For all the talk about the Chicago Blackhawks being one of the best young and up-and-coming teams in the NHL, the Blues often get overlooked; well, that is a mistake on the part of many fans because this team simply should not be underestimated.
Led by a management team that includes John Davidson, Larry Pleau and Doug Armstrong, the Blues are in great hands. The combination of experience and knowledge among the aforementioned three managers is tremendous and the Blues’ plan moving forward is indicative of just that.
After surprisingly making the playoffs last season, the Blues may be the surprise team in the National Hockey League in 2009/10. Without further ado, let’s explain why that will be the case.
This team has a nice blend of youth and experience up front. Led by the unassuming Brad Boyes, St. Louis possesses a ton of offensive talent. In Boyes, the Blues have a big body who has a wicked shot—making his presence on the team’s power play vital (16 power play goals last season). Boyes’ 72 points led the team in scoring last season and his 19:00+ minutes per-game led all forwards in ice-time per-game.
Along with Boyes, the Blues are led by speedster Andy McDonald. McDonald, who was just recently invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp, posted an impressive 44 points in 46 games last season. Injuries have been an issue for McDonald in the past (especially concussions) but prior to last season’s injury, McDonald had played 82 games in three consecutive seasons. The former Ducks’ speed is his biggest asset, as well as his tremendous passing skills.
Before examining the team’s tremendous amount of youthful talent, let’s not forget about two veteran players the Blues will rely on this season. Paul Kariya isn’t the dominating player he once was with the Anaheim Ducks but the former 50-goal scorer still has good wheels, a nasty shot and great passing skills. Kariya played only 11 games last season and was actually off to a blazing start with 15 points, until he went down to injury. While some may think of Kariya as injury-prone, similar to his teammates McDonald, Kariya played 82 games in three consecutive seasons prior to 2008/09.
The veteran Kariya is also joined by 37 year-old Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk is not the former 50 goal-scorer he used to be, but he still is able to contribute 25 goals a season which is no small task. The Blues count as much on his veteran influence on the bench and in the locker room as they do on his on-ice production. With the Blues working more young players into the line-up, expect Tkachuk’s totals to decrease to around 18-20 goals next season.
Now, let’s examine the team’s young core of offensive players. First off, it is difficult to select a starting point. Should we take a look at Patrik Berglund? What about T.J. Oshie? Maybe David Backes? Or how about David Perron? Yes, the Blues organization is that stacked with young talent.
We will start by talking about Patrik Berglund, who was a candidate for rookie of the year last season. The big Swedish center started off the season on a tear, slumped a bit during the three quarters point of the year and then started to find his game again in late March. The 21 year-old Swede is big, strong and possesses tremendous hockey sense. With his size and awareness he will eventually be able to control a game and his 41 points in 79 games, with only 14:43 minutes of ice-time per-game is a testament to that. Of the Blues’ talented youngsters, he may be the best.
In a contrast of styles to Berglund, the Blues also have T.J. Oshie. The former UND Fighting Sioux is spunky, aggressive and does not shy away from contact. He reminds some of Theoren Fleury due to his size and style of play. While some doubted his ability to make it in the NHL, Oshie tallied 39 points in only 57 games last season and finished a more than impressive +16 on the Blues (Best +/- on the team).
Was there a more impressive player in the Blues’ short playoff run than David Backes? He was all over the ice, played aggressive, yet controlled and contributed on the scoresheet (3 points in 4 games). On top of that, he was counted on to play over 20:00 minutes per-night for Andy Murray. Backes is big (6”3, 216 pounds) and plays that way (204 hits last season—which led the Blues by over 70 hits). To compliment his aggressiveness, he also has soft hands (31 goals last season) and now everyone knows why Vancouver signed him to an offer sheet prior to last season.
With so much young talent up front, sometimes you forget the Blues have David Perron. I know, it is hard to forget about a player that was third on the team in scoring last season, but that is just how much young talent the Blues have. Perron has loads of offensive skill, he is a great stick-handler, passer and has a nose for the net. There is a reason he saw 3:12 minutes per-game on the power play in 2008/09. Perron is not big (6”0, 194 pounds) but does not back away from physical play either. He is able to play this way because he trusts his skills and skating ability. The Quebec native’s maturation (he almost doubled his point total from his rookie year) should only continue to see him tally more points.
Well, that is a close look at the team’s top eight offensive forwards. Obviously offense is sexy, but the Blues also have some important grinders on the roster—namely Jay McClement. McClement is the team’s top penalty killing forward (he averaged 3:50 minutes of penalty killing time per-game last season) and is team’s best checking forward. He is not overly aggressive but he did lead the team in blocked shots by forwards last season (57 blocked shots) and is positionally sound. Considering the depth of offensive talent up front, any offense he adds in (12 goals last season) is a bonus.
