Fluke or contender? Mirage or the real deal? These are the kind of questions that surround the St. Louis Blues for their upcoming season, and by all means they are legitimate.
After suffering through a span of six seasons where they appeared in the playoffs only once, the Blues surprised the hockey world by winning the Central Division in 2011-2012 and then by making it to the Western Conference Semis before being swept by the eventual champs, the L.A. Kings.
When there is sudden success combined with a lack of recent achievements there is only one possible question that emerges; are they legitimate or just plain lucky?
If their 2012-2013 roster is any inclination as to how good they will be then they are more than just legitimate, they are one of the favorites for Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Defensemen – Building Upon Strength
One of the Blues greatest strengths in 2011-2012 was undoubtedly their blue line. Alex Pietrangelo emerged as one of the top offensive defensemen in the entire NHL while Kevin Shattenkirk exceeded all expectations in his first full season with the Blues. Both are considerably young (Pietrangelo is 22 while Shattenkirk is 23) which means their development is still in motion. It’s hard to imagine this duo getting any more dynamic than it already is but it’s a reality that the entire NHL will have to cope with in the coming years.
Joining Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk on the blue line in 2012-2013 are Barret Jackman, Roman Polak and Kris Russell. Although none of these names will make your heart race or imagination wonder they are effective nonetheless. Jackman will look to rebound from a disastrous showing against the Kings in the playoffs and justify the new three year contract he received from the Blues in the offseason while Polak will continue to be the defensive enforcer that the group needs. Russell, who was acquired from the Blue Jackets midseason, will be given the opportunity to play consistent minutes in the top six and will have to prove that he belongs amongst one of the top defensive groupings in the league.
The one remaining question that surrounds the St. Louis Blues top six defensemen is who will be the last man to join the crowd? The competition essentially comes down to a battle between Ian Cole and Cade Fairchild. Cole has consistently received the nod over the past two seasons when it comes to being called-up, playing in 26 games for the Blues in both 2010-2011 and 2011-2012. At 6’1”, 225 pounds, Cole is a big and physical body that the Blues desperately need in order to control the big forwards that litter the NHL.
Cade Fairchild on the other hand has experienced a considerable amount of success since signing with the Blues after playing for the University of Minnesota. Not only was he selected to the AHL All-Rookie team in 2011-2012, he was selected to the AHL All-Star game as well. In 68 games with Peoria Rivermen he tallied 8 goals and 26 assists while posting an impressive 26 +/- rating, elevating his stock and increasing the temptation for the Blues to use him sooner rather than later.
Odds are that Cole will receive the nod over Fairchild considering his experience in the NHL as well as the Blues need of adding big bodied defensemen instead of a smaller, more offensive-minded blue liner like Fairchild. Cole will slide in nicely and give the defensive corps a more balanced look, increasing upon a strength for the upcoming season.
Forwards – Bandaging a Weakness
There is no denying that the main weakness that hindered the St. Louis Blues throughout the 2011-2012 season was their offensive output. Despite ranking 10th in shots per game (30.6) they were only able to muster 2.51 goals per game, good for 21st in the league. If the Blues are looking to increase their legitimacy for a Stanley Cup run this is where they need to elevate their game.
Luckily for the Blues that problem may simply fix itself. Instead of jumping into the free agency frenzy or making a trade for a high profile scorer they stood still, letting everything pass them by. The immediate reaction is to wonder why they wouldn’t make a move, but the truth is they didn’t have to make a move in order to get better.
One of the main reasons for the Blues lack of offensive prowess in the previous season was due to a string of injuries that decimated three very important offensive weapons. David Perron, considered to be one of most prolific players on the Blues roster when healthy, missed a total of 97 games between 2010 and 2011 after suffering a concussion at the hands of Joe Thornton. When he did finally manage to step foot onto the ice for the last 57 games of the 2011-2012 season he tallied 21 goals and 21 assists.
Andy McDonald, one of the veteran leaders on the Blues roster, was limited to just 25 games after suffering a concussion and then ashoulder injury. Despite his age he is still considered a threat in the offensive zone and showed that ability in his limited time this past season, managing 22 points.
Alex Steen also fell victim to the dreaded concussion which sidelined him for a total of 39 games. He has shown in the past that he is capable of posting solid numbers, scoring 24 goals in 2009-2010 as well as 20 goals in 2010-2011.
If even two of these three players manage to stay healthy for the entire season it would dramatically improve the Blues offensive production for the upcoming season. It would be comparable to adding two new free agents to the mix but the benefit would be that these players are already well rehearsed in the Blues system.
As if the addition of those three players was not enough there is also the debut of Russian prospect Vladimir Tarasenko. Although rookies always tend to struggle during their first year in the NHL, Tarasenko will have an advantage seeing as he is already considered a veteran in the KHL, playing four full seasons in the Russian league. Even if Tarasenko struggles he will add scoring depth on the third line that most organizations would die for.
Let’s not forget that David Backes will be looking to reassert his dominance as one of the best power centers in the NHL and T.J. Oshie will be coming off a career year in goals, assists and points. If the group as a whole can stay healthy and gel together then what was a weakness in 2011-2012 should become a considerable strength in 2012-2013.
Goaltending – Replicating the Impossible
The most impressive aspect of the Blues 2011-2012 season was their goaltending duo. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot combined to post an NHL best 1.89 GAA. While a lot of credit should be placed upon the defensive unit seeing as they allowed a league low 26.7 shots per game, a lot of praise is being placed on Halak and Elliot due to both of them experiencing career years in 2011-2012.
Halak was the least surprising of the two considering his previous success with the Montreal Canadians. In 2009-2010 he posted 2.40 GAA and a .924 SV% but that still doesn’t compare to what he managed to produce this past year. Despite struggling for the early part of the season he rebounded to the tune of a 1.97 GAA (good enough to win the William M. Jennings Trophy) and a .926 SV%.
Brian Elliot on the other hand was a pleasant surprise. Prior to the 2011-2012 season, Elliot’s best season was in 2009-2010 when he managed a 2.57 GAA and a .909 SV% in 55 games. Compare that to this past season where he posted an incredible 1.56 GAA and a .940 SV% and you can see how much of a jump Elliot made this past year.
There is no denying that Elliot’s 2011-2012 stats are an irregularity. The chances of him posting similar numbers in the upcoming season are minuscule but the good news is that the Blues aren’t expecting that type of production once again. As long as Halak is healthy he will be the netminders in the majority of games while Elliot returns to the backup role. This will alleviate the pressure on Elliot and instead place it on Halak who has proven that he can carry the status on a number one goalie.