Blues add center depth to already formidable lineup

Thursday, 08.14.2014 / 3:00 AM
Corey Masisak  - NHL.com Staff Writer

There are a lot of great teams in the Western Conference, and it has been that way for much of the salary-cap era.

In the past three seasons, no team in the West has won more regular-season games than the St. Louis Blues. Only the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins have won more in the NHL.

The Blues have famously had very little success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs during this time. While either the Los Angeles Kings or Chicago Blackhawks have won the Cup each of the past three seasons, one of those two clubs has also ended hockey season in St. Louis.

Like several other teams in the West, the Blues decided they needed more help at center and acted. Paul Stastny was the best free agent available at the position, and Jori Lehtera was finally convinced to come to North America.

The Blues also lost Vladimir Sobotka to the Kontinental Hockey League, and are going in a different direction in net. Will they finally be able to translate regular-season success into the postseason?

Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Blues:

FORWARDS

Alexander Steen - Paul Stastny - T.J. Oshie

Jaden Schwartz* - David Backes - Vladimir Tarasenko

Magnus Paajarvi - Jori Lehtera - Patrik Berglund

Peter Mueller - Steve Ott - Maxim Lapierre

Joakim Lindstrom - Ryan Reaves

Plan A was to have Stastny and Lehtera center the top two lines with Sobotka in the middle on the third line, pushing the top two centers from the past couple seasons, David Backes and Patrik Berglund, to the wing. Steve Ott was re-signed almost immediately after Sobotka's exit was reported, but here is a slightly different take on Plan B.

Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko flanked Berglund with a lot of success last season, but if Backes goes to the wing one of Schwartz, Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie or Alexander Steen is ending up on the third line. That's certainly plausible, but in this alignment the top four wings stay put and Backes stays in the middle. He's strong on faceoffs, and playing with the two kids might help cover for the lack of typical, No. 1 center-type playmaking in his game.

There are lots of moving parts in the bottom six as well. Peter Mueller and Joakim Lindstrom are back from playing in Europe, and top prospects Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie will be pushing for spots, though with 12 forwards on one-way contracts (presumably 13 after Schwartz signs) and Tarasenko, there isn't going to be room for everyone.

DEFENSEMEN

Alex Pietrangelo - Jay Bouwmeester

Barret Jackman - Kevin Shattenkirk

Ian Cole - Carl Gunnarsson

Jordan Leopold

The top four players are back, but the Blues traded Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarsson and signed a couple of guys (Chris Butler and Nate Prosser) to two-way contracts. The bottom three here are all lefties, and it could end up being a semi-regular rotation between them.

Alex Pietrangelo earned a second top-five finish in the Norris Trophy voting and is now a two-time second-team All-Star. Kevin Shattenkirk thrived while being deployed more regularly than the other defensemen in offensive situations, and then led the team in scoring during the postseason.

Toss in Jay Bouwmeester, and this top three can hang with Chicago and Los Angeles. Even if they are slightly behind in the pecking order, the depth might be narrowly better to make up for it.

GOALTENDERS

Brian Elliott

Jake Allen

The Blues let Ryan Miller go, allowing Brian Elliott and Jake Allen to compete for playing time. That sounds pretty similar to letting Elliott compete with Jaroslav Halak for two years, which led to acquiring Miller.

Elliott has never played more than 55 games in a season, and his back-to-back 55s were in 2009-10 and 2010-11, so it's been a while. Allen could be the long-term answer, but expect each goalie to play a lot this season. Remember, the Blues were the first team to let Ben Bishop go, and Allen was part of the reason why.

If either goalie gets hurt, the Blues have two interesting prospects in the system, but neither has much experience at top levels. Jordan Binnington played one game in the American Hockey League last season while spending most of it in the ECHL, while Niklas Lundstrom played only two games at the highest level in Sweden.

ALSO IN THE MIX: F Ty Rattie, F Dmitrij Jaskin, D Chris Butler, D Nate Prosser, G Jordan Binnington

Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22

2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: BLUES

Undervalued: Brian Elliott -- As Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said in July when referring to Elliott, he's the "most improved player. It's his time." Elliott likely will start the season as the Blues' No. 1 goalie and he has the chance to be a top 10 fantasy netminder. The Blues ranked third in goals against and shots against per game last season. They are an elite defensive team and Elliott, who had a .922 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average in 31 games, should have an extremely bright season ahead of him.

Overvalued: Jay Bouwmeester -- With 11 years of NHL service, Bouwmeester is 30 years old and is a very valuable real-life defenseman. But when it comes to fantasy, odds are you can find better. Bouwmeester's 37 points were his most since 2008-09 and he won't help in penalty minutes or shots on goal. If you draft him as a No. 3 or No. 4 defenseman, that's OK, but anything more and you've lost with that selection.

Sleeper: Jori Lehtera -- Plenty of options in St. Louis (Vladimir Tarasenko, Joakim Lindstrom, Steve Ott), but Lehtera, 26, could end up on a line with former KHL teammate Tarasenko and thrive in a Blues uniform. In his past three KHL seasons, Lehtera had 118 points in 125 games, and the great thing about him is you likely can snatch him with your final pick.

Follow Matt Cubeta on Twitter: @NHLQubes

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