It's September today, which means that school is either starting or has already begun; the leaves will start to change soon; the weather will be getting a little cooler; and training camps open in just a couple of weeks. We are so close to the beginning of the season, but there are still rosters to set and lines to tweak. Today we will be checking out another division rival, but first a few notes on some developments yesterday.
I think we all heard that Niklas Kronwall had some surgery on his knee. Now, reports of surgery are normally never good, but this seems to have been just a scope of the knee, which in the grand scheme of things is very minor. I know some people were concerned he waited this long, but if the pain was more of a nuisance than a hindrance, then he was probably just trying to continue with conservative treatment before going under the knife. I have no doubts the team was not only aware of his issues but sanctioned the treatment prior to his actually having surgery. It sounds like the recovery won't be that bad, and he should be good to go soon.
The other big news from yesterday is that Chris Chelios (finally) announced his official retirement to accept a front office position as the Advisor to Hockey Operations. I know that I have spoken about Chelios' impact on the team before, and that is still true today. I find it a little funny that a guy who was born in Chicago and played for the Hawks is so beloved in Detroit. But, he had a lot to do with the Wings winning 2 Cups in his time here, and even if his on-ice contributions had waned in the last couple of years, he was still an important role model and teacher in the dressing room. I'm glad we were able to corral him into his new position, as I think he will do wonders in helping some of the young defensemen develop and grow.
We continue our look at the other 29 teams in the NHL, and today we head south on I-55 to check out a rivalry that has been fairly one-sided for the last 15 years.
St Louis Blues
Additions: Jaroslav Halak; Vladimir Sobotka; Dave Scatchard; Stefan Della Rovere; Dean Aresene; Brennan Evans
Departures: Keith Tkachuk; Darryl Sydor; Paul Kariya; Lars Eller; Ian Schultz; Chris Mason; Mike Weaver; DJ King
Much like the Blue Jackets, the Blues followed up a playoff appearance in 2008-09 with a very disappointing 2009-10 season. The Blues had a poor start to the season (minus the two wins against the Wings in Sweden), and fared very poorly on home ice throughout most of the season. A late push (similar to 2008-09) was not enough to get the Blues back into the playoffs, but did leave the team with at least a sense of optimism headed into this season. Let's take a look at the team.
Offense: The Blues don't boast a true "superstar" like some of the other teams in the division, but they do have a number of guys capable of putting up decent totals. Their offense relies a lot on Brad Boyes, who is a 40-goal scorer in the NHL. However, Boyes (a former teammate of my brother) has seen his goal totals decline over the past couple of seasons, and he will be looking to bounce back in a big way this season. The Blues do have a number of other players who will be looking to boost their offensive numbers this season. David Backes is a centerman who is a big presence and can score goals in the tough areas. David Perron is a very talented winger with some good hands, although he is still learning the NHL game. TJ Oshie and Patrick Berglund will both be looking to get back to their rookie seasons where they really excelled. Andy McDonald is the old man of the group, and it is hoped that he will be able to get Boyes going. The Blues lost Tkachuk and Kariya, so some of their offense has left them, and it will be up to the young players to step and up and fill their shoes. The Blues also lost one of their top prospects (Lars Eller) in the trade for Jaroslav Halak, but his impact probably would have been minimal this season. Overall, this was a team that scored 218 goals last season, 17th in the NHL. One area where the Blues are going to look to improve is on the power play, where they were under 17% for the season. The Blues are going to look to get some added offense from the blueline as well. Right now, Erik Johnson is their quarterback on the defense, but he only had 39 points last year. The Blues are hoping that their top prospect, Alex Pietrangelo, will make the team and contribute some offense during his rookie season.
Defense: The Blues have a good stable of defensemen led by Johnson, the former #1 overall pick. He missed 2008-09 after a freak accident with a golf cart (insert "golfing because the team sucks" joke here), and had a nice season last year. He will be looking to continue his development on the top pair. The Blues have resident dickhead Barret Jackman, who is a mean, physical defenseman who tends to cross the line legally. He's also the idiot that beat out Zetterberg for the Calder in 2006, but I think it's very obvious who has had the better career to this point. Roman Polak is also another steady defenseman, and logged a lot of important minutes for the Blues last year in a shut-down role. The captain of the team is Eric Brewer, but he has really struggled with injuries the last few years, and his play seems to have really taken a nosedive. Pietrangelo is expected to make the team and start his career with the Blues this season, and it will be interesting to see what type of impact he has on the team. Up front, the Blues use Jay McClement in a checking role, and he has BJ Crombeen on his line to add some grit. This is a good group, and should not be overlooked. The Blues finished 12th overall in team defense, so they are not far off from being seen as one of the real strong defensive teams in the league. A large part of that was due to their #1 ranked penalty killing unit, which had an 86% success rate. If the Blues can get even close to that number again, they will once again be a very hard team to score against.
