I have decided to wait until the last possible minute to write the Blues’ season preview. No, I’m not a procrastinator, I promise. I just wanted to make sure that we were as close to the opening day roster as possible before I predicted great things… it’s difficult to know how your squad looks defensively when you have two toss-ups going into the season. Who your enforcer is actually does make a difference, contrary to popular belief. Will there be a young kid who squeaks his way onto the big club for the first time, and could be a contender for the Calder?
All of these questions are very legit, and deserve to be answered before anyone makes their pre-season power rankings or divisional previews. Having that young gun can change a team dynamic. Having question marks in D can be the difference between a playoff spot and a 13th place finish. Thankfully, tonight is the final night of the Blues’ preseason before their trip to Sweden, and as such we should know today or tomorrow who the team that we’re taking to Stockholm is.
This season is the year for Chris Mason to prove that last year wasn’t just a fluke. Originally the starter in Nashville after the trade of Tomas Vokoun to Florida, Mason had a shaky second season in the Music City, ultimately losing the starting role to Dan Ellis, who had an outstanding season, leading the Preds to the playoffs.
In an odd instance of history repeating itself coupled with some irony, the Blues signed Mason to a 2 year deal at a price that was close to the salary of the starter, and pending UFA, Manny Legace. Legace, unfortunately, perceived this as a slight against him, and as such, his stats suffered horribly (despite the fact that he still had a winning season). Instead of contract talks, Legace found himself shipped off to Peoria in February after a meltdown during a game against the Red Wings. Mason found himself supplanting the starter, much as Ellis had taken over for him, and led the Blues to the best second half of the season record (25-9-7) in the NHL, and to their first playoff series since the lockout.
Mason’s stats at the beginning of the season, while he was temporarily the owner of a losing record, were not bad, and they progressed, getting far more solid as the season went on. Considering the injuries sustained at the beginning of the year, and the returns to the line-up as February and March rolled around, there’s a direct correlation between his stats and the talent level of the team around him.
Barring disaster (again), the only gaping hole is Eric Brewer’s spot on D. The young kids are another year older and another year wiser – and now have an understanding of just what the playoffs are all about. Mason should benefit from this, and while he might not continue the beastly play that he had at the end of last season, he will remain strong enough to where the Blues should not have to worry about him.
Luckily, if something were to happen, the Blues have an actual real back-up in goal for the first time in recent memory (Mason excluded). Ty Conklin, late of the Detroit Red Wings, was signed quickly during free agency. Young Ben Bishop played well in the games that he was in by necessity, but Davidson and the coaching staff felt that he would benefit from an additional year of play in Peoria, especially since he rode the bench as Mason’s backup last year. Conklin had a 25 win season last year backing up Chris Osgood, whose mid-season meltdown gave Conkblock the chance to step in, and some might claim help solidify Detroit’s spot at the top of the Central. This is not the first time Conklin has had to play starter. The prior season Marc-Andre Fleury was injured in Pittsburgh, and Conklin was stellar, keeping the Pens in the playoff hunt while Fleury healed. Conklin’s being in the last two Stanley Cup finals (though as a member of the losing team) is not a fluke. Unfortunately for him, no one mentioned to him before he signed that the Blues were not in this season’s Winter Classic. Hopefully opening week in Stockholm, Sweden will have to do.
Overall goaltending grade: B+, thanks to cautious optimism of Mason’s performance, and the fact that Conklin has saved almost every fantasy team I’ve ever had (and so far is on 3 of 4 that I have this season).
Hey, look – we know who is on defense to start the season… and one of the guys is our former first overall draft pick Erik Johnson. Presumably on the top line this season, Johnson has a rookie season to live up to. He spent all summer in St. Louis working with Al MacInnis on technique, and I assume that part of that was how to be the point guy on the power play and scare the bejeezus out of the opposing team’s goalie. Seeing as how our preseason PP scored 3 goals on Niklas Backstrom Thursday night, apparently the strategy of using EJ in that situation works. A large concern was that he would lose a year of development due to his injury, but he more than ably made up that lost year over the summer with a work ethic that befits a player many years older than he is.
Practicing with Johnson this summer in St. Louis was the Blues’ #1 draft pick in 2008, Alex Pietrangelo. Petro did not make it through the eight game tryout period last year, and was sent back to captain the Ice Dogs at the conclusion of it. He has been working very hard through camp and through the pre-season to prove to Coach Murray that he is more than capable of making the team this year. The comparisons to MacInnis and Pronger that he and EJ were making this summer not withstanding, if Petro dazzles enough to make the first line the speed of these two will blow opponents away They will be probably the best young defensive pairing in the NHL (possibly better than Enstrom and Bogosian, as hard as that is for me to say after watching them last season).
