The Blues rolled into the postseason as the second seed in the Western Conference, finishing with 109 points. Their Central Division rivals -- Detroit, Chicago and Nashville -- had them well-tested for the postseason. Unfortunately, St. Louis was swept out of the conference semi-final round by Cup champions Los Angeles. The four-game sweep was hard to swallow, but the Blues should return as a top contender out west.
The outlook didn't look this rosy early on last year when St. Louis was 6-7 and fired head coach Davis Payne. The team took off under new head coach, Ken Hitchcock, going 7-1-2 in his first 10 games as bench leader. The coaching change was certainly significant in the team's turnaround, but the slow start coincided with poor play from No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak. If not for the good work of backup Brian Elliott, Payne may have been sacked sooner. Once Halak righted himself, the Blues clamped down on opponents, playing the way a team ranked 22nd in goal scoring must play in order to win games -- their defense allowed a league-fewest 26 shots per game, while the goalies were brilliant.
Heading into the 2012-13 season, the Blues need an injection of scoring. Full seasons from David Perron, Alex Steen and Andy McDonald will help. When healthy, the Blues skate three scoring lines. A key will be how Chris Stewart responds to an off year. The Blues also anticipate the addition of 2010 first-round draft pick Vladimir Tarasenko. With a couple of defensemen who can generate offense, Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Blues should score more.
The stability of the franchise is set with a new ownership group that signaled its commitment by re-signing key pieces, including an extension for Hitchcock. They now have the capital to attract a free agent if need be. And a pipeline of young talent, draft picks selected during recent lean years, is arriving. The franchise is set to be a contender in the Western Conference for the next few seasons.
THE BIG GUNS
David Backes (C): The captain returns to anchor the Blues' top line. Backes entered the NHL as a right winger, but now brings the same power forward mentality to the center position. He led the Blues with 24 goals last season and tied for the team lead with 54 points. It doesn't really matter who lines up with Backes on the first line, as he has established an on-ice rapport with several wingers. He doesn't get a lot of ink, but Backes produces in several categories while maintaining a good plus-minus ratio for the Blues. He'll be a safe, if under the radar, selection in all fantasy formats, especially leagues that reward penalty minutes.
David Perron (RW): As a restricted free agent, Perron signed a multi-year deal with the Blues in the offseason and will return as the team's most potent scorer. After Perron proved he's past the concussion that wiped out his 2010-11 season, the Blues made him a top offseason priority. He scored a career-high 21 goals and did it in just 57 games. More than any other forward on the team, Perron is the one most likely to top the 30-goal mark. He's definitely top-six material, most likely on the second line with Patrik Berglund, and he'll see time on the power play as well.
Alex Pietrangelo (D): Pietrangelo is the unquestioned leader on the defense for the Blues and the team's leader in minutes played. It was a slow offensive start for Pietrangelo in 2011-12, but for the second straight season, he had a stellar second half -- 40 of his 51 points came in the final 44 games from January through the end of the regular season. Don't get down on him if he's not putting up the offense right away. He will. Like many top defensemen in the league, Pietrangelo is on ice for both special teams, with 24 points coming on the power play. He should be one of the top five defensemen selected in any draft.
ON THE RISE
Kevin Shattenkirk (D): Shattenkirk, who had a reputation of an offensive defenseman after his 43-point rookie season in 2010-11, did nothing to dispel that notion when he threw up another 43 points in 81 games in his first full season as a Blue last season. Only this time, he brought more to the defensive end, finishing the season tied for second on the team at plus-20 rating. He's overshadowed by teammate Alex Pietrangelo, but the two give the Blues great offensive potential from the blue line. The organization would like to see Shattenkirk continue to round out his game, but it is also in need of the offense he brings. Five of his nine goals and 18 of his 43 points came on the man advantage. If he's paired with a defensive specialist, like Roman Polak or Barrett Jackman, Shattenkirk can continue to push the offense in 2012-13.
T.J. Oshie (RW): Oshie earned himself a five-year contract extension this past season after playing a career-high 80 games and posting highs in goals (19), assists (35) and points (54). More importantly, Oshie proved to overcome off-ice maturity issues that dogged him in 2010-11. He skated on a one-year deal last season as the franchise looked for some personal growth from the do-everything forward. The organization now believes he's a committed team member and regards him, David Perron, and Alex Pietrangelo as the core young players. Oshie has shown good chemistry with several other forwards, but did his best work on the first line with David Backes. He's not going to be the scorer that Perron is, but his versatility is valued and he brings relentless energy at both ends. A 60-70 point season is not out of the question for Oshie.
