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Experience should serve Blues well this season

by Larry Wigge
When a player with the remarkably productive record of forward Paul Kariya tells you -- after having surgery on both hips and missing most of last season -- that he feels better than he has in seven or eight years, and an emerging star defenseman like Erik Johnson, after missing all of last season following knee surgery, says he's bigger, stronger and hungry to be one of the best defensemen in the NHL, you take notice.

But then everyone in the NHL took notice of the St. Louis Blues' 25-9-7 record in the second half of last season -- best in the game. So what's next for the Blues, after coming off their first playoff berth since 2004 with a roster that included 11 players younger than 25?

The Blues have learned to play the right way, youngsters learning their lessons by listening to veterans like Kariya, Andy McDonald, Keith Tkachuk, Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman and Chris Mason. What St. Louis coach Andy Murray now has is a team in which young and old are young at heart and play with skill and a ton of energy every night.

"Everything we do starts with the mandate that we are going to outwork our opponent and be very hard to play against. That's what counts the most to all of us in that locker room," Murray said. "When you add the hunger and skill of players like Paul and Erik, well, then, everyone around here just gets a little more excited about what might be ahead for us."

In St. Louis, excitement rides on the skates of youngsters like T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund, both rookies last season, along with young pros like David Perron, David Backes and Johnson, who had a strong rookie campaign in 2007-08.

Key injuries gave a number of young players the opportunity to play important minutes in the Blues' turnaround last season -- and no one can doubt the kind of experience that will carry over to this season.

"It's like we willed ourselves to that success," Mason said. "No one except Andy Murray and the 20 of us in that room believed we could mesh together like we did.

"It was great to see the veterans teaching the youngsters with their experience and the youngsters teaching the veterans with their energy and fearless approach to the game. I could feel that same excitement and energy in our room in training camp."

Still, there are concerns that have to be addressed. While the Blues ranked third in penalty killing and eighth in power play in the 2008-09 regular season, they gave up three power-play goals to Vancouver in a 3-2 loss in Game 3 and wound up sputtering with the man-advantage, going 1-for-24 in a sweep by the Canucks -- in a series in which St. Louis scored just five goals.

"You can't continue to improve without addressing some of the things we need to work on," said Blues President John Davidson. "Special teams kept us in a lot of games last season, but we have to get better while playing five-on-five (St. Louis was 23rd in five-on-five goals last season). We have to reduce our goals-against. And most important, we have to see growth in our younger players.

"In training camp, we've seen that our young players are just as hungry as they were a year ago, which is a great sign that has helped to create a very interesting depth on our roster."

Carryover from last season's run? Watch and enjoy.

"I don't think there was a better team in the League than the Blues down the stretch," said goaltender Ty Conklin, a free agent who was St. Louis' biggest addition -- other than Kariya and Johnson -- in the offseason, after Conklin posted a 2-1 record for Detroit against the Blues last season.

Conklin, who went to the Stanley Cup Final with Detroit last season and Pittsburgh the season before as the teams' backup goalie, will be expected to bring a similar kind of consistency to the Blues behind Mason this season.

There are similarities to those two great teams, the veteran netminder says.

"After a few days in St. Louis, it was easy to see that the skill and togetherness and will to win is similar to what I saw the last two years with the Penguins and Red Wings," Conklin said. "And I'm not just saying that because I'm here now. It's obvious to anyone who plays this team what a close-knit, hard-working group they are facing."

Even though the Blues' 227 goals ranked just 19th in the NHL, everyone you talk to expects that number to increase substantially with the development of players like Oshie, Berglund and Perron, plus the hope that Kariya and McDonald can stay healthy for a full season.

Brad Boyes led the Blues with 33 goals and Backes had 31. Tkachuk finished with 25 and Berglund had 21. In 2007-08, Boyes went from 17 goals to 43. Last season, Backes made a similar quantum leap, from 13 to 31. This season, the Blues have no reason not to expect a similar jump in goals from Berglund (21 goals), Perron (15) or Oshie (14).

"All I know is that T.J. provides so much energy every night and he's so very, very productive, David Perron hit so many goalposts last season and Bergy has one of the quickest and more deadly wrist shots I've seen," said Backes. "Any of the three could get at least 25 goals. But I figure at least two of them will get that many."

Murray is hoping Kariya's speed will help Berglund play at a faster pace and that Backes' tenacity will help get Perron more involved.

