Like the Islanders and Thrashers, the Blues just never seem to be able to commit in a singular direction. After being one of the West’s powerhouses for two decades, including a string of 24 consecutive playoff appearances, the Blues are undergoing a youth movement and building the team up piece by piece. However, for a team that’s been dedicated to rebuilding, there is little to build upon in terms of young talent other than Erik Johnson. Sure, the Blues have some talented youngsters, but none of their forwards come with the same pedigree as Johnson, which could prove to be a big problem.
Don’t expect the Blues to be any better offensively than they were last year (26th). The Blues’ offense isn’t anything to be scared of, and if it wasn’t for Brad Boyes their offense could’ve very well finished dead last. Paul Kariya, their big free agent splash, had a disappointing year last year and proved to be a marginal factor to their success. The team’s counting on him to improve on last year’s campaign, but for a team that lacks a veteran leader on offense, Kariya’s a curious choice for the coaching staff to expect to shoulder the load. Kariya isn’t short on talent, that’s for sure, but he has stopped shooting the puck less and less every year and even during his glory days in Anaheim he was never touted as a leader. The same goes for the other veteran on the squad, Keith Tkachuk. Another one of the Blues’ surprise (27 goals were the most since the lockout, not to mention the only other player on the squad to pot 20+), Tkachuk has never really relished or excelled in a leadership role either. That means that the Blues will have to rely on their youngsters’ maturity to really improve themselves. Andy Murray is a methodical coach and isn’t the best guy to help along players with their ups and downs, but he makes his players accountable, not to mention he had reasonable success with a relatively young Kings squad as well. There will be growing pains for sure, especially for Jay McClement and Lee Stempniak, both of whom took a backwards step in their sophomore seasons. With so many question marks in the air, it means that Patrick Berglund and TJ Oshie will have to chip in regularly, and given the signs and noise they made during the preseason, it shouldn’t be too difficult, although it’s tough to gauge exactly how well the Blues’ youngsters will do until roughly 25 games into the season.
If the Blues have any strengths on their squad, it’d be on defense where, thanks to Murray’s X’s and O’s, the Blues’ penalty kill ranked 7th overall in the league – a stark contrast to the other aspects of their game, in which none were ranked higher than 21st. Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman return as the shut-down and franchise pair, and are expected to provide much leadership, on and off the ice, for the team, especially when the team’s two best prospects, Johnson and Alex Pietrangelo, are defensemen. Jay McKee hasn’t been the same shot-blocking robot since his Buffalo days, and injuries have shortened his games played in a Blues jersey, but when he’s in the lineup the Blues’ defense is as tough as any to get shots on net. The Blues will have plenty of young defensemen to choose from as the season goes along, and will very much have a defense-by-committee approach to the other three spots. Pietrangelo has started the season but it remains to be seen if he’ll stick around for the entire year.
Manny Legace isn’t starting material, and with Marek Schwarz‘s development coming along at a snail’s pace, management opted to sign Chris Mason, another goalie who isn’t quite number one material, to back up Legace. Neither goalie is expected to take this team anywhere, but merely stopgaps until the Blues can find a permanent situation to the problem, especially if Schwarz continues to struggle at the pro level. Legace played 66 games last year with a winning record, and it’ll be interesting to see how the Legace-Mason tandem pans out, and Murray may instead to opt for going with the hotter goalie, meaning it may result in a 50/50 split, which Legace won’t be too thrilled about, after having been backup for many a seasons.
The Blues aren’t challenging for anything, and the best part of it is, Larry Pleau and John Davidson know that. They’re not going to give up any young players for a shot at the Cup, and spending money for a short-term fix. They’re too smart for that. The Blues may not be a dangerous team (yet), but management has drafted well enough over the years to keep their pipeline stocked with some good talent. However, it’ll be a long re-building process, and perhaps another 3-4 years before we see the Blues return to the playoffs. Johnson and Pietrangelo are going to be fantastic defensemen, but nobody else in their pipeline in goal or up front come with the same pedigree. They still have a lot of work to do, but they’re definitely going in the right direction. The Blues are perhaps one top 5 draft pick away from seriously contending down the road, and this summer may be the summer the franchise forward lands in their lap.
Paul Kariya – Patrick Berglund – David Perron
Lee Stempniak – Andy McDonald – Brad Boyes
Keith Tkachuk – TJ Oshie – David Backes
Chris Porter – Jay McClement – Cam Janssen
Steve Wagner – Eric Brewer
Barret Jackman – Alex Pietrangelo
Roman Polak – Jay McKee
Manny Legace – Chris Mason
Coach: Andy Murray
GM: Larry Pleau
Predicted finish: 5th Central, 14th West