The way the St. Louis Blues began the 2010-11 season is just how coaches and fans dream. The 9-1-2 start was the best in franchise history, but it was Game 13 that would begin the quick fall from the top.
Roman Polak, T.J. Oshie and David Perron were all out of the lineup with various injuries and the Blues won just three of their 12, eventually finishing 38-33-11 (87 points), good enough for 11th in the Western Conference.
Four times last season the Blues followed up winning streaks of at least three games with losing streaks of at least three. That inconsistency sunk them in the always competitive Western Conference. Trying to provide a spark in the lineup, GM Doug Armstrong dealt and 2006 No. 1 overall pick Erik Johnson and Jay McClement to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and power forward Chris Stewart. While the deal will pay off in the long-run, it didn't in the short-term as St. Louis took just 26 of a possible 52 points after the trade.
There'll be new ownership at some point this season for the Blues, which could give Armstrong a bit more spending power to improve the team should they be in the position to tinker with the lineup. Having made the playoffs once since the lockout after 25 straight seasons of postseason hockey, Blues fans are aching for a return to what they were used to.
There wasn't a ton of turnover during the summer with the Blues keeping the payroll low. Hoping to surround the young talent in the room with experience veterans who know how to win, Armstrong brought in Jason Arnott (1-year, $2.875 million) and Jamie Langenbrunner (1-year, $2.75 million), who have three Stanley Cup rings between them.
Adding more depth on both ends of the ice, defenseman Kent Huskins and forward Scott Nichol were brought in
Armstrong took a gamble in the off-season inking Jonathan Cheechoo to a two-way deal hoping that the former 56-goal scorer can discover the touch that earned him the 2006 Rocket Richard Trophy. The 31-year old Cheechoo spent last season in the AHL netting 47 points in 55 games with Worcester. It's a low risk, high reward signing that Armstrong would love to see pay dividends once he works himself back up from Peoria of the AHL.
Backup goaltender Ty Conklin (1-year, $750,000) returned to Detroit to replace the retiring Chris Osgood behind starter Jimmy Howard. Taking Conklin's spot is Brian Elliott, who struggled last year in Ottawa and Colorado posting a 15-27-9 record and .893 save-percentage.
The other regular returning to his old team was Cam Janssen, who signed in New Jersey for $525,000 over one season leaving the tough guy duties to B.J. Crombeen.
At forward ... The last season acquisition of Shattenkirk and Stewart boosted the offense to averaging 3.31 goals/game the rest of the season. St. Louis finished 10th in the NHL with 2.88 GPG and were one of two non-playoff teams to crack the top-10.
Led by new captain and leading scorer David Backes (31 goals, 61 points), the Blues return six 20-goal scorers from last season. Depth scoring might be an issue, but being very top heavy hasn't affected their offense.
Blossoming before our eyes into an elite power forward is Stewart, who recorded his second straight 28 goal season and makes a formidable pairing with Backes up front.
Still young and coming into their own are Patrick Berglund and T.J. Oshie. Berglund took a step in the right direction with 22 goals a year ago after a big step back in 2009-10. Oshie, like the Blues, started strong posting eight points in the team's first nine games, but an ankle injury cause him to miss 31 games. Late in the season, Oshie missed practice and was suspended by the team for two games. He'll be a restricted free agent next summer, so a big year is expected out of him.
After missing 24 games with a concussion, Andy MacDonald returned to the St. Louis lineup strong netting 33 points in his final 33 games. He was also strong in the faceoff dot winning 59.3-percent of his draws.
Still suffering post-concussion syndrome, David Perron, who played just 10 games last season, will be with the team beginning this week after sitting out the start of training camp. The 23-year old Perron was coming off a career high 20 goals in 2009-10. Also off a career high entering last season was Alex Steen (20 goals, 51 points), who will need to work on his shooting accuracy after leading the Blues in missed shots with 120 and seeing his shooting percentage drop from 12.7-percent to 9.2-percent.