The coach bristles when you ask him about Oshie or Tkachuk playing on the team's third line with journeyman forward Brad Winchester, behind the units of Backes-McDonald-Perron and Kariya-Berglund-Boyes he plans to start the season with. Murray figures he's got nine top-six forwards. In fact, the team's checking line of Jay McClement (12 goals), B.J. Crombeen (11) and Alex Steen (6) also showed a knack for contributing offensively.

You could say that the offense starts with Boyes, who has 20 game-winning goals over the last two seasons, including 11 last season -- a total that was second in the NHL to the 12 by Philadelphia's Jeff Carter. There's the continued development of Berglund, Perron, Oshie and Backes. And don't forget Kariya says he feels better than he has in seven or eight years, when he was a consistent 30-goal scorer.

"A healthy Paul Kariya enhances our speed and skill level," said Murray. "I'm already seeing a fired-up Paul Kariya. With his pride as a player, I'm convinced he's going to be a determined leader on this team."

And don't forget McDonald just signed a new multi-year contract with the Blues, and Tkachuk, who posted his 15th 20-goal campaign in 2008-09, is entering a contract year with something to prove. Kariya also is in the last season of his deal.

Here's the tricky part. Ever since Murray took over as coach for Mike Kitchen in December 2006, he's talked about getting improved puck movement from his defense. Last season, this group totaled only 15 goals.

Johnson's return to health should raise that total, as should full seasons in St. Louis from Carlo Colaiacovo and Roman Polak. Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth pick of the 2008 Entry Draft, also could be an offensive plus if he makes the team.

After Johnson was injured and captain Eric Brewer, who still is trying to work his way back into the picture after surgery on a nerve in his back last December, the grouping of Jackman, Mike Weaver, veteran Jay McKee, Jeff Woywitka, Polak, Colaiacovo and Tyson Strachan were strong in their own end but did little to add to the offensive side. This summer McKee left for Pittsburgh and Woywitka for Dallas.

"Since Day 1, Andy Murray has been preaching that we make that smart, crisp, first quick pass out of our zone and then get our feet moving to try to get four players up the ice in hopes of creating some offense," Jackman said. "Now I think you'll see what the coach can do with the type of puck-moving defense he's been asking for since he got here."

Johnson, who had 5 goals and 28 assists as a rookie in 2007-08, has been itching to make a quantum leap into the kind of offensive numbers the Blues used to get when they had Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger in their lineup. Colaiacovo led the team's defense in scoring last season with 3 goals and 26 assists in 63 games after coming to St. Louis in a trade with Steen from Toronto in November.

"It's amazing how fast you can get the puck up the ice when you focus and make a couple of good passes," said Johnson. "I can see that move-the-puck mentality in the play of all of our defensemen this season."

A good transition game not only will add to a team's offense, but also aid in getting the puck out of harm's way in your own zone as well.

And it doesn't hurt to have Johnson's hard and heavy shot on the point to worry opponents.

"Erik's shot can be intimidating," said Murray. "We really missed that kind of a weapon on the power play and at even strength last season."

The consistency in goal Murray is looking for was supposed to come from veterans Manny Legace and Mason last season, but never really appeared.

"For most of the first half of the season, we couldn't find a goaltender who could consistently keep the puck out of our net," Murray said at one point down the stretch last season.

Mason started last season 3-13-1, but found his grove in that amazing stretch run -- playing 33 consecutive games and going 24-8-6 down the stretch with five shutouts, a .924 save percentage and 2.08 goals-against average. No goalie in the NHL did better than Mason in that stretch.

This season, the Blues expect Mason to continue make a series of saves in nearly every game as he did late last season. To back him up, management brought in Conklin, who went 25-11-2 with Detroit last season while sharing the duties with Chris Osgood. He had a stretch of 17-6-5 for Pittsburgh the season before while Marc-Andre Fleury was injured. Conklin also was a part of Edmonton's goaltending in the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Oilers made it to the Cup Final.

"We're both battlers," Mason said of the Blues' netminding duo. "We've fought for our time before turning pro -- in junior for me and in college for Conklin. We fought to get a chance to play in the minors and get our share of starts in the NHL. Ty and I both know that we can't take anything for granted, that hard work drives both of us."

Davidson is counting on Mason to play about 55 games.

"That leaves a lot of games for Ty and a lot of points we need to get," Davidson said. "Finding a great pair of goalies who can work off one another led us to Ty Conklin."

When goaltending gives an energetic team like St. Louis a chance to win every night, who knows what kind of record the Blues can compile?

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