When the Blues reached the playoffs in 2009, the general sense was that they were ahead of schedule – a mix of preternatural youth and the best stretch of goaltender Chris Mason's career put the Blues in the postseason for the first time in three seasons. Now, with St. Louis on schedule, they've finished on the outside the last two seasons. A mix of factors has conspired against the Blues, but this young and talented team should be playing hockey late in April and beyond. Injuries certainly hit hard last year. David Perron missed all but 10 games due to a concussion – an injury that will prevent him from the start of the 2011-12 training camp. He was joined in the press box at various times by T.J. Oshie (broken ankle), Andy McDonald (concussion) and Jaroslav Halak (hand).
Halak had other problems. When St. Louis acquired him from Montreal in the offseason, for the first time in his NHL career Halak, a 2003 ninth-round draft choice, was anointed a team's No. 1 goalie. Initially, Halak was brilliant and had the Blues near the top of the Western Conference, but eventually the grind of being the No. 1 wore on him. His fitness to handle the night-in, night-out rigors in 2011-12 has got to be better. He'll be under closer scrutiny to produce with a healthy squad that is expected to qualify for the postseason.
To some extent, Halak gets a pass as the team wasn't healthy. Injuries not only remove a high-minute starter from the rotation, they also result in replacements becoming important contributors. As can be the case with young teams, quality depth is the final piece. The Blues didn't have enough in place when injuries hit. During this offseason, the club was able to add veterans Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner to short-term deals at limited expense. The days of those veterans being primary forwards are over, but they can certainly help fill out the third and fourth lines with capable scoring threats. And they'll be better than what the Blues can bring up from Peoria of the AHL. The new depth will be put to the test early on, especially if Perron remains out long term.
While those are the issues the Blues face on ice, the franchise has some off-ice drama. No outlook for the Blues is complete without mentioning the team's current ownership situation. Not to get all Wall Street on you, but ever since a major investment group decided to pull out early in 2010, the long-term financial picture became uncertain. Without economic certainty, the Blues have not been in a position to lure big-name free agents or take on long-term contracts in midseason trades. And that speaks directly to the ability to build a deep roster. The club is actively seeking to sell, but it's a buyer's market and the initial offers aren't appealing. Getting a committed buyer willing to invest in the team is needed to bring the most from a bunch that can no longer be considered as rebuilding.
THE BIG GUNS
David Backes (C): Backes re-emerged as a scoring threat on the Blues' top line in 2010-11, after a 14-goal drop the previous season. He also joined the 30-30-30 club, scoring 31 goals with 31 assists and a plus-32. We're seeing a maturing Backes, who showed a good two-way game and reduced the number of penalty minutes taken for the second straight season while still amongst the league leaders in hits. He's central to the Blues going forward after signing a five-year extension and is the first name brought up when discussion turns to putting a “C” on a sweater. Whether he remains at center or right wing, Backes will see first-line minutes as well as time on the power play.
Andy McDonald (LW): McDonald is still cranking in his mid-30s, posting 50 points in 58 games last season while ranking third on the team at 20 minutes per game. A midseason concussion forced him to miss significant time, but he finished strong, averaging a point-per-game over the final 33 games. When healthy, he'll continue to be featured offensive threat on St. Louis' top line and on the first power play.
Chris Stewart (RW): Stewart looked good early on in Colorado, picking up 25 points in the first 23 games before breaking his hand in November. He struggled to produce after a six-week hiatus and fell out of Avalanche coach Joe Sacco's good graces. So much so, that the Avalanche traded him away in early February to St. Louis, where he re-found his scoring touch. In his 26 games with the Blues, Stewart scored 15 goals (seven on power play) with eight assists and has positioned himself as a top scorer for the Blues heading into the 2011-12 season.
ON THE RISE
Alex Pietrangelo (D): It looks like the Blues played it just right with Pietrangelo, giving him just enough time in the AHL to develop before handing him an important role with the major league club in 2010-11. He showed improvement over the course of the season, posting a plus-18 with 11 goals and 32 assists. Though there are better true defenders on the roster, Pietrangelo is the unquestioned No. 1 and offensive leader from the blue line. He's expected to quarterback the power-play unit and we should see more offense as he becomes comfortable taking chances.
