It’s that time of year again!!! The air is getting colder, and the sweaters are coming out. The hockey sweaters that is. From now until Opening Day of the NHL 2010 season, look out for new division previews, new in depth team outlooks, and big predictions and prognostications of the glorious season to come. Today, we take a look at the St. Louis Blues, and what to expect for the season.
2010-2011 NHL SEASON INFORMATION EXTRAPOLATION
By: Bryan Vickroy
New Names: Jaroslav Halak, G (Montreal), Vladimir Sobotka, C (Boston), Nathan Oystrick, D (Anaheim), TJ Hensick, C (Colorado), Stefan della Rovere, LW (Washington)
Faces to Forget: Chris Mason, G (Atlanta), Keith Tkachuk, LW (RETIRED), Daryl Sydor, D (RETIRED), Paul Kariya, LW (Concussions), Ian Schultz, RW (Montreal), Lars Eller, LW (Montreal), DJ King, LW (Washington), Julian Talbot, C (Colorado)
Last season was a bit of a disappointment after the magic of the 2008-09 season. Early struggles, an inability to win at home or stay healthy, and an overall lackluster look cost coach Andy Murray his job midway through the season. The team responded, had another strong finish to the regular season, but were unable to push back into the playoffs, missing by just 5 points. Scoring totals were down, and veteran Andy McDonald led the team along with Alex Steen at a ridiculously low 24 goals.
The Blues made possibly the biggest splash of anyone in the offseason by trading for playoff superstar Jaroslav Halak to be their new goaltender. Other than the Halak deal, the offseason was more about stabilizing than about change. Interim coach Davis Payne was given the permanent gig. Aging veterans were allowed to retire or walk away to other teams. The key was keeping the core together and making sure they get the chance to showcase their abilities when they get the ice time.
Andy McDonald – David Backes – Brad Boyes
David Perron – Patrik Berglund – TJ Oshie
Alex Steen – Vladimir Sobotka – BJ Crombeen
Brad Winchester – Jay McClement – Cam Janssen
Last season was a disappointment for this group. With all the talent acquired here, a veteran player shouldn’t be your leading scorer with fewer than 25 goals. Boyes must find his 40 goal production again, or risk being labeled a chronic underachiever. Backes has stepped his game up since the Olympics, and is now willing to take on anybody, especially Canadians. Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund, and TJ Oshie are all talented playmakers when they are on the ice, but are a bit soft and come down injured more often than not. The skill and talent is there, it just needs to play hard. Look for better seasons out of many of these players, as well as much higher goal and point totals for the top lines.
Barret Jackman – Erik Johnson
Eric Brewer – Roman Polak
Carlo Colaiacovo = Alex Pietrangelo
This group came to age a few years before the offensive unit, and their ability to shut down their own end of the ice is what keeps them in so many games. Johnson missed all of last season with a knee injury, and is looking to show he was worthy of a #1 pick. He and Jackman will get the task of shutting down other team’s top lines. Brewer and Polak are solid if not spectacular. Colaiacovo, Pietrangelo, and other prospects will push for significant playing time, as they have shown an offensive flair that this group of blue liners lack. Most importantly, everyone must stay healthy.
Mr. Spectacular has landed in St. Louis, and looks ready to continue the magic he showed during Montreal’s playoff run last season. Halak signed a rich four year deal to be the Blues’ man for years to come. Look for him to get the bulk of the starts in net. Last year he set a career high with 45 starts. Look for that number to go up this season. Ty Conklin is a well respected player in the league, and suits this team’s needs beautifully. He is capable in net on his own, and is a professional in understanding and supporting the team’s #1 goaltender. Bishop will most likely be the starter in Peoria, so he can get the playing time he needs to continue to develop.
The brightest spot of last season was the penalty kill unit. The Blues finished first overall on the kill, and managed to keep the team in games despite lack of scoring and penalties. This unit has steadily risen of the past few years, and will continue to be suffocating this season. Look for them to add a few more shorthanded goals with all their speed and skill.
