We're barreling down the stretch now with our season previews as camps are establishing their rosters. Jobs will be won, hearts will be broken, and some interesting developments can occur out of injury and necessity. Before you know it, the puck will drop on regular season hockey and we'll see how close to the mark (or how far off) we were with our predictions.
And now, the St. Louis Blues.
Team M.O.: A once dominant team before the lockout, they didn't weather the post-lockout NHL so well. Still, they qualified for the playoffs in 2008-09 before returning to Earth last season but even still, they just missed the cut by a nose...
Last Season: Ninth in the Western Conference and out of the playoffs. Considering how unlikely it was considered for them to make the playoffs the previous season, 9th wasn't that bad of a finish.
Offense: After the retirement of Keith Tkachuk and the decision by Paul Kariya to not play for the season, the Blues have Andy McDonald as their veteran forward who's to help the young offensive corp take charge. David Backes took a slight step back in terms of the production, but still gives the team a tough-as-nails power forward who can capably produce on a scoring line. Brad Boyes was another player who took a step back, albeit a larger one, so the team will hope he can get back to his 65 point or better form that he's played to for the past few seasons (excluding the one immediately prior.) T.J. Oshie, however, took a significant step forward and if he can find some consistency to his game, he may end up one of the most complete forwards the team has. David Perron is another young player who can fill a scoring role nicely, the sooner he can find the ability to kick the lid off 50 points a season is the sooner he'll be the team's first line option. Alexander Steen seems to have rediscovered his game now that he's gone from the Toronto Maple Leafs; the Blues fans should hope that this capable two-way forward can continue to score 50 points or more throughout the season. Patrik Berglund has a mountain of potential but saw a 21 point drop in his production from 2009 to 2010; Blues fans will hope that's merely an aberration. Vladimir Sobotka would love to compete for a scoring role, but he's currently recovering from shoulder surgery and when he does return, it may be to fortify a checking role. Matt D'Agostini and T.J. Hensick will likely make the squad as reserve scoring forwards but will need to make the best of their opportunity to remain with "the big club."
As for the grinders and muckers, Jay McClement remains an underrated defensive player who can take the important draws for the big club (though his faceoff win percentage was slightly under 50% last season, he'll look to improve that this forthcoming season.) B.J. Crombeen and Brad Winchester check, hit, and dish out the punishment... and that's before the resident enforcer/hometown hero Cam Janssen takes to the ice.
All that said, yes the veteran presence is thin but it's also time for the "kids" to start realizing they're men at this point and need to play accordingly. The tools are there, they just need to realize they're in tool box with a Blues logo on it.
Defense: Golf carts be damned, Erik Johnson did well his first season back and could break 40, if not 50, points this season. Captain Eric Brewer gives the team some badly needed leadership in the room, though his numbers will never be super impressive he's a valuable asset in helping keep the team on track. Barret Jackman doesn't dish out the pain like he used to but he still gives the team with a solid defensive defender while Roman Polak improved significantly in the defensive aspects of the game during his second full season in the NHL. The deal to acquire Carlo Colaiacovo was a boon to the Blues; though health remains an issue he is still good for 30 points or better from the blueline.
Vying for the last two defensive spots are a cast of prospects and fringe players looking to "make the jump." Alex Pietrangelo has a wealth of offensive ability, but has been shown to be a defensive liability at the NHL level and might benefit from some additional development. Tyson Strachan has been plugging away in the Blues organization for the past three seasons; he's doing what he can to make himself stand out at camp to finally make the team at the start of the season. Ian Cole did very well in an audition with the St. Louis Blues minor affiliate Peoria Rivermen to warrant serious consideration. The team brought Nikita Nikitin over from the KHL and will hope his size and skill can better fortify their blue line. And if none of them are an option, perhaps the team could turn to Nathan Oystrick; who has been solid in the minor leagues and a respectable performer when given an NHL assignment.
That camp battle alone should tell you volumes about their defensive depth; I don't think we need to go further.
Goaltending: The biggest acquisition for the Blues over the off-season was the trade they made for Jaroslav Halak, who as a member of the Montreal Canadiens lead the way over some stunning playoff series defeats of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins before succumbing to the Philadelphia Flyers. Ty Conklin has also a capable goaltender who is very effective if given 30-35 appearances a season. Knocking on the door is goaltender Ben Bishop; chances are he'll make the team next season unless Conklin has an absolutely lights-out season for the Blues this year. Like mentioned with the defensive situation, they're all set on who they have in goal.
Management: Give team president John Davidson credit; he did well handling the press while the team went through a rebuilding process that was rather painful at times. Davis Payne's system seems to have gotten a better response out of the club; the team hopes his system and methods of motivation continue to be effective. Doug Armstrong has been promoted to G.M. and his first move was to acquire Halak. Considering he was instrumental in getting Dave Tippett his first NHL job, this might be one of the better things to happen for the Blues in the off-season.
Prediction: Second in the Central Division and in the playoffs.
These guys are the new Chicago Blackhawks with far less flair. That might work out to their advantage though as the team has intriguing talent that just needs to have the floodgates opened for a prolific year. If these guys underachieve they're definitely going to have the Chicago Blackhawks on their tails with both the Nashville Predators and Columbus Blue Jackets not that far behind; that type of competition will cost them a playoff spot. However, if these guys bring their best effort each and every night; they'll take a look at the standings come playoff time and be like "We earned that?! Awesome!"