Goaltending: The Blues really upgraded when they traded for Jaroslav Halak earlier this summer. I think we are all aware of the stellar run he went on with the Canadiens last spring, and while I don't think it's possible for him to keep up that pace of play for an 82 game season, the Blues are banking on him giving them 50-60 quality starts this season. Goaltending was a bit of a problem last year, not in terms of the numbers, but in terms of situational play. I heard more than one Blues fan last year comment on the fact that Mason would be prone to giving up a bad goal at a real inopportune time, and this cost them some much needed points. Halak gives the Blues a little stability and a huge upside for the future. If he can replicate the numbers that Mason put up last year, I think Blues fans will be happy. However, I know that they are expecting bigger things from him, and with good reason. Should Halak have a tough stretch, the Blues can turn to Ty Conklin, a man that all Wing fans are very familiar with. Conks is one of the better backup goalies in the NHL, as evidenced by the fact he kept the Wings in the race during 2008-09 when Osgood was having his issues. He's a solid goalie that the Blues can count on should they need to switch things up or if Halak is struggling. Combined with their strong team defense, the Blues should not be giving up a lot of goals next season.
Coaching: Like the Blue Jackets, the Blues fired their coach midway through last season, and brought up the coach of their AHL affiliate, Davis Payne. He really helped turn the Blues around, and his record was 23-15-4 after he took over, including a very strong finish to the season. Given the youth of the Blues, he seems like the perfect coach to be in charge, as he is used to working with younger, developing players. Given the Blues accomplishments on defense last year, it's very obvious that he stresses accountability and hard work. Like Scott Arniel, I am not overly familiar with Payne, but looking at their record before and after he took over, it sure looks like they responded positively to him. Whether that carries over to this season remains to be seen, but the Blues obviously believe he is the guy who will lead them back to the playoffs.
Player to Watch: It has to be Halak. The Blues believe that he is the goalie that will get them back into the playoffs since they traded away their best prospect. I think he's going to be good this season, but if Blues fans are expecting the torrid pace that he set in April/May during the Habs' run, I think they will be disappointed. I don't think that Halak is the "make-or-break" player for the Blues, because they have offensive issues to work out. But if he falters during the season and is unable to play well, the Blues could once again find themselves on the outside looking in.
Player with Something to Prove: I like Brad Boyes a lot, especially since I kind of know him from playing with my brother (and by "kind of know him" I mean that I said hi to him once and he nodded at me). He is 2 years removed from a 40 goal season, and a lot was expected of him last year. Unfortunately for him, his goal total fell off a cliff, and he needs to get back to his pace from a couple of years ago since the Blues have lost Tkachuk and Kariya. This is a very young team, and at 28, Boyes is one of the veterans on the team. If the Blues want any chance of getting back to the playoffs, Boyes is going to have to become a consistent scoring threat again.
Why They Can Win the Division: They have a very good defense and now should have consistent goaltending. With these facets of their game being solid, the Blues can focus on improving their offense. Defense and goaltending will keep the Blues in a lot of games, and should allow them to rack up points. However, I just don't see them as true contenders - yet.
Why They Won't Win the Division: While I believe the Blues have upgraded in net, they still have something to prove on offense. Losing Tkachuk and Kariya are going to be big blows, especially since Tkachuk had a good season last year. Their defense and goaltending may be pretty good, but I don't think they have the offense to keep up with the Wings and Hawks.
My Prediction: The Blues are still a few years away from being true contenders. However, this season, they are going to be very hard to play against. They have one of the better defensive corps in the division, and Halak gives them a legitimate #1 goalie. They will continue to have problems scoring goals, but the potential is there for an offensive outburst. If the young forwards can get back to playing the way they did in 2008-09, a playoff appearance is not entirely out of the question. This is also a very young team, and under a new coach, this could be the start of their ascension in the division and the conference. They are going to be one of the most competitive teams in the conference this year, but I am just not sure that they have the talent to really contend for anything beyond a playoff spot and first round exit.