Though the St. Louis Blues had the most injuries to key players out of any team in the NHL this season it didn’t stop them from having their best year since 2001 (technically since 1993 if you count the number of wins in the Conference Final). Here’s a look at what created success for the Blues this season, and how they can build on it moving forward, even though some personnel changes will be made.
Reflecting on a Great Year
The Blues were able to surprise their fan base several times throughout this year with balanced scoring and heart, both of which had been lacking in previous seasons. Led by star sniper Vladimir Tarasenko (80GP, 40G, 34A, 74P, .925PPG, plus-7) and crafty vet Alexander Steen (67GP, 17G, 35A, 52P, .78PPG, plus-3) the boys in Blue were able to come within three-points of winning the Central Division, and the Western Conference.
The goalie tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen were a huge reason for the team’s success as well. They both had stellar years, and backstopped the Note to the fourth lowest goals allowed in the entire league (201, tied with Tampa Bay) despite the team having the ninth worst high danger scoring chance differential (minus-66).
In addition to the amazing goaltending, that delivered too many highlight reel saves to mention, were the rookies who played beyond their years to help the team keep pace with the high-octane Dallas Stars. The most obvious rookie standouts were Robby Fabbri and Colton Parayko who both put their high hockey IQs on display night in and night out (though Joel Edmunson’s grit was a great surprise). Fabbri was able to end the year tied for seventh on the team in points (37, .514PPG), but had the highest shooting percent on the team among regular players (15.8%).
Parayko not only registered 33-points from the backend in his first year, but ended up finishing first overall in rookie plus/minus (plus-28) which was also the fifth best in the league. His long reach and offensive touch helped the team stay on track all season and even helped his partner, Carl Gunnarsson, rebound from a questionable year in 2014-15.
Though the Note fell short of the ultimate goal, it was quite the ride. The 2015-16 season was exactly what the fans, and the city needed, and moving forward the Blues will need to build on their momentum from this year to finally bring a Stanley Cup to St. Louis in the near future.
Questions Moving Forward
In order to keep things moving in the right direction for the Blues, they will have to answer some tough questions this summer. Most notably is what to do with their captain, David Backes, and their second best defenseman, Kevin Shattenkirk. These two are in the middle of the biggest dilemmas for the Note management team, as they are both incredibly valuable to the team’s success on a nightly basis (and also because GM Doug Armstrong already said the team’s top priority is locking up Jaden Schwartz long term). Though Shatty may have sealed his fate with a wildly inconsistent playoffs, Backes did the exact opposite by putting up 14-points in 20 playoff games this season.
To put that in perspective: the St. Louis captain had previously netted only 13-points in 29 playoff games on his career (10 seasons, 5 postseasons) before this year. That’s how much of a difference he made this postseason. However, since the Blues need some salary cap relief and trading Shatty will only net them $4.25M in said relief, they may not be able to afford to bring back the beloved captain, and thus Backes could seek offers elsewhere. Especially since he rejected the Blues’ offer of $5.5M in October. This could have been because of term length (which was not disclosed) but he would not leave the team with any cap relief if he were to resign.
This means the team and its fans may have seen the last of two key cogs in St. Louis. It will be a sad day if/when this becomes official, but hockey is a business and making smart moves off the ice is what pays off. Luckily for the Note they have a plethora of talent ready to make an impact moving forward.
Young Guns Ready to Make an Impact
Though the team will still need to add another primary scorer to their roster (likely through a Shattenkirk, Ty Rattie or Dmitrij Jaskin, and a prospect or draft pick trade), they have plenty of depth lurking in the shadows. First in line should be either Petteri Lindbohm or Jordan Schmaltz to take Shattenkirk’s place, and hopefully relinquish top minutes from the ever-aging, almost immovable Jay Bouwmeester (who also had a wildly inconsistent playoffs).
Both D-men have shown prowess throughout their young careers, but Schmaltz has more top-end talent than Lindbohm, and could possibly even eclipse Shatty in just a couple years’ time. He has been one of the most impressive Blues prospects for a few years now, and even outshone Fabbri at the young guns camp a couple of summers ago.
In addition, the Blues have a couple of power forwards beginning to blossom in the AHL, such as Ivan Barbashev and Danny Kristo. This doesn’t even include Jordan Caron who is a big body and has seen some NHL experience as well (Boston Bruins & Colorado Avalanche). Though Barbashev may still be a year away as he continues to learn the two-way game the Blues employ, Kristo looked close to ready at last year’s training camp. If the Blues needed to fill the potential Backes void with someone a little more experienced they could also look to Pat Cannone who led the Wolves in points (52) and was a plus-5. He also had six-points in just five playoff games this past year showing that he’s maturing nicely.
Looking to NHL Ready Players
Moving past the Blues’ impressive list of prospects to more ‘NHL ready’ players shows the team has options to fill voids that trades/UFAs may leave. Though either Rattie or Jaskin (or Maguns Paajarvi) will likely be dealt as part of a trade over the summer, one of them will remain a Blue. If they can finally get regular playing minutes on a line that gives them consistent support, either could break out next season to fill those voids. The Note could also see banner years from a healthy Jaden Schwartz and Alexander Steen (after he returns from his shoulder surgery), which may help close the gap left by Backes, and possibly Troy Brouwer.
If the Blues can put a good looking Shatty deal together they may even end up with a primary scorer such as Taylor Hall, Chris Kreider, or Derick Brassard. All three of these players had more points than Brouwer and only Kreider fell short of Backes‘ 45-point mark in the regular season (Kreider had 43P). Though Taylor Hall is likely too expensive to bring on, and lacks playoff experience, Kreider or Brassard would be welcome additions that would provide a scoring touch and some cap relief. Brassard’s salary is low ($3.5M including his $2.5M signing bonus) but his cap hit is still right at $5M, however Kreider is still developing and would be a steal at his salary ($2.475M cap hit).
Regardless of how things shake out this summer, the Blues should be able to put another championship caliber team on the ice next season. There may be more ‘transitioning’ players than fans and management are used to, but look at what the young players were able to do for the team this season. It should be a great summer that builds anticipation for another stellar season next year.
Mike has covered the St. Louis Blues and Tampa Bay Lightning in depth for The Hockey Writers since 2013. He is also a contributing writer for KSDK News Channel 5, the St. Louis area NBC affiliate, and has been a credentialed media member of the Blues since 2014. Follow him on Twitter @pep30.