Filling out the team’s depth lines will be the likes of Alexander Steen (a smart player who is a good passer and has developed a solid two-way game), B.J. Crombeen (an aggressive player who plays the game kind of like a chicken with his head cut off) and Brad Winchester ( a big body who can play a responsible defensive game).
The Blues incurred a fair amount of injuries on the blue line last season, so expect a far consistent group this season. First off, Erik Johnson stopped golfing this summer so he could avoid missing another season to injury. Jokes aside, the Blues missed Johnson’s game badly in 2008/09. He is big, fast, a good passer, a good shooter and a great hitter. Let’s just say there is a reason he was the top overall draft pick three years back. Once Johnson gets back into the line-up this season, he will be the Blues’ best defenseman.
Joining the soon to be superstar Johnson, is the reliable Barrett Jackman. Jackman is the classic Western Canadian defenseman, as he is unassuming off the ice and nasty on it. The British Columbia native is tough (86 penalty minutes last season), aggressive (his 124 hits led all Blues defensemen in 2007/08) and willing to sacrifice his body (his 145 blocked shots were second on the team). Jackman is the stay-at-home defenseman that every team covets, which is why the Blues have him locked up for the next three seasons.
After Johnson and Jackman the Blues count on Eric Brewer to play big minutes. Brewer’s availability to being the season is now in doubt due to off-season knee surgery, but the injury does not appear to be overly serious. The former Olympian never turned into the offensive defenseman many had hoped, but his skating ability for a man his size is truly impressive. Moreover, his defensive awareness is very strong which is why he is always in good position. He isn’t an overly aggressive player but his smarts make him a go-to guy for coach Andy Murray, as Brewer played 25:07 minutes per game in the 28 games he dressed for last season.
Joining the top three defensemen on the Blues roster is the unheralded Roman Polak. Polak is big (6”1, 232 pounds), and is only 23 years-old. Last season Polak finally made his mark in St. Louis playing 69 games and logging the second most total minutes of any Blues defenseman. In fact, Polak played 21:32 minutes per game and saw significant time on the power play and on the penalty kill. The Slovakian has a wide-body and uses it to his advantage (his 110 hits was second highest in terms of the team’s defensemen); furthermore, he blocked the third highest amount of shots (109) on the team.
Before talking about the team’s depth defenseman we certainly cannot overlook arguably the team’s top prospect—Alex Pietrangelo. The 19 year-old is a great skater who needs to fill out in order to compete at the NHL level. There are few questions about his offensive ability, so once he matures and understands how to play in the pros, the Blues expect him to become a top-two defenseman along with Erik Johnson.
Fighting for the final two spots on the Blues’ back-end will be Carlo Colaiacovo (a good skater and puck-mover who lacks defensive awareness), Mike Weaver (a veteran puck-mover who skates fairly well), Brendan Bell (a tremendously skilled offensive defenseman who can play the power play but is poor in his own end) and Darryl Sydor (a veteran who has seen his better days but is a good leader).
Last season, the Blues came into the year with Manny Legace as the team’s starting netminder. Legace struggled mightily as the Blues’ starter and was demoted about halfway through the campaign. When Legace was demoted, the Blues’ starting netminding job became Chris Mason’s and, boy, did he excel when given the chance. In 2008/09, Mason posted an impressive .916 save percentage and a 2.41 G.A.A. Along with those impressive totals, Mason posted six shutouts. Heading into this season, Mason is the undisputed number one netminder for St. Louis.
Backing up Mason, will be veteran NHL backup Ty Conklin. Prior to the 2007/08 season, Conklin was seen as someone who was a fringe NHL backup. However, a season in Pittsburgh and a season Detroit (Talk about bad timing!!! Did he ask Marian Hossa for career advice?) restored his standing across the league and the confidence he has in himself. His solid .909 save percentage last season is more than serviceable for a backup netminder—so, expect Conklin to play more than your average backup.
I will admit it; I think the Blues are this year’s surprise team. I love the mix of talent, youth, veteran leadership, coaching and managing.
Ceiling: The team’s young players continue to improve; Chris Mason plays net like he did last season and Kariya, McDonald and Tkachuk stay relatively healthy. 2nd in the Central Division (Yes I really do think they can finish higher than one of Detroit/Chicago) and 4th in the Western Conference.
Floor: Chris Mason falter some, the team’s youngsters struggle to reach the next level and Columbus/Detroit/Chicago play too well. 4th in the Central Division and 8th in the Western Conference.