The St. Louis Blues enjoyed a terrific regular season, but they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the third year in a row. That tends to be a damper on things. Despite going 51-24-7 with a 27-12-2 home record and 239 goals-for, today’s NHL teams are assessed by how well they do in the post-season. And for the reigning Central Division champs, losing to Minnesota in six games does not a good year make.
In response, St. Louis made some minor changes. T.J. Oshie was traded to Washington for Troy Brouwer, Phoenix Copley and a draft pick. Vladimir Tarasenko was signed to an eight year deal worth $60 million, signifying the Blues’ faith in the young core. And defencemen Barret Jackman and Zbynek Michalek are out.
Coach Ken Hitchcock, who may thought would face the firing line, was signed for another year in May and says that the Blues need to pick up the pace to win games. “We’ve got to go back to reckless,” he said while describing St. Louis’ work ethic as “conservative.” If that’s truly going to be the case, this hockey team has several “reckless” pieces and may respond to such an adjustment in playing style.
The aforementioned Tarasenko had 73 points in 77 games, including 37 goals. Eight of those goals came on the power play and six were game-winners, plus he had 264 shots on goal. In the post-season, the 23-year-old from Yaroslavl had six goals in six games against the Wild. Two of those came on the power play. So yeah, he can put the puck in the net.
Winnipeg’s Alexander Steen is another of St. Louis’ more potent offensive threats. He had 64 points in 74 games last season, with eight power play goals. He can play defensive hockey, too, which makes him a well-balanced winger. And if Hitchcock plans on crafting a more “reckless” game plan, Steen has the intensity to adapt.
David Backes had 58 points in 80 games and continues to excel in a shutdown role with some offensive flavour. Behind him is Paul Stastny, who signed a four year deal last July and had 46 points in 74 games. He’ll challenge Backes for the top line centre slot if he can pick up his game. The Blues are also high on Jaden Schwartz. With 63 points in 75 games, the 23-year-old from Wilcox is a dangerous and speedy winger.
With Jackman and Michalek out, one would think the Blues would have a lot to make up for defensively. That’s not the case. Alex Pietrangelo continues to lead the charge from the blueline, for one. He had 46 points in 81 games and averaged over 25 minutes of ice time last season. Pietrangelo is an aggressive defenceman, plus he can skate and create plays from his own end.
Jay Bouwmeester is a terrific skater in his own right, plus he can log big minutes and play in a shutdown role. He was good for 13 points last season and averaged over 22 minutes a night. Kevin Shattenkirk balances things out with his offensive prowess. He had eight goals last season, half of which came on the man-advantage. He also had eight points in six playoff games and averaged nearly 23 minutes a game in the post-season.
The Blues are hoping to see defencemen Robert Bortuzzo and Petteri Lindbohm step up in the absence of Jackman and Michalek. That seems a safe enough bet. Bortuzzo is a defensively-minded blueliner. He plays a physical brand of hockey and keeps things simple. Lindbohm is a sound defenceman in his own end and he can move the puck. The Finnish blueliner has to work on his consistency, but 2015-2016 could provide some big league experience so he can begin the journey.
St. Louis is wagering that Jake Allen is the guy to take them to the Promised Land once more. They signed him to a two year contract in July and seemed to do well when he was sharing time with Brian Elliott. But it may be time for someone to emerge as a clear starter and Allen hopes it’s him. He posted a 2.28 goals against average with a .913 save percentage last season, plus he was the guy in the playoffs with a 2.20 goals against average over six games.
Elliott may have handled more games in the regular season, but many are expecting that to change. Elliott is still a quality goaltender at the NHL level, though. In 46 games, he posted a 2.26 goals against average with a .917 save percentage. He only saw 26 minutes in the playoffs, however and allowed a goal on seven shots.
Ty Rattie will try to crack the lineup at training camp, but that will be no easy task. The 22-year-old from Calgary can put up points and has a nose for the net, plus he excels in special teams situations. Rattie saw action in 11 games last season and has 13 games of NHL experience thus far, but he really lit it up with Portland in the WHL. He produced 151 goals from 2008 to 2013 there and the Blues are certainly watching.
Defenceman Jordan Schmaltz was selected in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft and just finished his junior year at North Dakota. He was third on the team with 28 points and led the club to its second consecutive Frozen Four appearance. The 21-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin, is an instinctive player with a good point shot.
The Path Ahead
The Blues are hoping to make a deeper run in the post-season, but they’ll have to get there first. Changing the game plan is almost always risky, but a more “reckless” style could make things interesting for this crop of players. This is a solid, deep squad with a lot of scoring potential and a lot of grit. If Hitchcock can pull the elements together and ramp up the speed, the Blues will be tough to beat.
The goaltending situation continues to be its own reward, at least for now. St. Louis has two sturdy netminders to rely on, but they may start pushing one over the other soon. Many expect Jake Allen to win out, but Elliott won’t go down without a fight. The competition could make both men better, which in turn could make scoring against this already-stingy hockey club a greater challenge.