Season Preview: Blues Young but Optimistic
On paper, the St. Louis Blues look like a fast-rising hockey club with extremely gifted young players, most of whom are former high draft picks, providing hope for a bright future in the Gateway City.
But, on paper, the St. Louis Blues also appear to still be a year or two away.
It's a good thing games aren't won or playoff spots clinched on paper. If they were, there would be little reason for optimism in St. Louis when all signs point to yet another rebuilding season, another dark spring.
On the contrary, optimism abounds in St. Louis because the wheels for the youth movement, which was put in place three summers ago when John Davidson was hired as president of hockey operations, are in full motion, spinning in a positive direction.
Already the Blues have handed former No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson a big-minute role on the blue line. David Perron found his way into a semi-regular shift last season as a 19-year-old and wound up with a team-best plus-16 rating.
Forwards Lee Stempniak, David Backes, Jay McClement and D.J. King – all 25 or younger and Blues draft picks – have key roles.
The youth movement should speed up again this season as at least two more prospects, forwards T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, are expected to join the fray with the tag of Calder Trophy candidate attached to their bios.
This year's first-round draft pick, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, and 2006 third-round pick Jonas Junland will each be given a hard look during training camp. Young defensemen Steve Wagner and Roman Polak are expected to make the team.
Of course, the Blues would be foolish to harbor any playoff hopes for this season if they didn't have some savvy veterans in the mix.
Brad Boyes is back after scoring 43 goals last season. Paul Kariya is looking to bounce back from a sub-par season by his standards. Keith Tkachuk will again have a role, likely among the top six forwards. The speedy Andy McDonald will be starting his first season in St. Louis after being acquired via trade from Anaheim last December.
On the back end, Barret Jackman, Jay McKee and captain Eric Brewer are stabilizers. In net, Manny Legace, an All-Star last season, returns, but he'll be pushed by Chris Mason, whom the Blues got from the Nashville Predators in a trade at the draft.
Most consider it another rebuilding year, but the Blues have loftier goals.
If Oshie and Berglund pan out, the Blues figure to have much more skill up front than they did last season, when they were 26th in the NHL with 202 goals and last with only 47 power-play goals on 334 opportunities.
Oshie and Berglund are centers, but Oshie, the more dogged of the two, feels he'll have to make the squad as a winger. He finished his remarkable career at the University of North Dakota with 142 points in 129 games and three trips to the Frozen Four.
Berglund is very much a skillful center. He had 45 points last season with Vasteras of the Swedish Elite League and was one of the best players at the World Junior Championshisp. He could be the Blues' second-line center behind McDonald.
Perron came on last year as one of the youngest players in the League, averaging more than 12 minutes of ice time in the 62 games he played. Figure on him playing a bigger role this season, provided he's ready for it after scoring 13 goals last season.
The Blues were hoping for more out of Kariya last season after signing him to a three-year contract. He scored only 16 goals and was a minus-10, but he did dole out 49 assists. They're hoping he breaks out and becomes a 30-goal scorer again.
If Kariya can increase his production, and Boyes can stay right around 40 goals, it will take some pressure off of Oshie and Berglund to produce right away.
McDonald could be the speedy center that plays between Kariya and Boyes, but he wants to improve on the minus-17 rating he had in his 49 games with the Blues last season. McDonald was a point-per-game player in each of the previous two seasons with Anaheim before registering only a combined 52 points last season.
Tkachuk was second on the team last season with 27 goals, proving he can still produce at a high level. If Oshie, Berglund and Perron come along, Tkachuk may fall into role player status, which could be perfect for him and the Blues.
If the Blues' offense is going to produce more, Stempniak and Backes are going to have to lend a hand. The duo produced only 26 goals last season. Stempniak had 27 in the 2006-07 season, a number he'd like to reach again.
Ryan Johnson and Jamal Mayers are no longer with the Blues and were best penalty-killing specialists last season. That means McClement and Dan Hinote will likely have to step up to keep the PK unit as good as it was (84.4 percent success rate, seventh in the NHL).
Erik Johnson enters his sophomore season with the Blues as one of the team's best defenseman. (Getty Images).
Yan Stastny could see some key shorthanded minutes if he cracks the lineup. King, Matt Foy, Brad Winchester and Cam Janssen are expected to be part-time, depth forwards. They each have good size, and Foy has a history of scoring in the AHL.
The back end appears to be an area of stability for the Blues, who have Jackman, Johnson, McKee and Brewer in their top four. Johnson, who is only 20 years old, may emerge as the best of all of them seeing that he has the most offensive upside.
Considering how goal scoring was a problem, it certainly would be beneficial if Johnson can net more than five goals. That, by the way, was the most of any St. Louis blueliner last season.
Jackman (who signed a contract extension in February), McKee and Brewer are out of the stay-at-home school. However, Jackman and Brewer, who were 1-2 in time on ice last season, combined for a minus-30 rating. Brewer logged 21 assists last season, but is coming off offseason surgery on his right shoulder.
When healthy, McKee is a reliable defender who can play upward of 18-20 minutes a night. However, health has always been an issue for McKee, who has been limited to 89 games in a Blues uniform since signing a four-year contract on July 1, 2006.
The remaining two spots are up for grabs and will likely be contested for by Wagner, Polak, Jeff Woywitka and Andy Wozniewski. Pietrangelo and Junland are potential candidates.
Woywitka has been shuttled between Peoria of the AHL and St. Louis over the last three seasons, but there's hope he can earn a regular spot in the top six. There are also high hopes for Wagner to be the puck-rushing defenseman the Blues sorely need.
Wagner started last season in St. Louis, but was sent down and wound up breaking his leg in the second half. Kariya told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the end of last season that the Blues' power play will be better with Wagner if he's healthy.
Wozniewski, a former Toronto Maple Leaf who signed this summer, could be on the AHL-NHL shuttle between Peoria and St. Louis. Polak has played in 25 NHL games over the past two seasons, including 19 in 2006-07 and six last season.
Legace and Mason are in place and there doesn't appear to be anyone in the organization ready to push them out. The only question: Who is No. 1?
Legace enters the season with the upper hand, having played 66 games last season – including a stretch of 27 in a row – with a 2.41 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. He was 27-25-8 with five shutouts.
Toward the end of last season, Mason was supplanted as Nashville's starting goalie by Dan Ellis, whom the Predators chose to reward with a two-year contract the same day they traded Mason to St. Louis for a fourth-round draft pick.
Mason, who was 18-22-6 last season with a 2.90 GAA, should be motivated to prove he's worth the money he's making, which is suitable for a No. 1 goalie. That should make for a good tussle in net, and hopefully a difficult decision for Murray.
If one of them gets hurt, the Blues likely would look to Marek Schwarz or Chris Beckford-Tseu, who split time in Peoria last season save for minor stints in the NHL. Ben Bishop is entering his first full year as a professional.
Three reasons for optimism
* Some of the kids are here, and more are on their way. Blues fans seem genuinely intrigued and impressed by management's stick-to-itiveness when it comes to the youth movement. They resisted the urge to go out and sign big-name free agents because when this team is ready to win big, it's going to be with homegrown players.
* The situation in net is better than it was last year, when the Blues had Hannu Toivonen backing up Legace. Mason is an upgrade, and Legace has proven he can successfully handle a full workload if need be.
* Johnson should only get better in his second season. The former No. 1 draft pick was good last season, but he has the potential to be a franchise defenseman. There is no reason he shouldn't turn it up a notch.