For the third consecutive season, the St. Louis Blues were ousted from the postseason in the first round. The franchise, which has not won a Stanley Cup in its 48-year existence, has not even won a second-round game since the 2002 playoffs.
Since the 2011-12 season, general manager Doug Armstrong and head coach Ken Hitchcock have strung together impressive regular season campaigns, but are yet to see that magic transition to the postseason. To rectify this, Armstrong has changed the look of his roster over the course of many offseasons. He has moved valuable pieces (David Perron, 2013), added supplementary parts (Derek Roy, 2013) and even landed big-name free agents (Paul Stastny, 2014). However, his most notable offseason transaction may have occurred this summer.
T.J. Oshie, a U.S. Olympian and the no-brainer choice for any shootout, was sent to the Washington Capitals in exchange for forward Troy Brouwer, goaltender Phoenix Copley and a third-round draft pick in 2016. An alternate captain at the time of the trade, Oshie was one of the faces of the Blues’ rebuild and one of the few players remaining on the roster from coach Hitchcock’s first day on the job in November 2011.
Will this shakeup be enough to bring a winning culture to the St. Louis locker room come April? The jury is still out, but a memorable regular season is likely still in store for Blues management and fans. With superstar Vladimir Tarasenko fresh off a 73-point season and goalie Jake Allen gearing up for his second full NHL campaign, the Blues are primed to make the jump to the next tier of upper-level teams in the world’s biggest stage for hockey.
2014-2015 RECORD: 51-24-7 (1st in the Central Division)
- Andre Benoit
- Kyle Brodziak
- Troy Brouwer
- Peter Harrold
- Scott Gomez*
- Scottie Upshall*
- Marcel Goc
- Barret Jackman
- Olli Jokinen
- Zbynek Michalek
- T.J. Oshie
- Chris Porter
*currently on PTO contract
During training camp and the first preseason game, Tarasenko was featured on a line with Alexander Steen and Paul Stastny, which would likely be a top line for the team. This was while Tarasenko’s usual pivot, Jori Lehtera, was recovering from ankle surgery. Although there is a chance that Lehtera and Tarasenko will be reunited once Lehtera is ready (which could be as soon as preseason), pitting the team’s two highest scoring wingers, as well as a solid set-up man in Stastny, on the same line seems like overload for any defense in the NHL. Tarasenko’s 37-goal, 73-point 2014-15 campaign was something to be marveled and it seems like it was a welcoming party to a long and prolific career. If the Russian right winger can stay healthy, expect him to finish among the top-five scorers in the league in 2015-16.
The Blues’ captain has had a whirlwind of a career thus far. From scoring 31 goals twice in the first four years of his NHL career, to tallying just six in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season to adding 25-plus lamp lighters in each of the following two seasons, Backes has been loved, and then abruptly hated, by fans. It seems this summer has been worse than others, as his leadership has been called into question after yet another first-round bow out. During training camp, the 31-year old has also been seeing a move from center to the position he originally broke into the league as, right wing, which could allow him to use his towering frame along the walls to create scoring chances for his crafty linemates.
Jaskin, 22, was one the most sought-after forwards for the organization before playing in his first NHL game late in the 2012-13 season. Since then, the right winger has bounced between the AHL Chicago Wolves and the big club. Early last season, Jaskin solidified his spot, scoring big goals and becoming a staple on center Stastny’s line. This season, Jaskin is expected to contribute even more, likely finding time on the first two power-play units and in late-game situations, as dealing Oshie had to, in some part, do with making room for Jaskin to step into a larger role.
As is tradition with any trade involving a fan favorite, Brouwer will be under the microscope all season long. The 6-foot-3, 213-pound winger is not the type of player to explode with a 30-goal season, but he will be expected to contribute size to the third line, while chipping in offensively. Brouwer also adds something to the Blues’ roster that no one else can claim: Stanley Cup championship experience. Winning the ultimate prize with Chicago in 2010, Brouwer can be a pivotal grinder that blue-collar Blues fans will enjoy watching all season. If he can find the scoring touch that netted him four goals and eight points in the 2010 playoffs, the 2016 unrestricted free agent will surely find a new contract with his new club.
Another player fans love to hate, Pietrangelo has more or less been the Blues’ No. 1 defenseman since his first full season in 2010-11. After a 2011-12 season in which he tallied the fourth-most votes for the James Norris Trophy, Pietrangelo was paired with Jay Bouwmeester toward the end of the 2012-13 season, forming one of the smoothest-skating top pairings in the NHL. Although his minus-2 rating in 2014-15 season was a major drop from his career plus-43 rating, Pietrangelo is expected to be the team’s on-ice minutes leader for the fifth consecutive season.
