise history.

“We know the future is extraordinarily bright,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at the announcement. “The balance sheet looks much, much better, much, much stronger.”

But a better-looking balance sheet isn’t expected to turn the small-market Blues into big spenders.

“I don’t see us being a cap team any time soon, but we definitely can compete,” Stillman told the St. Louis Dispatch recently. “If I thought we couldn’t put a contending team on the ice, I wouldn’t have done this.”

Perhaps the Blues can get closer to the cap if the new CBA includes more revenue-sharing, i.e. big-market teams increasing their subsidies to small-market teams.

However, there will always be a divide of a certain size between rich and poor in the NHL.

Not that the Blues are poor – cost-conscious is probably a better way to put it.

St. Louis reportedly pursued defensemen Jason Garrison and Matt Carle in free agency, but was unable to sign either. Whether money played a part in that, we don’t know. There were certainly other factors at play. For example, Garrison took a hometown discount to join the Canucks.

Another challenge for management in its pursuit of free agents is location. There’s nothing wrong with St. Louis, but if a player want to live the glamorous life, it’s hard to compete with New York City. If he wants to be recognized on every street corner, a Canadian city is the place to go. And if he doesn’t like freezing in the winter, there are warmer places than eastern Missouri.

Ken Hitchcock’s conservative coaching style may also be a deterrent, particularly for players with an offensive bent.

But that’s not Stillman’s responsibility.

“My responsibility is to the franchise and its health today and its stability long-term,” he said. “I have to make decisions based on that. That shouldn’t be read to mean that we’re not doing anything because we’ve got to be safe. Part of those considerations are ‘What do we have to do to put a competitive, contending team on the ice?’ But I believe we have provided a budget level to the hockey guys that enables them to put a competitive, contending team on the ice. At the same time, as (Blues GM Doug Armstrong) always says, we’re always looking for ways to improve our team and we will continue to do that. But we are in a good position.”

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