Patrik Berglund (RW): Berglund made the necessary adjustments in his game in 2010-11, leading to career-highs in goals and assists, including a team-leading eight goals on the power play. It wasn't just the drop off in points during his sophomore season that had the St. Louis organization wondering about Berglund, but it was his unwillingness to play in the tough spaces in front of the net or use his size. More than any player on the roster, the organization is looking for Berglund to break out this season. He'll center the Blues' second line and see time on the power play.
TWO TO AVOID
Matt D'Agostini (RW): D'Agostini was a nice surprise for the Blues in 2010-11, forcing the team to re-sign him in the offseason coming off a breakout 21-goal, 25-assist season. When injuries hit, D'Agostini was forced to play top-six minutes and was part of the power play, showing some scoring ability and a booming shot. He also turned around a minus-32 the past two seasons to register a plus-8. All sounds good, but it was injuries that gave D'Agostini the shot, and it's no guarantee he gets the same opportunity this season as the Blues became deeper in the offseason. He's likely to open the season on the third line where the Blues could use a little scoring touch, but repeating last season's success may be tough if he's forced to play third-line minutes all season long.
Jamie Langenbrunner (RW): Langenbrunner's slide continued in 2010-11, when he posted just nine goals and 23 assists in 70 games for New Jersey and Dallas. Several long point-less streaks and a minus-18 marked his long season. In St. Louis, Langenbrunner will bounce between a third- and fourth-line winger, though he does give the young team a needed veteran. It may turn out that Langenbrunner develops chemistry with some top-six forwards along the way and force his way into more minutes, but he starts the season in a support role.
Jaden Schwartz (C): The Blues have a good one in Schwartz, the reigning WCHA Rookie of the Year for Colorado College, for whom he scored a team-high 47 points in 30 games. An ankle injury cost him six weeks, but he was able to pick up where he left off upon his return in February. He helped lead the Tigers in a first-round ouster of defending champion Boston College before bowing out of the NCAA tournament one win shy of the Frozen Four. He's set to return for his sophomore season at CC. A gifted passer and scorer, the Blues are anxiously waiting for Schwartz to add some heft to his frame.
Vladimir Tarasenko (RW): Tarasenko, 19, overcame a shoulder injury mid-season and had a relatively successful year in Russia. He has decided to skate for one more season in the KHL after a year of speculation that he would bring his offensive skill to North America in 2011-12. Another year of development in Russia may help in the long run, but the Blues were hoping to get him here for the season, even if it were in the AHL. And that may be the reason why Tarasenko decided to stay for another season. He'd like to have a spot on the NHL roster.
Jake Allen (G): The Blues are waiting on Allen, who was a leading a goalie in the AHL for much of the season before tailing off after February. The 20-year-old was the No. 1 goalie at Peoria in his first year at the level and posted six shutouts in 47 starts. The Blues brought in veteran Brian Elliott on a two-way contract, but 2011-12 is all about giving Allen more experience. Another season as the Rivermen's top goalie is on tap for Allen.
Ian Cole (D): Cole, 21, played most of the season for AHL Peoria, but did make his NHL debut when injuries hit the St. Louis blue line. In 26 games, he registered four points and a plus-6, including a plus-8 in his final 13 games with the Blues. He'll compete with Nikita Nikitin and Kent Huskins for the final two spots, but the Blues will want him playing every day rather than having him sit around as a seventh defenseman.
Ty Rattie (LW): Rattie, selected early in the second round of the 2011 NHL draft by the Blues, is a highly skilled offensive player who dropped out of the first round due to concerns about his size. He was very productive for Portland of the WHL last season, but at 165 pounds, there were concerns about his long-term ability to sustain the rigors of NHL-sized defensemen. He's still just 18 and there's time to add the bulk -- he's reportedly up to 175 this offseason -- and that will be his challenge in the coming years.