The lockout is over and it is time for the St. Louis Blues to pick up where they left off. After seeing his team record one of the best records in franchise history, recently re-signed GM Doug Armstrong has brought nearly the same band back together. With just a few minor changes, the Blues will look to go further than the second round of the playoffs in the shortened 2012-13 season.
Forwards: Vladimir Tarasenko, Andrew Murray.
Defensemen: Taylor Chorney, Jeff Woywitka.
Goaltenders: Mike McKenna.
On the outs
Forwards: B.J. Crombeen (TBL).
Defensemen: Carlo Colaiacovo (DET).
2011-12 team statistics
NHL standings: 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Western Conference, 3rd in NHL.
Goals for: 21st in NHL (2.51 GF per game).
Goals against: 1st in NHL (1.87 GA per game).
Power-play: T-18th in NHL (16.7%).
Penalty-kill: 7th in NHL (85.8%).
Re-Signed and Ready to Roll
Barret Jackman was re-upped by the team, signing a 3-year, $9.50 million extension on June 18. Say what you will about Jackman, but an average of $3.17 million per year is a bargain after seeing some of the contracts signed this summer (Dennis Wideman’s contract, anyone?)
Jackman posted a plus-20 last season, placing him in a tie for second on the team with Kevin Shattenkirk. If Jackman can continue to stay healthy and be a leader in the locker room, the scrutiny that came with that contract extension will be but a distant memory.
After locking up Jackman, GM Armstrong announced on July 5 that he reached an agreement with RFA forward David Perron. The extension, which comes the season after Perron returned from a concussion that kept him out of the lineup for over a year, pays Perron $15.25 million over 4 years (the deal is slightly back-loaded, paying Perron $3 million this season and $4.5 million in the final year). He returned from his injury with a bang on December 3, scoring on just his third shift of the night after missing 97 games.
Perron finished the season scoring 21 goals and 42 points in just 57 games, placing him second on the team in goals and fourth in points. Projected to be on the top line with Oshie and David Backes, which was the Blues’ best line late in the 2011-12 season, Perron will have the chance to create the same magic he displayed last season.
T.J. Oshie rounds out the big re-signings as he agreed to a 5-year, $20.8 million extension on July 20. The 26-year old forward has quickly become the fan-favorite of the team, using his skilled hands and good work ethic at every possible turn. Oshie was the only Blue to score more than three goals in the shootout last year, going 5-for-14 and accumulating a 35.7% success rate (the rest of the team combined to post a measly 8% success rate).
Scoring is not the only attribute that Oshie brings to the table; just ask Rick Nash what he can do when he is carrying the puck up the ice.
All Eyes on Tarasenko
The first round of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft was a busy one for the Blues. After selecting Jaden Schwartz with their 14th pick, the Blues struck a deal with the Ottawa Senators to acquire the 16th overall pick. The Blues scouting staff had their sights set on Vladimir Tarasenko and wanted to snatch him up before anyone else could.
Tarasenko decided to stay in Russia for the following two years, much to the dismay of Blues fans, media and, likely, management. It was finally announced on June 12 that the Blues had reached a three-year entry-level deal with the Russian star.
Tarasenko returned to the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg during the lockout and was greeted with quite the line combination. Playing alongside New Jersey Devil Ilya Kovalchuk and Phoenix Coyotes 2008 draft pick Viktor Tikhonov, Tarasenko went back to his old scoring ways by posting 14 goals and 31 points in 31 games played. Needless to say, Tarasenko will be one rookie that will likely see a lot of time against top defensive pairings in the NHL.
Tarasenko is projected to be paired with Andy McDonald and Alex Steen, two veteran NHLers who pride themselves on slick passing and quick moves. Tarasenko should feel right at home on this line.
Maintaining Stingy Defense Will be Key
Brian Metzer of NHL.com posted the top-60 fantasy defensemen in August, and guess who made the cut? Not only did Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirik find themselves on that list, but they were both in the top-20! Obviously, fantasy rankings are mostly generated using point-scoring, but the defense-first mentality is what rises Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk to the top of the list.
Along with the team’s top-2 defensemen, the Blues boast a steady group of players who keep the puck off opposing players’ sticks. They play a sound game as a unit and keep the shots to a minimum (allowing a league-low 26.7 shots per game a season ago). With possibly the best tandem goaltending team holding strong behind them, the Blues defense will need to do exactly what they did last season to stay successful.
The one question mark comes in the sixth defenseman role. With Carlo Colaiacovo departing for Detroit, the Blues were left searching for a viable replacement. Nothing became available via free-agency or trade, so the Blues will likely look to Peoria and bring up Ian Cole, an NHL veteran of 52 games. Cole is known for his hard hits and crisp passing in the AHL, but the verdict is still out if it translates to the NHL level.
“My goal is to try and definitely get into that lineup,” Cole told Lou Korac of The Jersey County Star. “It’s not going to just be handed to me or to anybody.”
Halak and Elliott Control the Season
15 shutouts by one team was something that most thought we would never see again, after Phil Esposito did it in 1969-70. But Halak and Elliott found a way last season, giving teams fits over how to get pucks in the net. This is a feat that will be difficult to emulate.
No one can expect the same results from last season. However, it is completely logical to expect the same type of friendly competition between both goaltenders. When Halak started last season with a rough stretch (1-6-0), Elliott picked his game up and pushed Halak to fight for the starting job. The two goalies were constantly raising the stakes on each other throughout the season to keep the other one on his toes.
This 1A and 1B goaltending mentality can only help the Blues in the shortened 2012-13 season. With 48 games to play in just 14 weeks, the Blues will see eight sets of back-to-back games and an abundance of four-game weeks. The team that has the fresh goaltender will likely be the one that comes out on top.
When the Blues close out the season with 14 games in 23 calendar days, Halak and Elliott could be the difference between repeating as Central Division Champions and sitting on the outside of the playoffs.
Team is as Strong as Its Captain
David Backes will see a lot of time as the team’s top center, playing in all offensive and defensive situations. The Team Captain proved his worth last season, being a finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy as best defensive forward of the year.
Backes was the jack-of-all-trades for the Blues, leading the team in goals (24), points (54) and power-play goals (8), while ranking in the league’s top-30 in average time-on-ice for forwards (19:59).
Hitchcock’s “Buy-in” Continues Through Lockout
Head Coach Ken Hitchcock inherited a team that was 6-7-0 last season and turned them around into a Stanley Cup contender in a very short period of time. His explanation: a “buy-in” that the roster adopted instantaneously.
After the Blues beat the San Jose Sharks four-games-to-one in the Western Quarterfinals, Hitchcock expressed that the team bought what he was selling.
“We have a buy-in going right now,” said Hitchcock. “We’ve had a buy-in going since the day that the coach arrived. I have no idea why. But the buy-in is right there. You can see it. You can see it [in] the way that we play. You can see the way we compete. You can see the way that we grabbed it.”
The Blues showed flashes of brilliance under former head coaches Andy Murray and Davis Payne (under Murray, the Blues displayed a rush of excellence at the end of 2008-09 to claw into the playoffs), but it always seemed like something was missing. Hitchcock was that final piece of the puzzle to get the Blues over that hill that they never seemed able to climb.
Hitchcock’s Blues will have to prove this season that it was their head coach’s system that motivated them and not simply the change behind the bench.