Barrett Jackman is back wearing the A and providing veteran leadership for the young kids. Shockingly enough, the Blues found someone even more veteran to mentor EJ and Petro: Darryl Sydor. The defenseman, late of the Dallas Stars, was invited to the Blues’ camp on a pro-tryout basis. Murray was leaning towards him throughout camp, so the announcement yesterday that the Blues had signed him to a one-year, $1.1 million dollar contract did not come as a shock. I can’t forsee him being paired with Jackman on the second pairing, however. Carlo Colaiacovo should provide the balance on that line between offensive ability and brawn.
Sydor might possibly bring up the third, shut-down pairing along with Roman Polak, who I am hoping to see more of this season. His rough, physical play coupled with his fantastic Twitter feed (and no, I don’t care if it’s him or not – it’s great) makes him perfect at intimidating the opposition (and making Marian Hossa run off in fear) and clearing the crease, as well as chipping the puck out of our zone.
The odd man out is Jeff Weaver, bringing up the 7th spot. Upon the return of Robo-Brewer later on (by January if his previous healing powers are a blueprint), Weaver will probably be sent to Peoria, since everyone else is either a top-6 defenseman or (in Petro’s case) too young to go to the Rivermen. Of course, with the return of the Captain, the pairings will have to be shifted, though I could see him on the third line with Sydor if necessary. This, though, will give Murray the unenviable job of trying to figure out who is watching from the press box. I would not suggest Polak, since there’s a buffet up there.
Overall Defensive Grade: B, due to a question mark regarding Petro, and beyond the pairing of Petro and Johnson, questionable offensive abilities. I do give the Blues credit for adding an excellent mentoring addition in Sydor, and doing it without losing a player. Between that and the return of Johnson, the Blues drastically upgraded their defense without having to pull any sort of trade at all, thereby making sure that their philosophy of growing talent remains intact for another season. So far, they’re two for two (along with goaltending) with making drastic improvements for free that other teams would have given up assets for. No, we’re not cheap. We’re just smart. We’ll see how much smarter we’ll get here in a second.
A team heralded as having one of the youngest offenses in the league with outstanding potential in the 2007-2008 season proved last year that these kids weren’t a fluke, and were more dangerous with experience.
David Perron, seemingly constantly in Murray’s doghouse and in the mix of every trade rumor last deadline, has matured greatly. He has a reputation (and his stats back it up) of being a playmaker and an assist guy, who can read the play and react quickly regardless of what line he was on. As the year progressed, he started chipping in more goals, which should be the trend this year. He has even managed to get into a preseason fight – and WON it – but the enforcer role probably isn’t in his future.
Patrik Berglund, who is probably thrilled to be the Token Swede on the team for the trip to Stockholm, had an outstanding rookie year. Usually on a line with Perron and Oshie labled “the Kid Line,” Iceburg showed a dominant physical presence while scoring some outstanding goals and finishing with a positive +/- on a team where the forwards usually aren’t quite as defensively minded as they need to be.
Wrapping up the Kid Line is TJ Oshie (AKA the Mayor of St. Louis), who is fast becoming a huge fan favorite as well as an integral part of the team (proof: the “OSH-IE OSH-IE” chants at the home closer, with the fans DEMANDING that he be interviewed – how often does THAT happen?). How did he get so popular? Aside from speed, which he has, and goalscoring ability, which he has as well but got cut short last year thanks to an injury, he is a huge physical presence. He’s only 22, but he has the ability to intimidate other teams’ players. Ask Rick Nash, who got laid out not once but twice by Oshie (the second time when Nash went after him… oops), giving birth to the popular phrase “You Got Oshied,” which inspired t-shirts and, apparently Oshie’s very own Twitter page background.
Another dominating physical forward is 30 goal scorer (good for second most on the team) David Backes. Often compared to Chuck Norris around popular Blues’ websites, Backes really did do it all last year. He scored (managing a four goal game against the Red Wings), got assists, and racked up 165 penalty minutes. This isn’t a fantasy hockey guide, but if you need a well rounded player for your team, get him. Now.
