September 26, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Tenth in the Western Conference (34-35-13, 81 points). There was a bit of a tease earlier in the season, as the St. Louis Blues came out of the gate with a 14-8-1 record heading into December. Center Brad Boyes was a revelation, scoring 15 goals during that stretch while playing with Blues veterans like Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk.
But a 6-12-5 streak in the second half of the season derailed any hope of contention, leaving the Blues out of the postseason for third consecutive season: Incredibly, the longest streak in franchise history.
Rather than attempt to fix the team's problems with outside talent, Blues President John Davidson publically said he saw the franchise like a small-market baseball team; one with occasional dips into free agency, but one that attempts to home-grow a winner.
Which, to put it in local hardball terms, is the difference between being the Cardinals and being the Royals, isn't it?
A Blue's season ending on a golf course in September? What are the odds?
Homecoming King (Top Player): With Johnson out of the lineup, Boyes yet to prove he's more than a one-hit wonder and the rest of the team rather inconsistent, the honors fall to Paul Kariya. His numbers, and his goal-scoring in particular, slipped in his first season after signing as a free agent with the Blues. But Kariya deserves credit for getting Boyes going and for leading the team in power play points; lord knows what that special teams unit would have looked like without him.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): David Perron's offensive numbers were tremendous for most of his first 62 games in the NHL, but he hit the wall in March while posting just two assists. But he was the team's most productive offensive player outside of the top line, and will hopefully see more ice time and responsibility this season.
Best Expulsion (Addition by Subtraction): Among the players who won't be back are those who were practically placeholders for newer models: RW Jamal Mayers and LW Martin Rucinsky, for example. The team could miss center Ryan Johnson; then again, you can never trust the judgment of someone who allegedly dated and dumped Erin Andrews.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Goalie Chris Mason deserves credit for not packing up his gear and deciding to get a job as a fry cook at Fuddruckers. His numbers for the Nashville Predators weren't disastrous, but Mason was unable to keep the starting job that was handed to him after the Predators parted ways with Tomas Vokoun. He and Manny Legace could make for a dependable duo.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): The Blues bring some muscle to the proceedings. Winger D.J. King led the team with 100 penalty minutes, while players like David Backes (RW) and Barret Jackman (D) knuckled up while also playing key roles for the team. The team had 53 fights last season; but for the sake of novelty, we place the spotlight on Cam Janssen, the first St. Louis Blues player to be born in the St. Louis area.
Teacher of the Year: In many ways, Andy Murray has a more challenging job than most coaches in the NHL. Not because the Blues are a bad team -- OK, not just because they're a bad team -- but because Murray is having to be equal parts tactician and teacher for players like Perron, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie. He is as important a part of the growth of this franchise as anyone, literally responsible for shaping good or poor habits for the Blues' future stars. On top of everything, Murray is taking over the team's awful power play. How many plates can this guy spin at once?
The Custodians (Goalies): Legace had a winning record in 66 games for the Blues, which is nothing short of outstanding. His numbers (2.41 GAA and a .911 save percentage) were equally impressive, improving from his first season of split-duty with the Blues. He remains a solid citizen in the locker room, and welcome veteran voice. And he's playing for a contract.
Having Mason there to push him, and vice versa, can only be a good thing. St. Louis isn't facing any political concerns in playing one or the other. The Blues simply have two veteran goalies vying for time, and the hottest hand will likely punch the clock.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): The loss of Erik Johnson obviously changes the makeup of this group. But the good news is that the team's two veteran workhorses -- Eric Brewer (24:38 TOI per game) and Barret Jackman (22:24) -- are back, and the team will also have a steady veteran hand in Jay McKee. Steve Wagner (24 years-old) and Jeff Woywitka (25) are in the mix behind the veterans. Fast-skating Roman Polak has made an impact in the preseason, as has 2008 first-round pick Alex Pietrangelo.
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): "It was a quiet 43 goals in this league and I don't know why ... If he scored 43 in New York or Toronto, it might be a different story. I just don't know if people appreciate his skill level." - St. Louis Blues President John Davidson on forward Brad Boyes.
It's a very fair point from JD. In his feature story on Boyes, St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Jeremy Rutherford reinforces the diss by mentioning that Boyes wasn't named to any if the NHL's postseason all-star teams; despite scoring more goals (43) than either Marian Gaborik or Dany Heatley. For a player that was in rather elite company last season, there hasn't exactly been a recognition of achievement or a buzz of anticipation for Boyes this off-season. There are two reasons why.
First is the sense that he's a one-hit wonder -- a player who cashed in on scoring chances while skating with Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk, who could probably turn Cam Janssen into a 15-goal scorer. (OK, maybe 10. Alright, five.) The fact that he had just 22 assists doesn't argue against that characterization; not only was his assist total the lowest among the top 40 goal-scorers in the NHL last season, but he failed to break his own career best point total (69) in a 43-goal season, which is stunning.
The second reason, which dovetails into the first, is that Boyes is a streaky, ultimately unreliable scorer who simply had the hot hand last year. Eight goals in January, three goals in February; that sort of thing.
The jury is out on Boyes. It needs to be. But that doesn't mean he won't prove doubters wrong.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): The sure-things on the Blues roster are far outnumbered by the question marks, at least offensively. Can Lee Stempniak get back to the 52 points he had two years ago? How much will Andy McDonald improve on his 34 points combined from last season? How much do Yan Stastny, David Backes or David Perron improve? And what can be expected from pure rookies Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie?
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Defense: C+ (with Johnson, this goes up a grade)
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "Bacon Biscuit Blues" by Aerosmith. Because the team is named the Blues, its fans are singing them, and we all know that Keith Tkachuk wants nothing more than to drown his sorrows in an endless mountain of bacon, biscuits or both.
Expected Graduation: The Blues making the playoffs in the Western Conference this season would be nothing short of miraculous, and we're short on faith these days. The foundation is slowly being constructed, and hopefully the closer this team gets to contention the more Davidson will open the checkbook. Some big contracts go off the books after this season; waiting 'till next year might actually have some merit.