2008-09 Team Preview: St. Louis Blues
Dale MacMillan/Getty Images
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideIt wasn't too long ago, 2006-07 to be exact, that the St. Louis Blues were wishing the NHL regular season lasted just a little bit longer as they surged toward the playoffs only to come up just short. But, in 2007-08, the team couldn't wait for the season to end as it went 11-22-8 in the second half to finish 14th in the West. Maybe the drop-off was to be expected. President John Davidson warned after the strong finish two seasons ago (the Blues were 10th in the conference) that the rebuilding program was going to take some time. He was right. The Blues took a big step back with a tepid offense and sometimes leaky defense.
Although the offense remains a huge question mark, the defense should be the team's foundation. But top prospect Erik Johnson is lost for the season after a freak golf cart accident during a team outing before training camp began. Netminding is solid, if not spectacular, with the addition of Chris Mason, who will push Manny Legace for starts.
The Blues have been reconnecting with fans in St. Louis recently, but the pressure is on to prove to fans that the team is headed in the right direction.
"We want to compete for the playoffs. We want our younger players to take another step forward," Davidson recently told ESPN.com. "Let's not be naive here. We're a team that's evolving."
The Blues fell off the map offensively after a decent first half. Paul Kariya, who signed a whopper three-year deal before last season, slumped to 16 goals and 65 points. That point total, sadly, was good enough to tie for the team lead in points with Brad Boyes, an indictment of the team's lack of scoring depth. This lineup should be better than 26th overall in goals per game. Kariya should be at least an 80-point player. Boyes was dynamite with 43 goals, by far a career best.
Andy McDonald, who came over from Anaheim in the Doug Weight deal last season, is a productive, smart player who is better than his 18-goal tally suggests. Lee Stempniak has skills, and Keith Tkachuk continues to pour in goals (he had 27, even though he's 36). Youngster David Perron, who impressed with 27 points and a plus-16, should get better.
Reason suggests the offense will improve just because it can't get much worse, especially on the power play, where the Blues were dead last in the league. Watch for prospects T.J. Oshie, who possesses both skill and moxie, and the skilled Patrik Berglund to make cases during camp to stay with the big club.
If goal scoring, or lack thereof, was perplexing, the shoddy defense was even more curious, especially given coach Andy Murray's penchant for detail. Despite a strong back end, the Blues ranked 21st in goals allowed per game. If the Blues hope to get back in the playoff hunt, they'll have to move into the top 15 at the very least, probably the top 10; that's a big jump for a team that consistently seems to be playing through injuries to key defensive players.
Not having Johnson, who came into his own in the latter stages of the season, is a huge blow. Johnson missed 10 games to injury last season but still led St. Louis defensemen with 33 points. Having Jay McKee healthy would be nice. The premier shot-blocker, who came from Buffalo as a free agent two years ago, played only 66 games after just 23 the season before. Former rookie of the year Barret Jackman and captain Eric Brewer have been plagued by injury in recent years, as well. Alex Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in June, might get a look given Johnson's injury, although he's still just 18. Jeff Woywitka, another defenseman who would have played more minutes in Johnson's absence, is out a month (broken foot).
Davidson is clear on one thing: Legace is his No. 1 goaltender. He's also clear that the team needs better secondary goaltending. Mason, who couldn't hold on to the starter's job in Nashville, should provide that as Hannu Toivonen has been banished to Europe after failing to deliver the goods in 2007-08. Legace and Mason are quality guys, so dressing room chemistry shouldn't be an issue. The Blues did a nice job of limiting shots, tying for sixth in fewest shots allowed per game. The problem was that a high percentage of those shots managed to find the back of the net.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterIt's much like the lyrics to an old country song, "If it weren't for bad luck, the Blues would have no luck at all," as the injuries continue to mount for a team that appeared to have turned a corner. First, rising star blueliner Erik Johnson tore up his knee in a freak golf cart accident, and now, promising defenseman Jeff Woywitka is out with a broken bone in his foot. Similarly, injuries the past two seasons to former free-agent acquisition Jay McKee limited him to just 89 games over that span.
If the Blues are to improve this season, they need a big bounce-back campaign from Paul Kariya and solid contributions from Andy McDonald, Keith Tkachuk and Brad Boyes. The good news for St. Louis is, assuming it can get healthy and shake the string of bad luck on the injury front, the cupboard is brimming with good young prospects. Alex Pietrangelo, forwards T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron and Lars Eller are just some of the youngsters who will usher in the good times for the franchise going forward.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
ST. LOUIS BLUES
• Blues Home
• 2008-09 Schedule
• Complete Roster
• Search: Blues IN REVIEW
• Record: 33-36-13
• Division: Fifth in the Central
• Conference: 14th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• It's difficult to imagine these games will mean much playoffwise, but the Blues play five on the road from March 29 to April 7, at Columbus, Chicago, Detroit, Dallas and Phoenix. It would be a minor miracle if this road trip were make-or-break for a playoff berth. It's more likely this road trip will solidify the Blues as a draft lottery team.
Experience: 8 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• When the Blues were in free fall in the latter part of the season, there were grumbles that Andy Murray was in trouble. This is the same coach, of course, who was feted after replacing Mike Kitchen and bringing order and discipline to the team. A stickler for detail, Murray will have to get a lot more out of his troops this season to ensure job security.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Paul Kariya
You can expect Kariya to be determined to improve on his disappointing first season in St. Louis (he scored just 16 goals). Intensely proud Kariya was hoping to launch himself back into consideration for Canada's 2010 Olympic team, which will compete in his hometown. He'll need to have a banner year to do that.
F -- Brad Boyes
After bouncing from San Jose to Boston before landing in St. Louis in February 2007, Boyes found his comfort zone, finishing in a tie for fifth in the league with 43 goals. His previous career total was 26 with Boston. This season, he'll need to prove that wasn't a flash in the pan.
F -- Andy McDonald
Although Tkachuk spent some time at center between Kariya and Boyes, look for McDonald -- a more natural fit at center -- to try to find his own comfort zone. After coming over from Anaheim, McDonald had 36 points in 49 games for the Blues, and he has point-a-game potential.
D -- Eric Brewer
Named as captain in February, Brewer is a steady, settling influence on the Blues' back end. He led St. Louis in average ice time at 24:37 a night and missed only five games.
D -- Alex Pietrangelo
Davidson insists there will be no pushing Pietrangelo, but also admitted he'd love it if the big defensive talent, who was selected fourth overall at June's draft, made the big club out of camp. He's just 18, but with Johnson gone for the season, there's a spot waiting for him if he can prove he's ready early in the regular season.
Answer: The former Canadian Olympian was once considered one of the game's most talented players and signed a giant three-year deal worth $18 million with the Blues in the summer of 2007. After a good start to the season, Kariya slumped in the last half, scoring just once in his final 26 games. He finished with a paltry 16 goals and was minus-10. The soon-to-be 34-year-old had 161 points in two seasons with Nashville before moving to St. Louis, so he still has the tools. He also came to camp this year more bulked up and determined to drive the net more effectively.