The 2013-14 Blues started taking shape shortly after losing in the 2013 Western Conference quarterfinals to the Los Angeles Kings. Before August, the team locked up forwards Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart along with defensemen Jordan Leopold and Kevin Shattenkirk. The team then expanded its roster over the summer, adding free-agents Maxim Lapierre and Derek Roy.
The final moves came in September. After silencing the critics by signing top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to a seven-year extension, the Blues filled up its bottom-six unit with veteran left-winger Brenden Morrow.
[See related: Breaking Down Pietrangelo's Contract]
Behind the helm is still top-flight coach Ken Hitchcock. The team is secured in net with Jaroslav Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen vying for the starting spot. Needless to say, this team is deep top to bottom.
What will it take to ensure that EA Sports and The Hockey News are correct in their picks?
Goalie decision must be determined
A lot has been said about the Blues’ solid goaltending in the past two seasons. Despite a shaky start to 2012-13, Elliott was handed the job in March and went on an unbelievable 11-2-0 run in April. He stands as a solid choice for the top job in 2013-14.
But the Blues still have two other steady choices in goal. Halak has faced his fair share of injuries but usually finds his name slated as the starter when he is ready to go. Allen, named to the NHL All-Rookie Team last season, posted a 9-4-0 record a year ago, including an 8-1-0 start to his NHL career.
Although the Blues used all three last season and finished as the fourth seed for the playoffs, the coaching staff must determine who gets the nod as the starter. Elliott and Halak will have the annoyance of playing contract years as both are set to become unrestricted free agents in 2014. Allen’s contract becomes a one-way deal after this season, meaning that he is a likely candidate for the No. 1 job in 2014-15. The Blues could add a valuable asset at the deadline with one of these goalies going the other way; if the team still does not have its clear-cut No. 1 by that time, a season-changing deal could be left in the dust.
Offense has to score
This has been the biggest question mark for the Blues since their playoff run in 2009. The goal scoring has been average at best, ranking 17th in the league last season in goals scored per game (2.58). An elite team cannot rely on the defense and goaltending to get the job done every night.
Chris Stewart had a bounce-back year in 2012-13 (18G-18A—36P), but he added just two goals in the final 18 games (regular season and playoffs). He will need to be more consistent as he fits in as a top-six forward.
Captain David Backes will also have a close eye on his offensive numbers this year as well. Backes was the Blues’ second-leading point scorer (6G-22A-28P), but he will be expected to find the back of the net more often.
The slew of newcomers will likely add a new feel to the roster. Morrow and Paajarvi likely fit in as bottom-six forwards, providing some scoring touch to the third and fourth lines. Roy was brought in for his abilities to find open teammates, likely fitting in with Stewart or T.J. Oshie.
Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz will be entering their second season in the NHL. Both talented forwards will have to play a consistent game to stay afloat in the top-six forward unit. If Tarasenko can contribute like he did at the start of 2012-13, he will find himself playing top minutes.
Bottom lines must keep up tempo
Late last season, the Blues’ best line was the fourth line, better known as the CPR Line. Adam Cracknell, Chris Porter and Ryan Reaves provided a much-needed spark through the end of the season, wearing opposing defenses down with a menacing forecheck.
With the numerous additions, the team was forced to send Chris Porter to the Chicago Wolves, the Blues’ new AHL affiliate. Cracknell and Reaves remain with the club, likely to see time with Morrow, Lapierre and Vladimir Sobotka.
The Blues engine runs off a high-energy game. If the bottom lines can provide that, it should provide more room for the top two lines to produce.
Keep up the solid defensive play
Head coach Ken Hitchcock’s gameplan calls for steady defensive play from everyone on the roster (let’s keep the “buy-in” talk to a minimum). The Blues have received this in each of the past two seasons and will look to do so again in 2013-14.
In 2011-12, the Blues gave up the lowest amount of goals per game (1.89) and shots against per game (26.7). The club did take a slight step back last season with the eighth-lowest goals against per game (2.38) but saw better numbers in shots against per game, although they finished second in the league (24.2). This is partially due to the meltdown in early February when the Blues gave up 25 goals in a span of five games.
Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester are slated to be the team’s No. 1 defensive pairing. Despite playing against the Kings’ finest scoring lines, the two were the only defensemen on the Blues’ roster to register a plus rating during the playoffs.
The Blues have supplemented their top pairing nicely. Shattenkirk and Leopold likely make up the team’s second pairing, with veterans Barret Jackman and Roman Polak contributing a lot of time on the penalty kill and during tight-game situations.
Of course, the Blues boast some of the best defensive forwards in the league. Backes is always a prime candidate for the Selke Trophy while Oshie and Sobotka rake in top minutes on the penalty kill.
New division, new standards
Although the Detroit Red Wings move to the East this season, the Central Division remains very competitive. The Chicago Blackhawks will look to repeat their Stanley Cup championship and the new look Nashville Predators are revved up to return to the postseason. The Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild, both new opponents in the Central, are ready to challenge for playoff berths. The Winnipeg Jets and Colorado Avalanche house young talent that can break out at any time.
Yet, the Blues are Stanley Cup favorites. The changes this offseason, along with the staff that was employed from years prior, make this a formidable franchise that has high hopes to begin the season.
This is the time for the kids become men.