You know it's probably not going to be a good year when your pre-training camp team golf outing turns into an unmitigated disaster.
That's exactly what occurred for the St. Louis Blues on Sept. 16 when star defenseman Erik Johnson – the team's poster boy for its ongoing youth movement – got his foot stuck between the accelerator and brake as he was trying to exit his golf cart and came away with two torn ligaments in his right knee.
Surgery is necessary to repair the torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments once the swelling subsides, and Johnson is expected to miss the entire season. That's bad news for the 20-year-old who was chosen first overall in the 2006 NHL draft. The only good news out of this horrendous piece of misfortune is that Johnson is expected to make a full recovery with no lasting physical affects.
Meanwhile, the mental anguish this will cause for Johnson and his team this season will be very hard to mask.
Loyal fans of the Blues are asked to be very patient these days. St. Louis hasn't been to the postseason post-lockout – three seasons and counting. How rare is that in St. Louis? Before their current run of early spring tee times – and we hate to fall back on a golf reference here – the Blues missed the playoffs a grand total of three times in their first 37 seasons.
The same franchise that began its history with three straight visits to the Stanley Cup Finals (1968-70) haven't won a conference championship since, and not too many are predicting anything but a basement finish this year.
The danger in going to a youth movement is making sure there's an opportunity for progress and growth to be made in what are sure to be otherwise adverse conditions. In other words, are the young players going to be able to get the experience they need without losing confidence and poise because they're not winning games? Are the players being set up to succeed or fail?
St. Louis is run by smart, experienced hockey people – team president John Davidson, general manager Larry Pleau and coach Andy Murray – but the organization is taking a calculated risk. Veteran leaders such as Jamal Mayers, Doug Weight, Bryce Salvador and Ryan Johnson – all Blues at one time or another at least last year – are all gone. And there was really no one of similar leadership ilk brought in to take their places.
St. Louis is not a big team. The Blues would appear susceptible to getting manhandled on many nights in the West. The defense is certainly not very quick or mobile. And the net is defended by two goalies who have been thought of as more back-ups than starters during their NHL careers.
The offense didn't score many goals last season and the power play has been awful for the last two seasons. The penalty kill was quite good, but both Mayers and Ryan Johnson were integral members of the unit, and they're gone.
Don't blame the Blues if they ask for a mulligan this season.
Last season: 33-36-13, 79 points, fifth place Central Division, 14th in the Western Conference. The Blues, who hung around the eighth and final playoff spot into February, dipped big time late (5-14-4) and missed out on the playoffs for the third straight year.
Imports: G Chris Mason (2007-08 team: Nashville Predators), D Mike Weaver (Vancouver Canucks), RW Matt Foy (Minnesota Wild), LW Steve Regier (New York Islanders), LW Brad Winchester (Dallas Stars), D Andy Wozniewski (Toronto Maple Leafs), D T.J. Fast (Los Angeles Kings), C Cam Paddock (minors).
Exports: RW Jamal Mayers (Toronto Maple Leafs), LW Martin Rucinsky (available free agent), C Ryan Johnson (Vancouver Canucks), G Hannu Toivonen (available free agent), D Matt Walker (Chicago Blackhawks).
Three keys to the season: The Blues can't waste any time feeling sorry about what they don't have, so holes on the roster and frustrating injuries have to be put on the backburner. St. Louis is going to have to find a way to do less with more. That means Murray will be pressed into employing a defensive system, the penalty kill must be a priority and the goaltending duo of Manny Legace and newcomer Chris Mason need to be the best players on almost every night for the Blues.
Second, young players who had an impact last season including Brad Boyes (43 goals), David Perron (YoungStars' game invitee) and David Backes (Vancouver offer-sheet matched) can't slip back. They must continue to add to their games whether it's in the form of more offensive production, becoming more well-rounded players or taking on a leadership role.
Third, the veterans have a big responsibility here to set a good example and mentor the young roster through what figures to be a challenging season. Guys like Paul Kariya, Keith Tkachuk, Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman and Jay McKee need to show the way. The organization has young players they're excited about – 18-year-old defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in June; Patrick Berglund, 20, a solid two-way center, and right wing T.J. Oshie, 21, a physical forward who was playing college hockey only last season. They will all be looking to the aforementioned veterans for guidance and reassurance.
On the hot seat: A case can be made for Murray needing to be patient as a teacher and as a coach, but if the Blues were concerned about that they would have made a move over the summer. Instead, the 33-year-old Kariya is set to make $6 million this season and the same figure next year. He needs to produce more than the 16 goals he scored last year, and he needs to help spark a power play that was the least productive in the league last year after finishing 29th the year before.
Poised to blossom: It appears a number of players are going to get an opportunity to wear this moniker, but our choice is Oshie, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound forward who moves from center in college to probably right wing on a third line with the Blues. Oshie, selected 24th in 2005, elected to forgo his senior season of eligibility at the University of North Dakota and signed a pro deal in the spring. By not forcing him on a scoring line right off the bat, Oshie can get his feet wet and use his skating skills to set up his offense.
Analysis and prediction: We don't see this playing out well in terms of wins and points over the long haul. Detroit, Chicago and Columbus would appear to be far ahead of the Blues with only a fall by Nashville giving St. Louis company at the bottom of the division. Of course, the Predators seem to surprise every season lately, so it might be a very long and lonely year for the Blues.