With its fourth-overall choice at this year’s NHL Entry Draft, the Blues added top defense prospect Alex Pietrangelo. St. Louis has stockpiled six first-round picks in three seasons under the watch of Checketts and Davidson. Additionally, the acquisition of Manny Legace in 2006 and Brad Boyes, Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk in 2007 can only help establish a greater on-ice and locker-room presence.
Checketts and Davidson realize the fans of St. Louis deserve better because, despite the fact the Blues (33-36-13, 79 points) finished 14th in the Western Conference in 2007-08, the club still managed 20 sellouts at Scottrade Center.
“It’s rather obvious that we’ve got a long way to go, but we also feel that we’ve come a long ways,” Davidson said. “We’ve reconnected with the city of St. Louis with a 44 percent increase in attendance, and the support was remarkable. We’re excited about our future and I know that it can be a tedious plan at times when you go through the frustrations of not scoring goals or winning games. But, for myself in particular, you realize how tough a job it is to get a franchise on track, rebuild it, get it winning, get it winning long-term and have the fans appreciate it.”
One bright spot for the Blues this season was their team defense. The club finished seventh in the League with an 84.4 percent penalty-killing efficiency and behind the sterling play of Legace (27-25-8, 2.41 goals-against average, .911 save percentage), allowed 2.83 goals per game.
Legace, who at 35 will be playing the final year of a two-year contract in 2008-09, was recently presented the AT&T National Sportsmanship Award, which celebrates athletes and personalities from around the nation who exemplify outstanding sportsmanship, citizenship, ethical conduct and community services. Still, a bona fide backup for Legace is a high priority this offseason. Hannu Toivonen (6-10-5, 3.44 GAA, .878 save percentage) struggled to gain confidence and Ben Bishop, a third-round pick in 2005, has no NHL experience. This led to the acquisition of Chris Mason from Nashville just prior to the Draft.
“Our strength was keeping the puck out of our net,” Davidson confirmed. “Our goals-against was really good for a majority of the year and then faded some. Our goal scoring was the biggest issue.”
In particular, the Blues found it extremely difficult to sustain any sort of offensive attack while working the power play. St. Louis, which averaged just 2.46 goals per game this season, finished last in the League with a 14.1 power-play percentage.
“I felt a big part of our lack of production offensively, both 5-on-5 and the power play, was the inability of our team to move the puck defensively out of our zone quick enough in order to make plays that would put our forwards in position where they could create more offense,” Blues coach Andy Murray said. “We talk so much about offense, but our defensive focus in the second half was not as good. I think better play in terms of puck movement from our defensemen will really help.”
Tkachuk, who led the team with 12 power-play goals, feels players must get back to basics when given the man advantage.
“You can draw up plays and put your diagrams out, but it’s about working and having five guys being able to generate offense,” Tkachuk said. “The power play just struggled and we couldn’t find a way out of it.”
Defensively, the Blues certainly like what they see in Erik Johnson, the first overall pick in 2006, who finished sixth on the team with 33 points (28 assists) while dishing out 87 hits and blocking 64 shots. Incredibly, the Blues actually have five defensemen on their roster who were first-round draft choices.
Blues captain Eric Brewer (22 points) was tabbed by the Islanders in the opening round in 1997, Jeff Woywitka was a first-rounder by the Philadelphia Flyers in 2001, Barret Jackman (16 points) was the Blues' first-round selection in 1999 and Jay McKee (164 blocked shots) was Buffalo’s first-round choice in 1995. Matt Walker, a third-round pick by the Blues in 1998, was also a regular for Murray.
Brewer realizes the veterans must be held accountable to an extent.
“At the end of the day, if we would have scored a few more goals, it changes the outlook on things (as the Blues went 15-24 in one-goal games last season),” Brewer said. “You have to look at some of the guys who have been around and are here to get the job done. When you don’t make the playoffs, that’s the way it works.”
In an attempt to further bolster the blue line, Davidson acquired mobile defenseman T.J. Fast, 20, from the Los Angeles Kings earlier this month in exchange for a fifth-round pick in 2009. In 71 games with the Tri-City Americans of the Western Hockey League, Fast had 54 points (17 goals, 37 assists) and was a plus-29. The Blues could also snare a solid defensive prospect at this year’s draft to spark their stagnant power play.
“I think what’s fair to say about the draft this year is that the No. 1 player is (Steven) Stamkos and then it’s a deep draft,” Davidson said. “Somewhere along the line here, some of the guys we’ve drafted are going to hit and we’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Boyes and Kariya led the team with 65 points apiece with Boyes scoring 43 goals and Kariya dishing out 49 assists. Tkachuk (27 goals, 31 assists), Andy McDonald (18 goals, 34 assists) and Lee Stempniak (13 goals, 25 assists) followed next on the list in team scoring but also were a combined minus-23 for the season. Rookies T.J. Oshie (University of North Dakota) or Patrik Berglund (Swedish Elite League), the Blues’ second of two first-round picks in 2006, could offer some assistance as that playmaking forward the club so desperately needs.
Youngsters Jay McClement (22 points in 81 games), David Backes (31 points in 72 games, 240 hits) and David Perron (27 points in 80 games), the third of three first-round picks by the Blues last year, will also be counted on to pick up the slack in 2008-09.