When the St. Louis Blues reached the postseason for the first time in four seasons in 2008-09, the organization appeared to be back on the right track.
In two seasons since then, the high expectations haven't materialized. The Blues have missed the postseason in each of the last two springs, and the 2010-11 campaign, in which they went 38-33-11, left them a full 10 points back of Chicago for the Western Conference's final berth.
The result had to be disappointing for a team with loads of young potential that had acquired goaltender Jaroslav Halak
from Montreal during the summer after his impressive postseason run with the Canadiens. A closer look, however, reveals that St. Louis may very well have been victim of some bad luck in 2010-11. Three large parts of the Blues' offense, David Perron
, Andy McDonald
and T.J. Oshie
, missed significant time due to injury, with Perron and McDonald suffering concussions and Oshie going down with a fractured ankle. The Blues certainly could have used Perron, who scored five goals in 10 games before missing the rest of the season, or McDonald, who had 50 points in 58 games.
Combine that with the fact that St. Louis actually had a plus-6 goal differential last season -- a better mark than playoff-bound Phoenix and Anaheim and just one goal less than East finalist Tampa Bay -- and it seems apparent that more than a few breaks might have gone against the Blues. In addition, St. Louis made one of the most impressive in-season moves of the season when it shipped defenseman Erik Johnson, center Jay McClement and a first-round pick to Colorado for right wing Chris Stewart
, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk
and a second-round selection. Both newcomers flourished in St. Louis -- Stewart had 23 points in 26 games and Shattenkirk posted 17 points and a plus-7 rating.
Stewart and Shattenkirk will be on the roster from day one, and while Perron isn't expected to be ready for the start of training camp, McDonald and Oshie are healthy and ready to go. General manager Doug Armstrong spent the summer tinkering with his roster with the hope of adding the right pieces to get his team back into the playoffs.
Perhaps the most significant difference between the 2010-11 Blues and the 2011-12 squad is the subtraction of Johnson that was made last February. The parting of ways between the Blues and the No. 1 pick in the 2006 Entry Draft is significant because it marked a philosophic change for the organization. The team no longer would be building around its cornerstone defenseman, and the boost the team received from Stewart and Shattenkirk was palpable from the moment they arrived.
Players who have left the Blues this summer are unlikely to have the same kind of impact on the franchise, but one move that might be overlooked is the loss of backup goalie Ty Conklin, who signed a free-agent deal with Detroit in July. Conklin has generally been a solid netminder throughout his career and with 20 starts last season, he was a significant factor in shouldering the load and helping Halak stay fresh.
St. Louis also may miss right wing Cam Janssen, who provided a physical presence while racking up 131 penalty minutes last season. In parts of four seasons with the Blues, Janssen ably filled the role of an enforcer.
In addition, the Blues lost depth on the blue line as defenseman Nathan Oystrick signed a free-agent deal with the Coyotes.
When it comes to finding the appropriate leadership, often the devil is in the details -- or in the case of St. Louis, two Devils. The most noteworthy acquisitions of the offseason for the Blues were veteran forwards Jason Arnott
and Jamie Langenbrunner
, both of whom started last season with New Jersey, a franchise with which each has won a Stanley Cup. While both were dealt during the season after the Devils' disappointing first half, each has established locker room credentials. Langenbrunner wore the "C" in New Jersey for a period spanning four seasons, while Arnott did the same in Nashville for three seasons. Both signed with the Blues on the same day -- an ironic turn of events considering the players were traded for one another in a swap between New Jersey and Dallas in 2002 that dramatically shook up both franchises.
Arnott and Langenbrunner will be expected to mentor the Blues' young talent. They will have help in 36-year-old center Scott Nichol
, whom St. Louis signed this July after he spent two years in San Jose. Nichol and Arnott know each other from their days together in Nashville.
Another former teammate of Nichol's, defenseman Kent Huskins
, was signed from San Jose to provide physicality and depth on the blue line. Huskins won a Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007 and has never had a negative plus/minus rating in a full season. The Blues also signed goalie Brian Elliott
, who will compete with Ben Bishop for the No. 2 job behind Halak.
St. Louis has missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons -- almost incomprehensible for a franchise that did not qualify in only three of its first 38 seasons.
Still, last season's performance has given the fan base ample reason to believe St. Louis will be back in the postseason next spring. The Blues went 6-1-2 in their last nine games in 2010-11, including a 10-3 pasting of the Red Wings in Detroit. But even more encouraging is the anticipation of having McDonald and Oshie healthy for a full season. That, along with the steady production of David Backes
, could give St. Louis an offensive boost. Backes was impressive in all facets last season, tying career highs with 31 goals and 31 assists, while posting a career-best plus-32 rating.
There is plenty to get excited about on the back end as well. In his first full season, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo
put up 43 points and was plus-18. Pairing him with Shattenkirk could give the Blues an explosive offensive combo.
With strong guidance from Arnott and Langenbrunner and a solid season from Halak, who could improve on last season's .910 save percentage and 2.48 goals-against average, the Blues should, at the very least, be competing for one of the playoff berths in the West. St. Louis will be challenged by playing in, arguably, the toughest division in the League, as the Central is home to two of the last four Stanley Cup champs in Detroit and Chicago, a strong team in Nashville and a Columbus team that made several big additions this summer. But the Blues still have an exciting, talented lineup, and there will be little excuse if they're not in the postseason mix come April.