Speaking of falling out of favor with a fan base, Gunnarsson was instantly shooed aside as the outcast of the defense corps. Gunnarsson was limited to just 61 games (concussion) in his first full season with the Blues, posting two goals, 12 points and a plus-10 rating. Gunnarsson was advertised as a natural transitional defenseman, but seemed to lack the ability to move the puck to his forwards and create successful breakouts from his zone. The hope is that the left-handed defender simply struggled to find his game after his injury and it was not a case of his play regressing. Entering the final year of a three-year, $9.3 million contract extension signed with Toronto in 2013, Gunnarsson will be expected to anchor the second pairing with offensive juggernaut Kevin Shattenkirk. If he cannot fulfill these duties, there are plenty of other options for coach Hitchcock to slot in his place.
Lindbohm was quite the surprise in last season’s training camp. The Finnish-born defender was the Blues’ sixth-round pick (176th overall) in the 2012 draft and was rated pretty low on the team’s prospect depth chart. He was invited to camp and instantly impressed the coaching staff with his rough play and quick decision making. The 6-foot-3, 198-pound Helsinki native appeared in 23 games for the Blues, registering three points and 26 penalty minutes. His emergence made it an easy decision for management to allow tough-guy Barret Jackman, St. Louis’ longest-tenured athlete, to pursue free agency. Lindbohm is expected to be a steady second- to third-pairing defenseman, with his placement in the lineup depending on how those above him on the depth chart play out.
Acquired at the trade deadline from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Bortuzzo was the one mid-season acquisition that will return for a full campaign with St. Louis. Brought in to toughen up a passive top six, Bortuzzo appeared in just eight regular season contests, registering two points and 25 penalty minutes. It was revealed after the Blues’ playoff exit that Bortuzzo was suffering an injury, which kept him out of any postseason matchups with the Minnesota Wild. Bortuzzo is presumed to be 100 percent heading into the 2015-16 campaign (after signing a two-year, $2.1 million extension in July), meaning that the Blues’ defense could see a rough-and-tough third pairing with Bortuzzo and Lindbohm most nights.
Since Jaroslav Halak’s first season as the Blues’ netminder in 2010-11, the franchise has adopted a two-goalie rotation throughout the regular season. Brian Elliott has been involved in this since his start in 2011-12, and has taken every demotion, and promotion, in stride. The Blues’ all-time leader in shutouts (21) was primarily the starter last season, posting a 26-14-3 record with a .917 save percentage and a 2.26 goals-against average in 46 starts. Struggling late in the year, Elliott was replaced by rookie Jake Allen for the stretch run. The former AHL Goalie of the Year finished the season with a 4-1-1 record, stopping 153 of 161 shots (.950 save percentage). He worked his way to becoming the Blues’ postseason starting netminder, which he answered brilliantly until a few soft tallies in Game 5 and in the decisive Game 6. Rumors circled that Elliott would demand a trade at season’s end, but it never surfaced and the two will return for another campaign. The starting job is believed to be up for grabs, which should make for another interesting season in net for fans of the Gateway City team.
With Patrik Berglund out for the start of the season, there is a roster spot open. A battle in camp is ensuing, which includes Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall, both on a PTO contract, with Fabbri leading the pack. The Blues’ first-round pick, 21st overall, in 2014 recorded 45 goals and 87 points for the OHL Guelph Storm in 2013-14, before posting 51 points in 30 games in an injury-plagued 2014-15 season. The speedy forward is primed for success, as he has been featured in a top-six role in camp. If Fabbri can continue to wow his coaching staff, he has the opportunity to stay on the club long after Berglund’s return.
PLAYER WITH MOST TO PROVE:
Seeing his ironman streak come to an end last season (737 games), Bouwmeester posted just 11 assists and 13 points in 72 games last season. These numbers are far off his 33 points tallied just the season prior, and a dismal total when considering his $5.4 million price tag. Bouwmeester, whose 10 games off were taken in two separate stints during 2014-15, did not resemble the nimble-moving defender from seasons past, often slow on breakouts and lacking in man coverage throughout long stretches last season. Whether he was still recovering from a lower-body injury late in the season remains to be known, but with three years remaining on his hefty deal after this season, the hope is that Bouwmeester returns to his usual steady form and becomes a solid No. 2 yet again for the club in blue and yellow.
One thing is certain: the Blues have proven to be a solid regular season team for some time now. If all goes according to plan, the Blues will again be battling for the Presidents’ Trophy and should again finish with one of the lowest goals-against in the NHL. Tarasenko should near complete his rise to stardom with yet another stellar season, while defenseman Shattenkirk will continue to receive Norris Trophy consideration. All question marks point to the postseason. Can this club finally get over the hump and win a first-round series? Will top-six forwards Backes and Alexander Steen finally post gaudy numbers in the extra season? Whether Elliott or Allen starts, will the goaltending be a positive for an entire series?
As long as the Blues can continue their regular season dominance, any concerns with this franchise will have to wait to be answered until April.
I am a former NHL media member and reporter for the St. Louis Blues, working for various media outlets. Currently, I am an NHL News Writer and Editor for The Hockey Writers. I live in St. Louis and work as a freelance copywriter in numerous industries.