The St. Louis Blues hope their backward step last season will help them take several steps forward this season. That's shedding a positive light on what was a difficult 2009-10 season, but it's how you have to think and operate when you are trying to build a winner for the long haul.
St. Louis enters the 2010-11 season with very few question marks on its roster, a good sign for a team that spent the first half of last season digging itself an early hole with its inability to win at home and to win close games.
The Blues were 17-17-6, including just 6-13-3 at Scottrade Center, when coach Andy Murray was replaced on an interim basis by Davis Payne on Jan. 2. Payne, who was signed on a full-time basis after the season, led the Blues a 12-5-2 home record and at least got the team in the playoff hunt as late as March.
They finished ninth in the Western Conference, five points behind the eighth place Avalanche, but the Blues' 23-15-4 record under Payne for the last three-plus months of the season is why there again is optimism in the Gateway City.
A large part of that optimism comes from the change in net. Chris Mason was a loyal Blue in his two seasons in St. Louis, but Jaroslav Halak could be a franchise goalie if he comes to close to the level he played at for Montreal in last season's playoffs.
The dressing room will be noticeably different without Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya, but that's OK because it will push players like Patrik Berglund, David Perron and T.J. Oshie to become part of the leadership core. Perron is a fourth-year pro, while Berglund and Oshie are entering their third full NHL seasons, so the timing is perfect.
Erik Johnson's star also is growing. He could turn into an all-star this season.
"These guys are going to be able to run without tight reins," Payne told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The leash is going to be there, (but) we don't expect them to all of the sudden fall once and we're going to tie a noose around their neck. We feel offensively that we had some guys have some success in the latter stages of last year, and we had some guys who still had to get over some humps, and we feel that the summer has brought that."
If the Blues want to build on last season's positive finish, they'll need to see improved production out of David Backes, Berglund, Oshie and Perron. They make up two-thirds of the expected top-six (Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes should round it out), and only Oshie had more points in 2009-10 than he did in 2008-09.
Backes dropped from 31 goals two seasons ago to 17 last season. Perron dipped from 50 points to 47. Berglund had the worst drop, falling from 47 points as a rookie to a meager 26 last season. He was a healthy scratch at times and occasionally a fourth-liner. Oshie improved from 39 points as a rookie to 48 last season.
That being said, the Blues also could use more from McDonald (team-high 57 points) and Boyes, who had only 14 goals last season after scoring 33 in 2008-09. That came after his career-high 43 goals in 2007-08.
Bottom line: St. Louis needs more production out of its top six forwards. The good news is the first four players we mentioned all should be on the upswing this season because they are young and progressing in their careers.
Berglund told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was terribly disappointed with how things unfolded for him last season, and he knows this is a major season in his development. The same can be said for Oshie and Perron. As for Backes, if he can score in the 20s (asking for 30 again may be a bit much) and be physical, then he'll be doing his job as a power forward.
Expect Berglund to start the season centering one of the top two lines. McDonald could serve as the other pivot in the top six, but Oshie and Boyes have experience in the middle as well.
There are seven candidates for the bottom six, including Alexander Steen, Jay McClement, B.J. Crombeen, Vladimir Sobotka, Brad Winchester, Matt D'Agostini and Cam Janssen. Of that group, it's likely D'Agostini and Janssen start the season jostling for playing time.
Sobotka is an interesting case. He came over from the Bruins in a trade and for the first time will be given a chance to show what he can do on a nightly basis. Sobotka, who is only 23 years old, could start the season as the third-line center with McClement in the middle of the fourth line.
Steen also deserves attention heading into the season after finishing with career-bests of 24 goals, 47 points and a plus-6 rating last season. Look for him to be on the left of Sobotka, with Crombeen filling out the third line on the right side.
Five spots are taken up by returning players -- Johnson, Eric Brewer, Carlo Colaiacovo, Roman Polak and Barret Jackman. The sixth and seventh spots appear to be up for grabs among former first-round pick Alex Pietrangelo, Tyson Strachan, Russian prospect Nikita Nikitin and ex-Notre Dame star Ian Cole.
Pietrangelo and Strachan have NHL experience, while Nikitin is coming over from Russia this season and Cole is turning pro after three seasons at Notre Dame. Pietrangelo was drafted with the fourth selection in the 2008 Entry Draft and has used up his junior eligibility. Strachan has 38 games on his NHL resume, including eight last season.
What matters more is how things play out at the top, leading off with Johnson, who after missing the 2008-09 season with a knee injury had a dynamite 2009-10 season with 39 points in 79 games. Johnson flourished at the Olympics for Team USA and had a strong finish to the season.
Johnson, the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft, spent large chunks of his summer in St. Louis, working out and training with a select group of players. No one knew what to expect of him at this time last year, but now it wouldn't be off base to expect him to compete for a spot at the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh, N.C.
Brewer, the Blues' captain, got a ringing endorsement from management early last month, according to the Post-Dispatch. He played in 59 games last season and hopefully has overcome his back injuries. He should be an integral piece of the Blues' defense, just like Jackman, Colaiacovo and Polak, who improved with increased playing time.
The Blues' big summer splash was the trade that brought Halak to St. Louis. The Slovak goalie was Montreal's playoff hero in the spring, leading the eighth-seeded Habs to improbable series wins over Washington and Pittsburgh. He was deemed expendable, though, because Montreal's management believes Carey Price is that club's goalie of the future.
Halak didn't come without a price. St. Louis had to sacrifice its top forward prospect, Lars Eller, as well as promising right wing Ian Schultz. The Blues also parted ways with Mason as a result of the Halak trade. Mason wound up signing with Atlanta.
Halak, who was a restricted free agent, agreed to a four-year contract extension July 6 that reportedly will pay him $3.75 million annually. He went 26-13-5 last season. His .924 save percentage was fourth in the NHL and his 2.40 goals-against average was ninth. Halak also won a pair of Game 7s on the road, in Washington and Pittsburgh.
Halak is set as the No. 1, but he has a nice warm blanket behind him in Ty Conklin, one of the top backup goalies in the NHL over the last couple seasons. Conklin won 10 games last season and posted a 2.48 GAA and .921 save percentage.
The Blues' brass believes Halak could start between 55 and 60 games this season (he started a career-high 43 last season), with Conklin filling in the rest. That looks to be the perfect amount of work for each goalie as Conklin stayed fresh last season with 21 starts and 26 appearances.
"I think we have one of the best goaltending combinations in the game," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told the Post-Dispatch.
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