As training camp approaches, fans of the St. Louis Blues look to the articles of hockey writers to see where they believe their team will sit this year. Its a custom that brings fear, hope, and a little anxiety each year. With the signings this offseason and the way they finished last year, hockey writers see the Blues as a potential playoff team once again this year.
Being a Blues fan, there is a little bias for me when it comes to how good I think this team can be. I agree that this team is a playoff contender but I also think they can and should do much more.
Coach Davis Payne is in his second full year as the Blues head coach and in his time as the top guy has amassed a 61-48-15 record. He has had to consistantly battle a team that is young and has had their fare share of bad injuries. Yet he has instilled a winning culture that Andy Murray seemed to fail in doing.
With his first hand experience managing the minor league Peoria Rivermen, Payne may have had a leg up with the young stars of the team and it shows. He has gotten players like Patrik Berglund to play up to their potential instead of being in the dog house. Still he has had his struggles as well, case in point his inability to get Erik Johnson to grow up and become a strong defensive player.
This is the last year of Payne’s initial contract and the start to the season will be a good judge as to if he will get an extension or will be shown the door. He doesn’t have to win the Cup but he sure has to make the playoffs to ensure this is his job again next year.
Jaroslav Halak came to the Blues as was looked at as the savior goalie the Blues had been looking for ever since CuJo was run out of town. After his amazing playoff run of 2009-10, fans thought they were getting the real deal and the Blues would run off a string of wins and playoff spots. After a 9-1-2 start it looked like things were going to be great but with it being his first true year as a starter, Halak struggled to close out games or, for that matter, start them.
In the end Halak finished with a 27-21-7 record and had 7 impressive shutouts but fans almost soured on him halfway through the year. With a proven back up with starter experience behind him in Ty Conklin, Halak may have harkened back to his days in Montreal with Carey Price just one bad game away from replacing him.
While that is no excuse for losing focus, it does seem like a logical explanation for his mid season swan dive. With Conklin gone and a year under his belt as a starter, Halak may be ready for the breakout SEASON, all fans thought he was going to have last year. Halak does not have to replicate his run from the playoffs from a few years ago but he does need to have a solid season to cement his status as the number one.
The Blues continue to search for a new captain and David Backes is being seen as that man by fans and by media alike. After his stint with the US Olympic team and his subsequent outstanding season with the Blues, many can’t argue against him as the next man to grace the C.
Backes is the core of the youth movement in St. Louis and his 5 year contract extension last year shows the teams commitment to him for the long term. If Backes can replicate his stats from last year, it will be huge for a team that is lacking a pure goal scorer.
Backes led the team in points and had a career year with 31 goals and 31 assists. By putting up back to back strong seasons, along with his Olympic time, it has put to bed any thoughts that he was a fluke. He will need to continue to have high point totals and strong play for this team to win but Backes seems up to the challenge.
If David Backes is the key player for the Blues, then Patrik Berglund is the most important player on the Blues this year. Berglund broke out after a huge sophomore slump with his first career 50 point season. Berglund continued his strong play in this past World Championship, being among the leaders in goals scored in the tournament.
Berglund has size and skills which liken him to Joe Thornton and last year he used that combination like his rookie year. Not only is he a beast to cover in front of the net, his ability to use his body to shield off opponents off of the side boards opens up the middle of the ice and creates more scoring chances. Berglund will have to continue to use that play and will see more goals coming his way because of it.
Berglund will be lucky to be paired with Alex Steen and Jamie Langenbrunner and that should provide him with the leadership and the potential for more points than last year. Steen has a knack for putting in big goals for the Blues and Langenbrunner has the Stanley Cup pedigree needed to make Berglund a star.
The Blues were put up for sale last year and while a sale is no close as of yet it could be done by the start of the season. Dave Checketts has given a deadline of August 22nd to all potential bidders to have proposals in to the firm conducting the sale. If the team is sold soon it could affect the way this team does business at the trade deadline, which could affect the teams playoff push.
Management has shown that it is willing to spend money still with the signings of Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, and Brian Elliot among others this preseason. While they are not superstar signings, it does show that they are wanting to win now and not in 5 years from now.
When the ownership took this team over it made the promise that they would be competing in 5 years. Well last year was the start of the promise and after the disappointment of last year, it is clear that this team needs to produce now. With the young core, veterans brought in and solid goaltending there is no excuse for the Blues to do well. Ownership and management knows this and it seems they will do everything they can to make it happen.
Finally Blues fans have been waiting for a very long time for this team to do something. It has been 44 years and the Blues have never won a Stanley Cup. Leading up to the lockout, the Blues had a streak of 22 years of making the playoffs, since the lockout they have made the playoffs once and were swept in the first round.
Last year was seen as a step back by most and after being told that the Blues would do Whatever It Takes to make the playoffs, some fans were turned off after the season. While many hardcore and casual fans remain, another season of disappointment could set this team back after all the work that had been done to restore the faith.
With all this being said, the St. Louis Blues need to make the playoffs this year and seriously compete for a Stanley Cup. They is no youth excuse, lack of goaltending, lack of scoring, head coaching issues to hold this team back. It is time for this team to show us and the league what they have in store for the Central and the Western Conference.