Missing for a large portion of last year were two of our most important (and highest paid) forwards, Andy McDonald and Paul Kariya. McDonald missed half of the season last year, and Kariya missed the whole year save for the first eleven games. Upon returning in time for the home stretch last season and the playoffs, the only member of the Blues (at least until Sydor) with a Stanley Cup ring showed the kids how it needed to be done in the playoffs. Kariya is in the last year of his ginormous contract, and has to prove to the fans in St. Louis that this is money well spent. Before he was injured he was well above a point per game, and has played well during the pre-season. The motivation and want he showed to try to get back in time for the playoffs was appreciated, even if he didn’t heal in time. And, you can look at it this way – we’ve added one of the leagues top guys even at his age, without a trade. Again, returns from injury added firepower to an already potent offense. These guys are prime examples of that.
The Blues leading goal scorer, Brad Boyes, is returning with hopes to not nearly tie with Rod Brind‘Amour for the league’s worst +/- rating. Hopefully someone has worked with him, or at least bought him a dictionary, to define what actually being defensively responsible is all about. Also, his aim needs to improve drastically. He’s an outstanding goal scorer, but if he could get the puck on net more often, imagine how many more goals he could tally.
Our token grizzled old man/doughnut aficionado Keith Tkachuk was re-signed for another year. The young guys look up to him in the locker room, no doubt about it. But even more importantly, he is known for driving the net and always being in the right place at the right time to knock in a nasty, dirty goal that the goalie never has a chance on. Murray has been running the highly successful BTK line (yes, I know – some teams have cool names for lines; we name ours after serial killers) of Boyes, Walt, and Kariya during camp and occasionally during preseason. This line is probably the best on the team when all cylinders are clicking. Boyes can’t aim well enough to go in every time, and Kariya has been known to fire shots that make goalies give up rebounds. Where’s Walt? With his butt parked firmly in front of the goal, screening the goalie, and waiting for that rebound that he can pop back in. It was very fitting that his 1000th point last year was one of these goals. In the New NHL™ (a term that I hate), the thrill of snipers and pure goal scorers are emphasized. There are very few old school players who understand that a goal is a goal, regardless of how sexy it looks. We’re very lucky to have the best of that dying breed.
Our forwards McClement, Steen, and home grown boy Janssen are probably the best fourth line in the league. Steen and Silent Jay can score when they want to, but most importantly they’re fast and can effectively get in there enough to interfere with the opposition’s play. And of course, if someone decides to touch one of our guys, or if it’s a Tuesday, Cam “Smash” Janssen is there. He had some absolutely outstanding bouts last year, fighting nineteen times. He really is lacking that part of the frontal lobe that aids in decision making and feeling fear, but that’s fine. He’s one of the nicest “Gosh, I’m just thrilled to be here!” guys in the league, but he can also kick your ass. That’s a pleasant combo to have. Toss that in with the bizarre oddity that he’s leading the team in shootout goals in camp and might wind up in the top five there, and you have probably one of the better unsung assets in the league.
Overall Forwards Grade: A if everything’s clicking, B if someone manages to get hurt/throw out a hip. The lack of defensive responsibility of some of the forwards concerns me. One the other hand, we have the benefit of having players that people don’t think of: players that other teams NEED to think of. Trust me, Detroit remembers David Backes… and you better bet that Rick Nash really, really remembers TJ Oshie.
I haven’t gotten a chance to actually see a preseason game (got to love living in Atlanta) to catch how the PK and PP units are doing, but judging from Thursday night’s power play goal extravaganza, I think that our PP being one of the top in the league last season wasn’t a fluke. Hopefully what was a fluke was the abysmal performance of both special team units during the four game sweep by Vancouver. I predicted last season that if those two units didn’t live up to their regular season performance, that we wouldn’t win that series. I hate being right.
Overall Team Grade: B+
I always temper these things with cautious optimism and a healthy dose of cynical realism. The Central Division will be tough again this year, with only Nashville really not advancing as far as talent goes (and they still have some talent in Rinne, Arnott, Suter, et al). Columbus will be rough, Chicago will be successful one last time before they lose all of their top young players because they can’t afford them (but hey, enjoy Hossa and Campbell, guys!). Detroit, despite the off season losses, is still Detroit, and their coaching staff doesn’t know the meaning of the words “weak season.”
Barring some weird fluke and Chicago implodes (*coughHUETcough*), the Blues will finish 3rd in the division again, albeit with a better record than last year. We will make the playoffs solidly, though you won’t confuse us with Vancouver, Detroit, and San Jose. I’m not even going to think about what will happen in the playoffs, since my Magic 8 Ball keeps telling me to stop asking. But, generally speaking, we’ll do well. We proved everyone that had us firmly near the bottom of the pre-season power rankings last year wrong – the pundits aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. This year, though, they’re picking us to finish in playoff contention.
Maybe someone decided to wise up and actually watch a team’s play before they predict their future success/failure. Novel concept.