Each Wednesday throughout the regular season, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes also will assist fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The NHL season is finally upon us! It feels like just yesterday the Pittsburgh Penguins were lifting the Stanley Cup. Hard to believe that was four months ago.
We've got a great game to begin the 2016-17 season, when the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks, Central Division rivals, face off. The game is filled with stars on each side and is a rematch of last season's Western Conference First Round matchup, won by the Blues in a hard-fought seven-game series.
This one should have a playoff feel to it when the Blues visit the Blackhawks at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN). Here's my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: One good thing for the Blues last season is they were able to gain confidence that they could defeat the Blackhawks, which certainly goes a long way. I really thought that was their biggest thing mentally since Chicago has been the standard in recent years. Now the Blues have taken another step forward in their progression as a team in terms of their confidence and I don't feel like they will shy away from playing Chicago because mentally, it's not an issue anymore.
It's a new opportunity for Jake Allen to step up as the No. 1 goalie. For the past few seasons, the Blues had a really nice tandem of Allen and Brian Elliott (traded to the Calgary Flames on June 25), and now it's Allen's time to take it to the next level. Anytime you go from a No. 2 or a 1A to a No. 1, it's tough and a lot of work. The expectation is that you are going to give your team a chance on a nightly basis and there's certainly a lot of more pressure on you.
Allen certainly has the talent and has worked very hard. These opportunities don't come around very often, especially with the team that drafted you. Elliott was great for them (2011-16). Jaroslav Halak played well for them (2010-14), then they brought in Ryan Miller (2014), so it's a new opportunity for Allen. I think Carter Hutton is going to be a nice veteran backup. Last season, he was solid with the Nashville Predators behind Pekka Rinne.
It's also a good chance for younger players like Colton Parayko, Robby Fabbri and Joel Edmundson to make an impact. The Blues don't just defend anymore but they can also score and make plays, which not only makes them a more fun team to watch but I think it makes them a harder team to play against since they're not one-dimensional.
Video: STL@SJS, Gm4: Allen makes a nice pad save
Minuses: Despite advancing to the Western Conference Final, the Blues still haven't gotten to where they want to be. Mentally and in terms of confidence, they are certainly way further ahead but at the same time, within their own division, the Blackhawks have won the Cup three times in the past seven seasons. The Blues have had really good teams and amazing success in the regular season but still haven't ultimately gotten to where they want to go.
I don't know if they have enough depth up front. They aren't likely to get much offense from the lower part of their lineup up front. Vladimir Tarasenko has to do a lot of heavy lifting in terms of goal scoring but that's what he's paid to do. It would be nice if others stepped up.
Lastly, who replaces David Backes' minutes and his style? The captain, who played in St. Louis for 10 seasons, signed with the Boston Bruins on July 1. They keep wanting it to be Patrik Berglund, who played for Team Sweden at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, but he's not going to bring that same level of tenacity and I don't think or expect him to replace Backes. It will be interesting to see who matches up with the bigger centers in the League. Will Berglund play against Ryan Getzlaf, or Ryan Kesler? Would he match up against Jonathan Toews or Artem Anisimov? Who can be effective in Backes' absence is a big question.
Pluses: Chicago had an extended offseason, losing in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2012. That can be a strength for them because they aren't used to having that long of a summer. A handful of players played in the World Cup (Patrick Kane, Toews, Corey Crawford), so they should be ready to go. Also defenseman Duncan Keith looks good after rehabbing his knee in the offseason, so they are fairly healthy and should be recharged.
There has been some talk about splitting up Kane, Anisimov and Calder Trophy winner Artemi Panarin, but I don't know that you can disrupt that line. Those players had a magical season and were so dominant. Most teams had no answer for that line and it was a huge weapon last season.
Also, the Blackhawks are playing at home, where they were 26-11-4 last season and seem to play at another level. It should be rocking at United Center.
Video: STL@CHI: Kane sets up Panarin for one-timer goal
Minuses: It will be interesting to see what kind of production they get from the lower part of their lineup up front. After the Kane-Anisimov-Panarin and Marian Hossa-Toews-Richard Panik lines, Chicago has numerous inexperienced rookies who made the roster. Tyler Motte, Vinnie Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman all will get a chance on the bottom two lines, though their production remains up in the air.
The defense also has question marks behind the top two pairings. Brent Seabrook and Keith are mainstays, as are Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell, but then it's tough. Rookies Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling made the roster, joining Michal Rozsival and Trevor van Riemsdyk, but Chicago is hoping to not have to rely on the top two pairs for heavy minutes.
The Blackhawks are getting younger. Whether it's any of the aforementioned six rookies to crack the roster or forward Alexandre Fortin (who impressed at camp but was sent back to his junior team), Chicago's lineup will have more of a youthful injection. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's also unlikely that these guys play at the same level as Panarin did in his rookie season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Who can step up and play those minutes left by Backes?
2. How will the Blackhawks' young players perform?
3. How does Allen perform as a No. 1 goalie?