Rant Sports NHL 30 in 30: St. Louis Blues Preview
The St. Louis Blues didn’t end their season with the NHL’s top prize, but they did something that the team and the city of St. Louis needed, and that was to show that the Blues are contenders once again.
The Blues started the season below average with a 6-7-0 record. However, after just one month of hockey, Davis Payne was let go and the Blues brought in Ken Hitchcock. Hitchcock tweaked the Blues system and emphasized a strong defensive game. From then on, the entire Blues team began to play much better hockey.
Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk continued to develop under Hitchcock. Pietrangelo avoided his sophomore slump and made a statement for why he should be a Norris candidate in the future and Shattenkirk continued to show how little the Blues miss Erik Johnson.
While the Blues continued to show success, they fought an uphill battle all year long with injuries. David Perron, Andy McDonald, and Alex Steen are three of the Blues top six forwards who missed a decent amount of time during the regular season. Perron came back from a concussion and played in 57 games and collected 42 points. McDonald played only 25 games, but he showed the Blues how much he was missed as he hit 22 points and was also the best player on the Blues during the playoffs.
What may have been the most surprising outcome of the 2011-12 season is the goaltending duo of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Elliott was brought in last year to be a backup and give Halak the occasional game off, but proved to be much more than that. Elliott stepped into the starting spot for a while when Halak was injured and opened eyes. His performance in the first half of the season led him to his first ever All-Star game. After Halak came back, Elliott continued to challenge Halak for the starting job, and this healthy competition led to the best goaltending that the franchise may of ever had. Elliott finished the season with a league best 1.56 GAA and a .940 save %. Halak also finished strong with a 1.97 GAA and a .926 save %. They also combined for 15 shutouts and the fewest goals against in the league which gave them the William M. Jennings trophy as the goaltending duo to allow the fewest goals during the season.
The Blues entered the playoffs as the Central Division Champions and 2nd in the West. After disposing of the San Jose Sharks in 5 games, the Blues looked mediocre in the next round against the Los Angeles Kings. The Kings took it to the Blues in every way, and the Blues just couldn’t solve the brilliant goaltending of Jonathan Quick. Even though the postseason ended in disappointment, the Blues showed how they have grown and are now ready to contend for the Stanley Cup year after year.
The Blues didn’t make any blockbuster signings during free agency, but rather they have a couple prospects stepping in that may have a bigger impact than any other free agenc. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will be getting their shot at a permanent spot on the Blues club. Schwartz played with the Blues for just 7 games last season after coming straight from college hockey. This season he will have more practices with the team and hopefully make a bigger impact. Tarasenko on the other hand played in the KHL since he was 16. His numbers have become better and he is now ready for the NHL. While some may question if his game can transition well from the KHL to the NHL, he will no doubt be a contender for the Calder Trophy as the best rookie.
A player who the Blues will miss is Jason Arnott. Arnott was the veteran and leader that any team could use, and the Blues especially needed him with the amount of youth they have. At 37, Arnott is a big body that can create a strong net front presence and score goals. He collected 34 points last season and may have been one of the most consistent forwards for the Blues. His leadership will be missed in the locker room and on the ice.
While many aren’t huge fans of Carlo Colaiacovo, he was able to log top 4 defensive minutes on the team. When he played his game, he made a great defensive partner for Pietrangelo. He could help on the rush or the powerplay, but his problem was that he was never able to stay very healthy. While the Blues do not seem to miss him now, they may if others like Ian Cole or Roman Polak can not consistently hold a top 4 position.
The Blues have many weapons on offense and defense, but who do they need to step up to push them over the top? One player who can add a ton of scoring is Tarasenko. The kid has speed, sick hands, and a ridiculous shot. His skating is so smooth that he can weave in and out of traffic like it’s no big deal. As I said before, it all depends if his game can transition into the smaller and more physical NHL sized rinks. If he does, expect him to hit 40+ points this season and take the Blues offense to another level.
One position that was the X-Factor last year and must be again this year is goaltending. Halak and Elliot need to be just as good if the Blues intend to take the Central Division again. With 15 combined shutouts, those two were the major reason why the Blues had such a successful season in 2011-2012. If the two goalies are healthy for the playoffs, the Hitchcock has the option of starting either goalie throughout the playoffs if one starts to struggle like Elliott did against the Kings.
Under The Radar
The Blues have many players that may be under the radar, but the Blues 2nd line may be the most under rated group of players in the NHL. Alex Steen, Andy McDonald, and Patrik Berglund are all capable off hitting 50+ points in a season and if all three can stay healthy, there is no doubt they will. McDonald when healthy last season put up points at an great pace when he had 22 points in just 25 games. Steen came back from injury and even though he didn’t look 100%, he still had 28 points in 43 games. While Berglund’s numbers fell slightly from 2010-2011, he will have a plethora of talented wingers to play alongside like Steen, McDonald, and Tarasenko.
The Blues have the recipe to repeat as Central Division champions. Their goaltending proved to be best in the league last season which gives them an enormous advantage. Mix that with an offense that is getting faster and a defense that is getting stronger and the Blues look to be better than last season. What helps more than anything is that the Blues seem to have a healthy team entering the 2012-2013 season which can give them the fast start they need.
If the Blues don’t slack like they did at the beginning of last year and play consistent for the entire season, they will be either the #1 or #2 team in the West once again. The Blues will finish with another 100+ point season, but the young team gained much experience during their postseason run last season. I expect the Blues to be able to at least make the conference semi-finals once again in 2013, but with a much higher chance of going further into the playoffs.