(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to p sreview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
The St. Louis Blues entered the truncated 2012-13 season with great expectations, following a 109-point season under Ken Hitchcock in the previous campaign. They had the coaching, the goaltending and the bright young talent to contend for the Stanley Cup, said the pundits.
Yet at the end of March, the Blues were outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference, thanks to key players underperforming and a few injuries. GM Doug Armstrong got aggressive, acquiring Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold around the trade deadline. The defense solidified, goalie Brian Elliott recaptured his game and the Blues surged into the playoffs in the No. 4 seed.
Alas, their run would end in the first round with a quarterfinals loss to the defending champion Los Angeles Kings in six games.
Have the Blues learned enough from their misfires to finally contend for the Cup? Have they done enough in the offseason to take the next step?
Jake Allen is a fairly talented goaltender.
The biggest move in the offseason came when St. Louis traded David Perron, a career Blues player, to the Edmonton Oilers for winger Magnus Paajarvi, who brings offensive potential and a friendlier contract.
Derek Roy was signed for 1 year and $4 million in an attempt to bolster the Blues' scoring at center. Maxim Lapierre signed for two years to add more agitation to the St. Louis lineup. Keith Aucoin was signed from the Islanders. Veteran Brenden Morrow found a home with the Blues on the wing. We imagine his relationships with the GM, coach and some guy named Hull didn't hurt.
Kris Russell was traded to the Flames, while Jamie Langenbrunner was among the players the Blues opted not to bring back. Andy MacDonald, sadly, retired.
Forward: Quick ... who led the St. Louis Blues in scoring last year?
The answer is Chris Stewart, much to everyone's surprise. But the shortened season lessened the negative impact of his streakiness, and the power forward led the Blues in goals and points en route to a new 2-year, $8.3-million contact. He'll be paired with Derek Roy, as the Blues hope to get the most out of both investments. Sophomore Vladimir Tarasenko, whose brilliant rookie season was derailed by injury, could get a look with them. So could Morrow. But it appears Jaden Schwartz will have the first chance to solidify that role.
David Backes took a step back last season offensively, posting the worst goals-per-game (0.13) of his career. Patrik Berglund, however, posted the best goal-scoring numbers of his career with 17 in 48 games.
Backes will skate with T.J. Oshie again this season, and they've seen time with Alex Steen. Berglund, meanwhile, has been centering a tantalizing offensive line with Paajarvi and Tarasenko.
Vladimir Sobotka should have the final center spot locked down, and the Blues have a slew of players -- Morrow, Chris Porter, Dmitrij Jaskin, Lapierre, Reaves, Adam Cracknell and others -- who could skate with him.
Defense: His contract issues settled, Alex Pietrangelo can refocus on blossoming into the Norris-caliber D-man he seems destined to become. He led the Blues in average ice time (25:07) last season and was their leading defensive scorer. His pairing with Bouwmeester proved so beneficial that the Blues handed J-Bouw a new contract as well. (And hey, he finally played in the playoffs. Yippee!)
Kevin Shattenkirk, who may have stolen the spotlight from Petro at times last season, had 23 points last season He skated with Leopold last season, but could see time with veteran stay-at-homer Barret Jackman. Leopold, meanwhile, could be with Roman Polak, as Ian Cole waits his turn.
Goalies: A blessing of riches or a major headache. Elliott regained his form after a disastrous start (darn new contract!) to post a 2.28 GAA in 24 games. Jaroslav Halak had a better GAA (2.14) but was just 6-5-1 on the season. Enter rookie Jake Allen, who had the best save percentage (.904) of the three and was 9-4 for the Blues. He's on a two-way contract, which means he's the odd-man out, but Allen's making things very uncomfortable for both incumbents.
Armstrong aggressively made his blue line better at the trade deadline last season, but hasn't made the same splash at the forward spot. Roy could work, Morrow could find his game again, but overall Armstrong is giving the players on the roster the chance to find the right mix. The Perron trade was a wake-up call that the Blues aren't content with one-and-done playoff appearances.
Ken Hitchcock is one of the best coaches in hockey, and someone that's shown he can get this team playing great hockey in the regular season. He's built a strong foundation, and now gets his first training camp with the team to reinforce it. Can he finally get this group over the hump in the postseason?
Say, have you heard the news?
Alex Pietrangelo. You could do a lot worse than building your team around a 23-year-old star defenseman. He leads one of the better blue lines in the conference.
The goaltending. Having three No. 1s when others can't seem to establish one seems greedy.
Backes. It's an Olympic year. You know he's coming to play.
The offense. The Blues are never going to be a scoring juggernaut, but they've yet to find offensive consistency under Hitchcock or reach the heights of their 2010-11 campaign of 2.88 goals per game.
The Blues should be right there with Chicago for the Central Division title, and then the real season starts. They have the players. They have the goaltending. They just need to put it all together. And, perhaps, avoid playing the LA Kings. That too.