Meeting today in New York may set direction for Blues

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tkachuk's future likely to be decided today after St. Louis endures miserable season.

ST. LOUIS -- Subtraction was the game plan last season for the St. Louis Blues, who dumped talent and finished last overall in the NHL. A pressing decision regarding star forward Keith Tkachuk could show if the franchise is back to adding talent again.

Blues ownership, present and future, will be involved in a meeting today in New York with Tkachuk and his agent. The team holds a $3.8 million option on Tkachuk, limited to 15 goals and 36 points in 41 games by injuries after reporting overweight to training camp and getting suspended by the team.

"I don't think there's any doubt about keeping Keith," Blues coach Mike Kitchen said. "He was one of our best players."

Tkachuk, who was surprised to learn there would be a meeting, wants to stay if the team is committed to winning. The Blues have a week to decide whether to keep him, but he expects to know much sooner.

"It's a big decision for them, so I respect it," he said Wednesday. "At least tomorrow I'll know where I stand in St. Louis."

Last season, the Blues got rid of nearly all of their name players, shipping defenseman Chris Pronger to the Oilers in September and also dealing Doug Weight, Mike Sillinger and Eric Weinrich. Team owners Bill and Nancy Laurie said it was necessary to gut the roster and steer away from long-term contracts to facilitate a sale, and the result was an ignominious end to a run of 25 straight playoff appearances that stretched back to 1978-79.

The Lauries finally found a buyer in March, and a group headed by former New York Knicks and Madison Square Garden head Dave Checketts is awaiting league approval. There's optimism that new ownership willing to spend at a level of the new salary cap, instead of $10 million or so beneath it, can help turn the team around quickly.

"I think you've got to look at teams like Carolina and the New York Rangers," Blues forward Dallas Drake said. "A year ago nobody expected them to be where are today and all of a sudden they're Stanley Cup contenders, especially Carolina."

Last season, the Lauries got what they paid for: a roster populated with unknowns and no one topping 20 goals, a half-empty Savvis Center on virtually every night and stumbling starts and finishes to the season. The Blues were 2-12-3 in their first 17 games, and lost 18 of their last 19.

"We put ourselves in a bad position way too early, and we just couldn't find a way out of it," Drake said. "There's times early in the year when we lost 11 or 12 in a row that I didn't want to show my face in public.

"You felt like you were letting a lot of people down."

Their 57-point total is the third-worst in franchise history, and a precipitous drop-off from a 91-point season in 2003-04.

"It was frustrating all around, there were a lot of things that went wrong," defenseman Barret Jackman said. "A lot of it we brought on ourselves, and we just couldn't turn it around."

The consolation prize for such a dismal season will be one of the top two picks in the NHL entry draft. The Blues have a 25-percent shot at getting the first pick overall in the lottery, which will take place today in New York, and are assured of no worse than the second selection under terms of the NHL's lottery involving playoff have-nots.

The biggest offseason need is offense. The Blues totaled a league-low 197 goals, 14 fewer than the next-worst team.

They also have to decide whether to go with a goalie tandem of Curtis Sanford and Jason Bacashihua, both coming off successful seasons in their first major NHL action, or get a more experienced player and let Bacashihua be the No. 1 guy at Peoria, Ill., of the AHL.

Of course they tried that this season with Patrick Lalime, and he was one of the major reasons for the team's early season flameout before getting demoted to the minors.

A plus, at least after it was all over, was getting an extended look at a lot of young talent such as forwards Lee Stempniak and Jay McClement and defensemen Dennis Wideman and Kevin Dallman.

"I'm not going to tell you every kid is going to play," general manager Larry Pleau said. "We all know some of the young kids are going to take that next step, and it's up to them to use that."

A new ownership group also creates uncertainty for the front office. Pleau, who has had middling results even with a big budget, could be in jeopardy. The same goes for Mike Kitchen, coming off his first full season as head coach.

"We'd all like to know what are we going to do tomorrow," Pleau said. "You live with that, but then again you have a job to do."

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