TWO TO WATCH
Vladimir Tarasenko (C): After some conflicting reports, Tarasenko signed a contract with the Blues and it is believed he'll land a roster spot. The 2010 first-round draft pick, who spent the last two seasons in the KHL, has made overtures that he's not coming to North America to play in Peoria (AHL). But there won't be a spot available for him on the top six -- at least not yet -- in St. Louis. The Blues are high on the prospect, but he won't be handed a plum job right away. We'll have to see how his talent mixes in with other players during training camp, and to see if Tarasenko is ready for the NHL. At best, he'll land a spot on the third line.
Vladimir Sobotka (LW): Sobotka became a favorite of head coach Ken Hitchcock, largely because of the flexibility he provides. He plays both center and wing, though Hitchcock prefers he play out on the wing. St. Louis is a bit thin at center, so we could see him return there. He was a good faceoff guy last year, winning 56.1 percent, which was second on the team among the players that lined up for more than 200 draws. Because of injuries the past two years, Sobotka has had some time on scoring lines, though it hasn't translated to a full-time top-six role. He's been effective as a role player and should get ample playing time on the third line. He plays both ends of the ice, is tenacious on the forecheck and doesn't mind throwing his body around (152 hits, fourth on team).
Chris Stewart (RW): Stewart has much to prove entering the 2012-13 season. After two consecutive 28-goal seasons, Stewart dropped off to 15 last year and was viewed by the organization as being out of shape. The Blues signed him to a one-year deal in the offseason, with the intent of having Stewart mature into a proper professional. That same strategy worked with T.J. Oshie, who wised up and now has a five-year deal in his pocket. Stewart signed on with a professional training and nutrition group in the offseason, so he seems to realize the crossroads at which his career currently sits. St. Louis head coach Ken Hitchcock continues to refer to Stewart as a top-six forward, though the coach often relegated him to third- and sometimes fourth-line duty last season. Hitchcock will likely start Stewart on the second line with Patrik Berglund and perhaps David Perron. There were predictions that Stewart would blossom into a 30-goal scorer prior to the 2011-12 season; nobody is making that prediction now.
Brian Elliott (G): Elliott surprised the hockey world, with stellar goaltending in 2011-12, leading the NHL in save percentage and goals-against per game. He held the Blues in place early on while Jaroslav Halak struggled during the month October. His efforts prompted the Blues to offer him a two-year contract extension -- something the journeyman netminder jumped at. Elliott and Halak essentially shared the job, with Elliott getting 36 starts in the regular season and then taking over full time when Halak injured his ankle in the first-round playoff series against the Sharks. Elliott's Cinderella season finally ended when his regular-season performance didn't show up in the second round as the Blues were swept out by eventual Cup champion Los Angeles. While the series sweep was by no means his fault alone -- St. Louis managed just six goals in the four games -- Elliott played above his head for most of the season. Halak's offseason rehab has gone well and he is slated to be the team's No. 1 goalie entering the 2012-13 season. Elliott will be the trusted backup, but he'll need Halak to struggle in order to come close to the 40-start mark.
HOT (OR NOT?) PROSPECTS
Jaden Schwartz (C): Schwartz, a first-round pick in 2010, made the move from Colorado College to St. Louis late in the regular season and got his first taste of the NHL, playing seven regular-season games though not suiting up for the nine playoff games. The Blues are crowded with young forwards, so we don't expect to see the offensively gifted Schwartz as a top-six player this coming season -- but eventually he will be. Schwartz could land a spot on the roster, but there's a very likely chance he'll start the season in Peoria. He'll get the opportunity in training camp to be one of the top 13 or 14 forwards, but the franchise is more concerned that he's playing good minutes nightly.
Jake Allen (G): Allen, 22, is the Blues' goalie of the future and has been the past two seasons while he's honed his craft in the AHL for Peoria. After sharing the Peoria net for much of that time with Ben Bishop, Allen became the unquestioned No. 1 when the Blues traded Bishop midseason. Allen was perhaps the best goalie in the AHL during the 2010-11 season, but failed to come close to that standard last season. It wasn't until the end of January that he got his save percentage north of .900, and his goals-against average stayed above 3.00 until late March. The Rivermen weren't a great bunch in front of him, but Allen needs to play better. The poor season put a little tarnish on him. It will be good see how he bounces back from his first professional adversity. The Blues are locked in at goal for the next two years with Jaro Halak and Brian Elliott, so Allen must continue to work on his game in Peoria.
Ty Rattie (LW): Rattie, 19, lit up the Western Hockey League with 57 goals and 121 points in 69 games for the Portland Winterhawks. The output represented big jumps from his season before (28 goals, 79 points in 67 games). There's nothing wrong with Rattie's offense, but he needs to add bulk and improve in his own zone. He checked into the Blues' prospects orientation at 173 pounds, up 10 from last summer. He'll get another year in the WHL, but will likely need a year or two in the AHL before he's ready for the NHL game.