Climbing the Hill: The St. Louis Blues 2014-15 Season Preview

The St. Louis Blues are much like the fabled story of King Sisyphus. The Ephyra king, who was a well-known adulterer and murderer, was given the mindless task of rolling an enormous boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down the hill. He was forced to do this task until the end of time to pay for his sins.

So the question is simple: who did the Blues murder?

For what seems like an eternity, Blues management has built a team that has Stanley Cup aspirations, only to watch those dreams fade every summer. There were the three Stanley Cup Final appearances to open the team’s existence (1968-70), the decades that saw Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter and Brett Hull tear up the ice and the early 2000s that saw Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis lead a team of well-rounded scoring dynamos. Oh yea, wasn’t there a year where the greatest player ever to have played the game donned the ‘Note?

As of late, the St. Louis team has boasted young talent, such as T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Alex Pietrangelo, yet have posted just an 8-14 record in the last three postseasons. The organization even paid what some considered a king’s ransom for star goaltender Ryan Miller in 2013-14, yet saw another first-round-series exit. When the Blues dropped Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals to the rival Chicago Blackhawks on April 27 (and in convincing fashion, 5-1), it seemed that St. Louis hockey fans were feeling the lowest of lows. Pushing the boulder up the hill truly can’t last forever, can it?

Oct 2, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Jaden Schwartz (17) passes the puck during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Scottrade Center. The St. Louis Blues defeat the Minnesota Wild 4-1. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Oct 2, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center Jaden Schwartz (17) passes the puck during the third period against the Minnesota Wild at Scottrade Center. The St. Louis Blues defeat the Minnesota Wild 4-1. (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

Alas, the boulder rolled back down the hill, the roster strengthened and is ready for its 46th push up the immense hill. The Blues roster, management and fan base hope that this is the finally the time that the repetitive task will be completed.

With additions throughout the lineup, the Blues seem to be on the track of changing history sooner rather than later.

The Offense: Trending Up

Additions: Jori Lehtera, Joakim Lindstrom, Paul Stastny
Subtractions: Adam Cracknell, Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy, Vladimir Sobotka
Moving up: None

The Blues seemed to hit a wall late in the 2013-14 season. With the injury bug rearing its ugly head late in the campaign, the Blues scored just five goals in the final six games, dropping important divisional games to Chicago, Colorado, Dallas and Minnesota during that stretch. It kept the Blues one point away from winning the Central Division title.

The offseason brought multiple changes to the forward group. Instead of the Blues relying heavily on the well-oiled machine that is the Alexander Steen – David Backes – T.J. Oshie line, the franchise can shift focus to a crop of new talent that will now rely on balanced scoring through four lines.

Paul Stastny is the frontrunner of the Blues’ summer signings, inking a four-year, $28 million contract on July 1. The former top center for the Colorado Avalanche, Stastny brings a two-way game that is highlighted by slick passing ability and an eye for teammates’ sticks in pressure situations. Stastny is a big-game player (the game-tying and game-winning goals in Game 1 against the Wild last postseason), who just happens to be a former resident of St. Louis — all the more reason for the organization to welcome him with open arms.

 

 

Behind Stastny is Jori Lehtera, who was the Blues’ third-round selection, 65th overall, of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft. The skilled center had long been a question mark on the Blues’ prospect chart, as it seemed that the former linemate of Vladimir Tarasenko was never going to fully commit to packing up and moving to North America. He and Blues general manager Doug Armstrong discussed his future at the 2014 Olympics, and Lehtera signed a two-year, $5.5 million contract just a few months later. The Finnish playmaker is expected to shore up a sturdy scoring line with Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. This trio could easily prove to be the team’s top line by Christmastime or earlier.

Joakim Lindstrom rounds out the additions for the Blues. A former second-round pick for Columbus (41st overall in 2002), Lindstrom is a good friend of Steen’s, who has proven in training camp and preseason to have a solid work ethic to go along with a keen eye for the net. His chemistry with Steen could prove to be the reason that head coach Ken Hitchcock splits up the Blues’ top line from just a season ago.

Magnus Paajarvi bulked up (gained eight pounds of muscle over the offseason) and Ryan Reaves admitted that he was not healthy to end last season. Both of these points could prove to be useful tools for the Blues’ bottom-two lines.

If the preseason and any preliminary discussions with Hitchcock are any indication, the lines could prove to be something similar to this:

Patrik Berglund – David Backes – T.J. Oshie
Alexander Steen – Paul Stastny – Joakim Lindstrom
Jaden Schwartz – Jori Lehtera – Vladimir Tarasenko
Steve Ott – Maxim Lapierre – Ryan Reaves
Extras: Magnus Paajarvi, Chris Porter

Says fellow St. Louis Blues writer Mike Poepping:

Hitchcock will be able to rotate the lines frequently, as he usually does, but this year it shouldn’t come at the expense of production. His renewed focus on advanced stats should also help him make in-game changes to expose the opposition’s weaknesses more accurately, which will be a huge help.

Stars such as Tarasenko, Oshie and Schwartz are sure to put up big numbers, but newcomers Paul Stastny, Joakim Lindstrom, and Jori Lehtera could be the biggest threats of the season, if they keep up chemistry that has begun throughout the training camp and through the preseason.

