In the short time that encompasses the offseason, the St. Louis Blues managed to grow by leaps and bounds.
While maintaining their extremely talented young core, General Manager Doug Armstrong brought in some veteran leadership that could prove to be just what the Blues need to make the playoffs for only the second time in seven seasons.
After a franchise-best 9-1-2 start to the 2010-11 campaign, injuries to T.J. Oshie
, David Perron
and Andy McDonald
slowed the team considerably. Inconsistent play marked much of the season from that point, and the Blues finished 38-33-11, 11th in the Western Conference and 10 points behind Chicago for the final playoff berth.
The players Armstrong added -- forwards Jason Arnott
, Jamie Langenbrunner
and Scott Nichol
, plus gritty defenseman Kent Huskins
-- know a thing or two about reaching the postseason, and then some. Not only are they leaders, but they are winners as well, totaling four Stanley Cup championships among them. In addition to mentoring the younger players, these vets also might find themselves supplying counsel to first-year captain, David Backes
. A second-round draft choice in 2003, the 27-year-old Backes was named the 20th captain in franchise history in early September.
"I know that I've got a great group of guys in the locker room with Langenbrunner, Arnott -- guys who have won Cups, who have been leaders and captains themselves," Backes told NHL.com. "There are plenty of guys around me that are willing to support me in any decision I think needs to be made."
The man who will be making the decisions come game-time is Coach Davis Payne, who recently celebrated his 41st birthday, making him the fourth-youngest coach in the League. Payne, who enters his second full season behind the bench with a record of 61-48-15, feels this season's club is much better equipped to deal with adversity.
"Having the depth to be able to deal with those injuries last season was something we didn't overcome, that's really the bottom line," he said. "I think we're in a much better position to be able to deal with some of that stuff now, both with the depth we've added and the experience we've gone through based on what happened last season."
The return of one of last season's injured players is getting close. After scoring 5 goals in his first 10 games, Perron suffered a season-ending concussion Nov. 4 against San Jose. His post-concussion syndrome has improved to the point where he joined his teammates at practice in St. Louis last week, but he remains "still quite some time" away from playing in an NHL game, according to Payne.
Even with Perron's return uncertain, if goaltender Jaroslav Halak
plays up to his potential in goal and if Oshie and the other youngsters can mesh well with the veteran additions, the Blues can be a dangerous club and climb into the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt.
Scoring shouldn't be a problem for the Blues, who finished 10th in the League last season in scoring at 2.88 goals per game and were one of two non-playoff teams to make the top 10. All six of their 20-goal scorers from last season are back, including leading-scorer Backes, who matched his career-high in goals (31) and set new personal standards in assists (31) and points (62). And his plus-32 rating was tops among NHL forwards and tied for second-best in the League.
IN: Jason Arnott
, C (free agent, Capitals); Jonathan Cheechoo
, RW (free agent, Sharks); Brian Elliott
, G (free agent, Avalanche); Evgeny Grachev
, C (trade, Rangers); Kent Huskins
, D (free agent, Sharks); Jamie Langenbrunner
, RW (free agent, Stars); Scott Nichol
, C (free agent, Sharks); Brett Sterling
, LW (free agent, Penguins); Danny Syvret
, D (free agent, Flyers)OUT:
Ty Conklin, G (free agent, Red Wings); Cam Janssen, RW (free agent, Devils); Nathan Oystrick, D (free agent, Coyotes)
Backes has no shortage of skilled players joining him up front. Chris Stewart
prepares for his first full season in St. Louis after arriving from Colorado in the February trade that also brought defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
to the team in exchange for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement and a first-round pick. Stewart provided a jolt to the Blues' offense late in the season, totaling 15 goals and 8 assists in 26 games. Combined with his 13 goals from his time with the Avs, he posted his second straight 28-goal season.
Oshie is one of the young guns who can greatly benefit from the added leadership. A 2005 first-round pick, expectations have been high for the 24-year-old, but he's played more than 58 games just once in three seasons and has yet to crack the 20-goal mark. An ankle injury cost him 31 games, and he also served a two-game team suspension late in the season for missing practice. He was signed to just a one-year contract this summer, so this will be a critical season for Oshie, who should be out to prove he is worthy of a long-term deal.
"He had the injury that set him back, but I think he certainly trained harder this summer than he's ever trained," Armstrong said. "Seeing him get ready for training camp, you can tell his body structure is more prepared to play, and hopefully he'll reap the rewards of the work he's put in."
Like Oshie, Berglund enters his fourth NHL season with a ton of promise. The 23-year-old posted career highs last season with 22 goals and 30 assists to earn a two-year contract extension. He should continue to be a major contributor to St. Louis' power play after scoring 8 power-play goals last season.
"Bergie understands where he is in his career and what works for him," Payne said. "He's just very, very motivated and focused on improving so he can take that next step to elite-player status."
Three other forwards are in the mix to round out the top two lines: McDonald, Alexander Steen
and Matt D'Agostini
. McDonald missed most of December and all of January with a concussion, but came back strong and finished with 20 goals, the fourth time he's hit that mark. Steen, who serves as an alternate captain, reached the 20-goal plateau for the second consecutive season. D'Agostini played a full schedule for the first time in his career and broke out with a career-high 21 goals last season.
While the Blues' defensive unit might not be as highly touted as the forward corps, it is a solid group that looks to be on the rise thanks to the breakthrough play of Alex Pietrangelo
, the fourth pick of the 2008 draft. Pietrangelo had played just 17 NHL games before dressing for 79 last season, and he wound up leading the team in ice-time with 22 minutes per game. The 21-year-old defenseman had 11 goals, 32 assists and an impressive plus-18 rating in the early stages of what looks to be a very promising career.
"He knows he's a young guy, but a guy who we count on in all situations," Payne said. "The great thing about him is he takes nothing for granted and he takes no chances. He knows the preparation that's necessary because teams are going to be keying on him, and he's smart enough and prepared enough to make the adjustments."
Shattenkirk was a valuable addition on defense, recording 15 assists and a plus-7 rating in 26 games after being acquired from the Avalanche along with Stewart. The club hopes for more of the same in Shattenkirk's first full NHL season, while they already have come to expect consistency from Carlo Colaiacovo
, who enters his fourth season in St. Louis. Colaiacovo has contributed nicely in his stint with the Blues, averaging 65 games played and 29 points per season.Roman Polak
and Barret Jackman
were injured in the early part of last season, adding to the reasons why the Blues cooled off after their scorching start. After combining to miss 49 games, they start the season healthy looking to tighten up a defense that was a factor in the team’s lackluster 14-13-11 record in one-goal games last season.
Halak had a decent first season as the No. 1 goaltender in St. Louis, going 27-21-7 with a 2.48 goals-against average, .910 save-percentage and seven shutouts. Like the team, Halak's play was inconsistent at times.
"We feel very strongly about Jaro and the work he's put in this summer," Payne said. "There's a sense of comfort that is going to come from being able to go through the conference and our division for the second time, so we expect big things out of him."
Halak played in a career-high 57 games, and missed 13 games because of a hand injury. Like any team, the Blues could go as far as their goaltender will take them. If Halak displays the brilliance that garnered him a four-year, $15 million contract last summer, the club should be able to reward its exceedingly loyal fan base with a spot in the postseason.
With last season's backup, Ty Conklin, returning to Detroit, Armstrong signed Brian Elliott
, who had an .893 save percentage with Ottawa and Colorado last season. Elliott recently won the backup job after competing with 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop for the job.
Author: Frank Mentesana | NHL.com Staff Writer