On the other side, the power play was absolutely disrespectful, and failed to properly take advantage of other teams’ mistakes. Part of the reason may have been missing Johnson on the point, but these kids are too good not to be better with the man advantage. If this unit struggles again, they have no one to blame but themselves this time.
The Blues have understood the new mantra of post lockout hockey: built through the draft, keep players young, and don’t build through free agency. The years of high draft picks have paid off, as most of them fill out the big league roster. They also have some highly rated prospects in the pipeline, including top ranked defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Ian Cole is another highly coveted defensive prospect. 2010 draft picks Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko help restock the forward position that depleted the system of strong forwards. Goalie Jake Allen is still a few years away from being ready for the big leagues.
The Blues are young, fast, and skilled. Much of this group has come up through the ranks together, and should be quite familiar with one another. They understand the expectations on them this season after last year’s slow start. Penalty kill was the best in the league and should continue to stump opponents. Everyone, for the most part, is healthy and ready to go.
The playoff run two seasons ago showed that they weren’t ready to compete with the elite yet. Last season showed they hadn’t completely matured mentally to sustain through an entire season. Players like Johnson and Oshie need to stay healthy and in the lineup for this team to be productive. A lack of veteran experience at key positions may cause problems down the stretch.
2010-11 Top Scorer: David Backes, C. The bruising center who starred at Mankato State, will continue to shine in the pros. His size and strength let him outmuscle others, and he expects to get back to his goal totals of two years ago. He most likely will be the future captain of this team, and he will look to assert himself even more in the locker room, and in the score sheet.
Shooting Up the Ranks: Alex Pietrangelo, D. The top rated prospect by The Hockey News, this big kid has a chance to jump right into a top 4 defenseman spot immediately. Look for him to get a lot of ice time, and to continue to dazzle scouts. Might be an important asset in fixing a pitiful power play.
Falling Out of Favor: Eric Brewer, D. While this is nothing against him or his game, he is the elder statesman of this very young team. With Pietrangelo needing ice time, Brewer could get squeezed out in the long run. Must stay healthy and productive, not to mention improve his +/- greatly, to prove he’s worth keeping around long term.
Most Important Games:
1. Game #82 vs. Nashville 4/9/11. The final game of the season against a relatively equal team, with possible playoff destiny at stake for both teams. A win on the final Saturday of the season could be the difference between more games, or an early summer of tee times. Nothing bigger than possible win or go home games.
2. Game #77 @ Detroit 3/30/11. With very few games left in the season, the Blues will have to go into Joe Louis Arena and show that they do indeed belong with the big boys this season. A win here will go a long way towards a playoff berth, and possibly important in a head to head tiebreaker at the end of the season.
3. Game #6 vs. Chicago 10/22/10. Although relatively early in the season, this game will be the first home game after a long road trip and lengthy period of inactivity. Having the defending Cup champions come into your house this early will give the Blues a good barometer of how they stack up against the cream of the crop.
The Blues are one of the darkhorse candidates in the Western Conference. Despite being in a division with heavyweights Detroit and Chicago, the Blues have put together a deep, young, talented roster that can skate and beat any team. The key will be to stay healthy so that the talent and output can match the hype. This is a team that has enough talent, and missing the playoffs should be considered a great failure. While they may not have the experience to make a run at the division crown, they will have last year’s most dangerous playoff weapon in Halak. Crazy things happen come the postseason, and the Blues should definitely be in the chase for the Stanley Cup.
Bryan Vickroy has an addiction to hockey, and is willing to partake in all its forms. He is skating extra shifts this season, covering the Minnesota Wild, the NHL, and NCAA hockey all year long. Look for new articles throughout the week. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/bryanvickroy/ . If you’d prefer to speak in more than 140 characters at a time to him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .Follow paulmbanks