The Defense: A Sure Thing

Additions: Carl Gunnarsson
Subtractions: Carlo Colaiacovo, Roman Polak
Moving up: None

The defense did not see as much a turnover as the offense, but there was one regular that was not skating in Blues training camp: Roman Polak. The Czech defender, a Blues 2004 sixth-round selection, 180th overall, has been a staple in the franchise’s defense since 2008-09. He was traded during the 2014 NHL Draft for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and the Maple Leafs’ fourth-round selection (goaltender Ville Husso).

Gunnarsson, who only skated during training camp on a limited basis, will miss the beginning of the season. The Swede, who will wear No. 4, fits the Blues’ bill of puck-moving defensemen who focus on strong positional play and outlet passes to forwards. Gunnarsson is a left-handed shot who will likely be Kevin Shattenkirk’s partner on the second pairing.

 

 

The top pairing is the same as it’s been since the 2013 NHL trade deadline. Jay Bouwmeester, the Blues’ big acquisition at that time, finds himself paired up with top defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. Since Bouwmeester’s arrival, the pairing has recorded an amazing plus-55 rating during the regular season.

The last pairing is expected to be comprised of the longest tenured Blue, Barret Jackman, and another acquisition at the 2013 trade deadline, Jordan Leopold. Without Polak in the lineup, Jackman will be expected to provide most of the toughness on the blue line while Leopold, a one-time 35-point scorer with the Buffalo Sabres, is where the eyes will be focused for offense.

Ian Cole is likely to switch in and out of the defense, as well. During his time with the now-defunct Peoria Rivermen, Cole was used on the team’s power-play unit and was the team’s top penalty-killing defenseman.

The pairings are likely to mirror this:

Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson – Kevin Shattenkirk
Barret Jackman – Jordan Leopold
Extras: Ian Cole

Adds Poepping:

If Jordan Leopold can stay healthy and focused, he should provide excellent veteran leadership, alongside Jay Bouwmeester and Barrett Jackman. If Leopold does start to falter, St. louis-native Chris Butler (recently sent to AHL Chicago) will be itching to crack the lineup and prove his worth in his hometown. Preseason-standout Petteri Lindbohm also showed he is nearing NHL readiness and could be a great set-up guy that gets point shots through traffic if he is called up, as well.

The Goaltending: Risky Business

Additions: None
Subtractions: Ryan Miller
Moving up: Jake Allen

The Blues went out and acquired the marquee goaltender for which fans had been begging for the 2014 playoff run. Just a few short months later, the Blues were ousted from the postseason and it seemed the focus for building needed to be directed elsewhere.

Although the blame cannot be fully pointed to Miller, the Blues’ new philosophy seems to be to allow the current Blues goalies their chance to shine while improving the offense in front of them.

Brian Elliott, originally thought to be an addition for the AHL club when he was signed in July 2011, has quietly been one of the Blues’ most spectacular signings in franchise history. He is currently tied with Jaroslav Halak and Glenn Hall for the team record in shutouts (16), and his miniscule 1.82 GAA while with St. Louis ranks first among all-time goaltenders. Needless to say, the 2012 All-Star has earned his shot to take over the starting job.

Jake Allen will look to overtake the starting job this season (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
Jake Allen will look to overtake the starting job this season (Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)

The job won’t be easy to maintain, though. Rookie Jake Allen, who appeared in 15 games for the Blues in the 2012-13 season, returns to the NHL club and has his eyes set on taking over the crease full-time. The 24-year-old netminder posted a 33-16-3-3 record with the Chicago Wolves last season, registering a 2.03 GAA and .928 save percentage in that time to earn the AHL’s Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award (most valuable goaltender). He has held the honor of being the Blues’ top goaltending prospect since he was named the CHL Goaltender of the Year in 2009-10.

Poepping, a former ACHA Division II National select goaltender, had this to say about the Blues’ goaltending:

It’s a perfect storm for another William M. Jennings Trophy in St. Louis, and here’s why: Brian Elliott has always thrived off of a healthy competition for the starting role, which was proven in the 2011-12 season, when he and Jaroslav Halak shared the Jennings (Elliott ended the season with a 1.56 GAA, a .940 save percentage, and nine shutouts). Elliott has also shown that he will always come back fighting stronger than ever. If he does go down, he won’t be out for very long.

Switch to Jake Allen. Here’s a guy who’s coming into the prime years of his career, who has already been a runner-up for TSN’s play of the year (in 2012-13), and who has also captured the AHL’s Goaltender of the Year Award. He’s proven to be every bit the competitor that Elliott has, which should help both stay in peak form throughout the season.

This only will help the Blues as a whole, and should create plenty of highlight-reel saves for fans. The bottom line is that when two goalies share a common goal and view each other as teammates first, and healthy competitors second, both tend to flourish. With Elliott as a mentor and Allen as a workout partner, the pair is primed to bring the Jennings back to St. Louis and to backstop the team deep into the playoffs.

[See related: Elliott & Allen: Blues Goaltending Expectations]

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The final result is a team that will be in the running for the Central Division title at the end of the season. However, this isn’t any surprise to anybody reading this; the Blues have been a solid regular season team since 2011-12.

The real test for the Blues will be when the NHL postseason begins. If St. Louis can find that extra strength to give the rock that powerful push at the top of the hill, the city may just find itself lifting a heavy piece of steel over its collective head come June.

If the team can only reach the same point it has reached in the recent past, the trip back down the hill next summer may be more treacherous than the trek we most recently witnessed.