In his first full NHL season, Matt D'Agostini made the most of his 14:45 time on ice and opportunity in the big time by breaking out with 21 goals and 46 points.
Only five forwards played more than 70 games last season. There's a chance for huge numbers should their corps up front be able to stay healthy. It's inconsistency that killed the Blues last season.
On defense ... During St. Louis' hot start, the defense was one of their strong points, but then injuries to Polak and Barret Jackman brought things to a halt. The one bright side was the breakthrough of 2008 first rounder Alex Pietrangelo (11 goals, 43 points) who ended up leading the team in time on ice by the end of the season with 22 minutes/game.
The addition of Shattenkirk helped give from offense from the back as the rookie blueliner contributed 17 points in 26 games after coming over from Colorado. Same with Carlo Colaiacovo, who after struggling to find a home with the Toronto Maple Leafs, has settled in with the Blues and averaged eight goals and 29 points through his first three seasons in St. Louis.
Getting Polak and Jackman back healthy should improve a defense that finished 18th (2.78 goals/game) and help the Blues better their 14-13-11 record in 1-goal games last season. One bright spot, however, for the St. Louis defense was their 27.7 shots against per game average, good enough for second in the NHL.
In goal ... Jaroslav Halak rode his hot play during the 2010 playoffs with Montreal to a 4-year, $15 million deal with the Blues. In his first NHL season as the No. 1 goalie, he had his ups and downs finishing with a respectable 27-21-7 record, 2.48 goals against average and .910 save-percentage with seven shutouts. Handling the load as a regular No. 1 was a new experience and at times Halak was inconsistent. Sandwiched in the middle of last season a hand injury that cost him 13 games.
Brian Elliott is pegged to be Halak's backup, but 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop will fight for the backup job after getting in seven games last season.
Since taking over for Andy Murray during the 2008-09 season, the Blues have gone 61-48-15 under head coach Davis Payne. The team was snakebitten by injuries last season, but the strong 9-1-2 start was a good sign that Payne was getting a response from his players.
Doug Armstrong enters his second season as Blues GM after studying under the wing of long-time NHL executive Larry Pleau. St. Louis has a number of young impact players in the lineup and restocked the cupboard through the Draft. Being a little over $12 million from the salary cap will give Armstrong the opportunity to pull the trigger on another big move that could help the Blues towards a return to the postseason.
One of the final defense spots left to be determined is between Nikita Nikitin and Ian Cole. Nikitin stands to win that battle given his experience (seven years in the KHL) and the fact that he's on a 1-way contract compared to Cole's two-way deal. The 25-year old Russian played 41 games last season and got plenty of experience on the power play and penalty kill. Nikitin finished last season strong with five points in the final eight games.
"Injuries are no excuse. I get killed, like, once a month, and you don't hear me complaining."
Langenbrunner joined the Blues the same day as former New Jersey teammate Jason Arnott did. Last season, Langenbrunner's production dropped by almost 50-percent as he split time with the Devils and Dallas Stars. He's not getting any younger at age 36. Could new scenery in St. Louis mean a fresh start?
Our favorite NHL mascot, Louie, performs office pranks, shows off his acrobatic and dance skills, and takes care of opposing fans.
Remaining healthy will be a big issue. St. Louis' fast start was derailed by players leaving the lineup. David Perron's status is unknown, but there is plenty of offense within the lineup to keep the Blues afloat in the Central Division. The mix of vets with youth will help accelerate the development in some players, but will it be enough is the question.
A full season of blossoming star Chris Stewart will help ease the offensive burden of David Backes. With others like Andy MacDonald, Patrik Berglund, T.J. Oshi, Matt D'Agostini, and Alex Steen capable of chipping in, the pressure will be on the blueline to keep the Blues in games. St. Louis should be one of the bottom seeds in the Western Conference fighting it out for one of the final playoff spots when all is said and done.
- David Perron