The notion that St. Louis overachieved when qualifying for the playoffs two seasons ago was reinforced by a desultory 2009-10 campaign. The Blues delivered early promise with a two-game sweep of the Red Wings, but that quickly gave way to some annoying trends, with a lack of scoring punch serving as the chief problem. That went hand-in-hand with the regression of their young forwards and a curious lack of success on home ice.
Whether the impotent offense or coach Andy Murray’s incessant tinkering came first, was not important. St. Louis management had to do something to break a mid-season malaise and replacing Murray was its lone option. Under interim coach Davis Payne, the team went 23-15-4 and improved their goals and shots per game, and power-play effectiveness. Payne, no longer “interim,” is responsible for getting Patrik Berglund and David Perron back on track, while coaxing more production from David Backes and Brad Boyes. The organization is losing an important investor and its long-term financial future is uncertain - that’s partially the reason they avoided splurging on a free-agent scorer, instead, opting for improvement from within.
Something that didn’t have the team singing the blues was its goaltending. Chris Mason was slightly above average, but needed to be better to make a difference. The Blues were ready to bring him back, when the Canadiens shocked them by making Jaroslav Halak available. Two days later, Halak was a Blue, and Mason needed to seek employment elsewhere. Halak, an unheralded ninth-round pick in 2003, is in position of being a No. 1 goalie, with little depth on his resume. The defense will be good in front of Halak, provided they stay healthy. Erik Johnson is an emerging talent, but the Blues will be counting on some youth. Alex Pietrangelo, 20, and Ian Cole, 21, will compete for regular work on the blue line.
St. Louis features little in the way of veteran depth – in St. Louis and in Peoria (AHL). After losing Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Darryl Sydor and Mike Weaver, it’s time for the next generation of Blues to emerge.
THE BIG GUNS
Andy McDonald (C): Coming off an ankle injury that forced him to miss 36 games in 2008-09, McDonald led the Blues in scoring last season, and was the team’s most consistent producer of points from October to April. While leading a team that had trouble scoring isn’t saying much, his return from injury was certainly a boost for the Blues, who disappointed in so many facets of the game. He is set to return as the team’s top center and fixture on the No. 1 power-play unit, likely working with David Perron and David Backes.
David Backes (RW): It’s looking like Backes’ 31 goals in 2008-09 was a spike year after he fell back to 17 tallies, while his shooting percentage dropped 4.5-percent last season. At 26 years old, the U.S. Olympian is still young and entering the final year of his contract, so there’s youth and motivation on his side. The Blues did nothing to upgrade its scoring punch in the offseason, so Backes returns as a top-six forward, most likely skating as a right wing on the first line, and with the first power-play unit.
T.J. Oshie (LW): Oshie overcame an appendectomy early in the season to play 76 games, and finished tied for second on the team with 48 points (18 G, fourth on the team). Of the Blues’ kid forwards, Oshie was the most consistent, and more of a two-way player than either Patrik Berglund or David Perron. At some point we’d like to see him at center, but his versatility means he’ll have another year playing the wing, most likely on the second line, centered by Berglund with Brad Boyes on the other wing.
ON THE RISE
Alex Steen (LW): The former first-round-pick’s season took off in late December, when he started on a run that included his registering 43 points in as many games. He finished with a career high in goals (24), assists (23) and points (47). After suffering a wrist injury early in the season, Steen played mostly on the third line and penalty kill, but his scoring touch (12.7 shooting percentage) led to a spot on the power-play unit, where he led the team with seven goals. He picked a good time to have a career year, as he was signed to a four-year contract in the offseason. Steen and newly acquired netminder Jaroslav Halak are the Blues’ longest commitments at this point. That says a lot about how the organization feels about Steen, who will reprise his role on the third line, while seeing time on both special-team units.
David Perron (LW): Perron hit the 20-goal mark in 2008-09, the second straight season that he’s increased his scoring. But that is to be expected from the 22-year-old, who saw his ice time increase, as well. On a team in need of goal scoring, he’s considered one of the Blues’ top marksmen. If only he had a sense of the other parts of the game (defending, decision making, maturity), the Blues really might have something special here. He’s a top-six forward on this team, likely to start the season as a first-line left winger along with Andy McDonald and David Backes.
Erik Johnson (D): Johnson, 22, came back in 2009-10 after missing the previous season because of a knee injury. It’s believed that he was still limited by the knee early on, and judging by his improved second-half numbers, there appears to be some credence in that belief. He had six goals and 14 points in his final 23 games. Johnson is the best the Blues have on defense in the transition game, and he’ll also be a mainstay on the power play. He should start the season on the top defensive pairing and easily play 22-25 minutes a night.
TWO TO AVOID
Patrik Berglund (C): No Blue disappointed more than Berglund in 2009-10, and that’s saying something considering the volume of underachievers on last season’s team. He played with little aggression and was easily taken off the puck, while dropping 21 points from his rookie season. The 21-year-old was a healthy scratch on a few occasions and even rode the pine one game for showing up late to practice. His ice time also decreased in his second season. Berglund will be given every opportunity to regain his rookie form, and will likely start as a second-line center. But he didn’t draw a lot of support last season and will not be given a long leash as a top-six forward in 2010-11.
Brad Boyes (RW): Boyes is no longer considered St. Louis’ top threat after falling off to 14 goals in 2009-10. He certainly didn’t benefit from Andy Murray’s tinkering with line combinations, but Boyes wasn’t an ideal marksman, scoring just 7.1-percent of his shots. He was on-and-off the power play and scored just two man-advantage goals., after posting 27 in the previous two seasons. The Blues made him available late in the season, but there were no takers at $4.25 million over each of the next two seasons. A bounce-back season is not out of the question for the 28-year-old winger, but we suggest not leaping too early to draft him.
Alex Pietrangelo (D): Pietrangelo had another productive season at the junior level and will make the jump in 2009-10. Does that mean the AHL or the NHL? At this point, there's an opening for a sixth defender on the Blues' blue line because the team opted not to re-sign Mike Weaver. The Blues could use the offensively-skilled Pietrangelo in their transition game, but he's not likely to crack the top four this coming season.
Ian Cole (D): Cole, 21, got a taste of professional hockey when he joined the Peoria Rivermen of the AHL for the final nine games of their season. He left a good impression in his nine games, which isn't surprising. The Blues felt he was ready for the pro game last year, but he opted for one more year of college. He's got the size to be effective in his own end, but his real skill is in the transition game.
Vladimir Tarasenko (RW): Tarasenko was the 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft. He has one more year on his KHL deal (Russia), and we expect Tarasenko in North America by the 2011-12 season. He’s a gifted offensive player, with a booming shot but also features some playmaking skills. At the moment, he’s all offense and has a ways to go to become a two-way player.
Jaden Schwartz (C): Schwartz, 18, has committed to playing for Colorado College in 2010-11, but the Blues don't mind. He's small and will need to bulk up some and become a faster skater for the pro game. Schwartz led the USHL in scoring with 83 points and had 33 goals for the Tri-City Storm. Offensively, he's very skilled, is a good puck-handler and has a nose for scoring. He has very good hockey sense, and plays reasonably well on defense.