No one accomplished more while facing as much adversity last season as the St. Louis Blues.
This was a team that wasn't expected to compete for a playoff spot even before disaster struck for one of its youngest and brightest stars just before the start of training camp. Defenseman Erik Johnson(notes), the first player drafted overall in 2006, tore his ACL and MCL when his right foot got caught between the accelerator and brake of a golf cart he was driving. The resulting knee surgery cost him what would have been the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder's second season in the league.
Erik Johnson looks to be injury free after last season's disaster.
Not long after the season started the injury bug bit again. Rehabbing from a second back surgery limited captain Eric Brewer's(notes) availability to just 28 games, and expected leading scorer Paul Kariya(notes) got off to a great start with 15 points in 11 games, but he never played more than that after needing two surgeries for a bum hip.
Maybe because the maladies occurred so early in the season, the Blues managed to overcome the loss of three key contributors. Somehow, despite languishing in last place in the conference in mid-January, the Blues rallied to not only reach the Stanley Cup playoffs but also grab the sixth seed.
The Blues were amazing, going a league-best 25-9-7 in the second half while qualifying for the postseason for the first time in four seasons. Head coach Andy Murray displayed patience with his young core and pushed the veterans to get as much out of their experience as possible. Never mind the fact the Blues got swept in the opening round, they were the feel-good story of the NHL last season.
What the Blues really learned from last season is that David Backes(notes) is an emerging star. They learned that Chris Mason(notes) can take advantage of a second chance. They also learned that they've been drafting pretty darn smart lately as David Perron(notes), Patrik Berglund(notes) and T.J. Oshie(notes) would leave one to surmise.
The Blues cannot fall into the trap that simply adding the injured players back into the lineup will automatically improve the team and take it to greater heights. The challenge young teams face is first maintaining a certain level and building on top of it. St. Louis can certainly continue its success, but nothing will come easy, especially in the Central Division.
Last season: 41-31-10 (92 points). Third place in the Central Division, sixth place in the Western Conference and 15th in the overall standings. St. Louis was the third of four teams out of its division to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs – the Blues' first visit in four seasons – where it lost in four straight against Northwest champ Vancouver.
Salary cap: The Blues have approximately $52.6 million committed, a surprisingly high number considering the roster is seemingly full of younger players. Several veterans including Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk and Chris Mason are in the final year of their deals. St. Louis has about $8.4 million to play with, assuming the budget allows for the extra spending.
Three keys: While the future of the team definitely rests with a well-developed core of young draft picks, the Blues are going to need significant contributions from all of its veterans to maintain what they started last season.
Keith Tkachuk showed versatility by switching from wing to center and remained productive when the team needed it most. St. Louis will be looking for a bounce back from Paul Kariya. Andy McDonald(notes) could be a real boost, too, if he duplicates the near point-a-game pace he displayed last year while appearing in only 46 games.
Both Tkachuk and Kariya enter the final year of their contracts, so either it's a going-away party for the pair or a time to earn another deal. Barret Jackman(notes), Eric Brewer, Steve Mason(notes) and Ty Conklin will have to lead both on and off the ice, too, to keep the Blues in the hunt.
Brad Boyes(notes) has established himself as the offensive force on the team, not bad for a player who was shuttled around – Toronto, San Jose and Boston – before really being given a chance in St. Louis. Boyes has overcome a knock of being a poor skater to provide the Blues with a legitimate goal-scoring threat.
Boyes has 76 goals and 137 points over his last two seasons, failing to miss even one game. At age 27, he's just now entering the prime of his career. Surrounded by a young, talented and close-knit group, Boyes could be primed to take his game to an even higher level.
The Blues didn't lose a lot in the offseason – mainly just a pair of veteran defensemen – but it's important to find a good mix on the blue line to help the goaltending duo of Chris Mason and Ty Conklin who had mostly been backups throughout their respective careers.
Eric Brewer needed arthroscopic knee surgery in late August, so he'll get a later start to the regular season, but Erik Johnson is expected to return at full strength after missing all of last season. Combine the hard-nosed Jackman with Carlo Colaiacova, Roman Polak(notes), Brendan Bell, Tyson Strachan(notes) and Mike Weaver, and the Blues have more depth at the position than in recent seasons. Rookie first-round pick Alex Pietrangelo(notes) is waiting in the wings, too.
On the hot seat: Erik Johnson has seen what all the other Blues' recent first-round draft picks have accomplished, and while obviously a freak injury stalled his growth and contributions last season, he has to seize the opportunity to have a clean season and establish himself as the player most expect him to be, especially since it's his final year of an entry-level contract.
Chris Mason has to prove he can continue to play as a No. 1 goalie.
Poised to blossom: T.J. Oshie got a lot more comfortable with his new-found NHL surroundings during the second half of last season, a development that should propel the 22-year-old into his sophomore year.
After Oshie healed from nagging ankle injuries early, he put together a stretch of scoring 34 points over his final 44 games. There's no guarantee the lines will stay the same, but having Oshie center 21-year-old wingers David Perron and Patrik Berglund gives the Blues one of the most explosive young groups in the league that very few talk about.
Time has passed: Chris Mason had a nice rebound performance last season, but we've seen this act before. Mason pushed hard and won the starting role in Nashville once Tomas Vokoun(notes) headed off to Florida. But Mason did not perform up to the necessary standards.
Given another chance with the Blues after losing his job with the Predators, Mason played extremely well, especially in the second half last season when he went 24-8-6 with a 2.08 goals-against average and .924 save percentage. But Mason is 33 years old now, as is new St. Louis backup goalie Ty Conklin. Goaltending will be a key issue for the Blues to monitor.
Prediction: People tend to overlook the Blues, but there's no reason why they can't hang with every team in the division, and that includes the perceived big dogs in Detroit and Chicago. Look for St. Louis to finish at least third again, if not higher, by surprising everyone once again. And if they get great goaltending they could be a force in the postseason.