Blues: 10 Things You Need To Know
By Pierre LeBrun
The St. Louis Blues are a trendy pick to make a playoff push this season.
They were first in the NHL after a 9-1-2 start last season before decimating injuries sunk their season. Now they're mostly healthy, and they've also made veteran additions to a roster chock-full of talent.
"The main goal is to just make the playoffs," netminder Jaroslav Halak told ESPN.com. "Last season it just slipped away from us. Injuries came. It's a long season and injuries will happen. It happened at a bad time and we just couldn't recover."
This time around, the newfound depth, thanks to offseason additions of Jamie Langenbrunner, Jason Arnott, Scott Nichol and Kent Huskins, should help buck any rash of injuries. Or at least that's the hope.
"We believe we have a team now that has the depth to overcome some injuries," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com. "We're a year more experienced; we're deeper, and we think we're sitting in a good spot as we start the season."
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Atlantic: NJD | NYI | NYR | PHI | PIT
NE: BOS | BUF | MTL | OTT | TOR
SE: CAR | FLA | TMB | WAS | WPG
Central: CHI | CMB | DET | NSH | STL
NW: CGY | COL | EDM | MIN | VAN
Pacific: ANA | DAL | LAK | PHX | SAN
1. Halak needs more consistent season
Halak came over from Montreal last summer after playing upset hero for the Habs in the 2010 playoffs.
After a torrid start with the Blues, his play tailed off in the second half of the season. The Blues need a full year of his best netminding.
"The main thing is to find the consistency, not just me but the whole team," said Halak. "We need to maintain that all season."
2. Experience a factor
Arnott and Langenbrunner, in particular, are not being asked to come in and carry the team as they might have in their younger days.
"We believe that the core of our team is going to dictate the success of the season," said Armstrong. "What we were looking to do [with the free-agent additions] is supplement our core, not reinvent the wheel."
The new players bring a wealth of NHL games under their belt, a welcome addition in a young dressing room.
"I'm pretty sure the guys we picked up in the offseason will help in the locker room and on the ice to bring leadership," said Halak.
3. Big trade last February
The biggest impact on the roster happened last February, when the Blues pulled off a blockbuster with Colorado that netted power winger Chris Stewart and promising young blueliner Kevin Shattenkirk. It's a deal many people around the league believe the Blues won hands down.
Armstrong says that big trade was a follow-up in some fashion to his acquisition of Halak the previous summer. The GM says the Blues had accumulated draft picks and prospects for a number of years, and now it was time to start to plug some holes with those assets.
"What we tried to do last year was move some of the pieces of the puzzle around so they fit better," said Armstrong.
4. Captain Backes
The Blues made David Backes captain before camp. He was a natural choice as both a fan favorite and a hard-working, two-way star who has been with the organization since day one of his career. Not to mention a player born with leadership qualities.
"Dave has been drafted by the Blues. He's learned how to be an NHL player here in St. Louis," Armstrong said. "And he wanted to stay a Blue. When we did his contract last November, he was six or seven months away from testing the free-agent waters, but he made a commitment to this franchise and to this city and that he believed the process that we were going through."
5. Teetering top six
The tentative plan in camp was to start the season with Backes centering Andy McDonald and Matt D'Agostini, while Patrik Berglund centered T.J. Oshie and Chris Stewart. But that may change.
"That's how we have them penciled in, but early in camp, we played [Evgeni] Grachev with Berglund and Stewart and they've done very well," said Armstrong. "So he's going to get an opportunity on the left side there."
Langenbrunner and Arnott are other options, of course, for the top-six group, so nothing is written in stone.
"What we have now, which is exciting for the organization, is ice time and your role on the team has to be earned on a day-to-day basis," said Armstrong. "Where maybe in the past we didn't have the depth, so that Coach didn't have a lot of options."
In the end, Armstrong dropped the following hint.
"Our top six starting training camp and the way it might start the season might be different than what people think," he said.
6. Perron on the long, slow mend
On Sept. 26, the Blues announced that center David Perron could start his long comeback from a concussion that knocked him out for most of last season.
"The positive news is that he's back to the starting blocks, but he's still a long distance away from being back as a contributor on the ice in an NHL regular-season game," said Armstrong. "But he's at the point now where the symptoms subsided and he can start the training process to see where he's at."
It sounds as though Perron is still a long time from returning. He didn't skate at all the whole time he was out, but once he does come back, it'll feel like a major trade-deadline acquisition for the Blues. Perron was a top-six fixture before getting hurt last season, and his playmaking ability and vision have sorely been missed.
7. The young blue-line studs
How many teams can boast two defensemen in their first full seasons in the NHL with 43 points apiece? Mercy. But now comes the tough part: youngsters Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk avoiding the sophomore slump that many second-year blueliners go through.
"We've talked to both of them, and we need them to be good NHL players," Armstrong said. "What we left with them last summer is, 'You're going to have to work twice as hard to stay in the same spot.'"
In other words, opposing teams didn't circle their names in preparation meetings last season. Now that's going to be different.
"Now I think when those teams look at the stats and see two 40-point defensemen, they're going to get the attention they didn't get last year," said Armstrong. "We're going to see how they respond to that, but we think both players have the skill set and maturity to respond to it."
8. Trying to make hay
Chicago and Detroit are powerhouses in the Central Division; Nashville is always tough and Columbus made improvements. The points won't be easy, once again, for the Blues.
"It's not easy," said Halak. "That was my first year last season with the Blues and to face Detroit and Chicago six times each is a lot, because both those teams are great. Nashville and Columbus, too, there's no easy games. It's not an easy division. But the main thing for us is that hopefully we won't have too many injuries."
9. Goals not a problem
Despite all the injuries last season and a nonplayoff season, the Blues ranked 10th in goals per game at 2.88. Only the Calgary Flames at 2.94 were better among nonplayoff teams. With some healthy bodies and the offseason additions of Arnott and Langenbrunner, not to mention a full season of star winger Chris Stewart, goals should not be an issue this season.
10. Goals against need to improve
Jaroslav Halak was a big offseason addition, but the Blues still ranked only 17th in goals against last season, and that's despite giving up the second-fewest shots against per game at 27.7. The penalty-killing unit ranked only 18th, which explains some of the goals-against issues.
That's an area the Blues are focusing on.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
Experience: Entering second full NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Davis Payne returns for his second full season behind the bench after taking over the job in January 2010.
"Last year Davis went through everything for the first time from the start of training camp to the end of the season," Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com. "Unfortunately for him, he saw a lot of good and bad of the NHL, as far as a healthy team that was a highly motivated in October to an injury-riddled team in November through January, and the ups and downs that go with that.
"I think he's a much more prepared coach for this season being through those experiences, and we have faith he's the guy that can push and prod this team into getting where we want to go." -- Pierre LeBrun
Best bet: Jaroslav Halak
The first year of the Halak Experience in St. Louis started off in grand fashion: a 6-1-1 record in eight October starts with a 1.72 GAA and .932 save percentage. That pace was unsustainable, but one didn't expect his save percentage to drop off to a pedestrian .910. Halak is thus undervalued as the 2011-12 fantasy season gets rolling, and it's not like he doesn't have the skills to be a No. 1 fantasy goalie. -- Tim Kavanagh
Risky pick: Carlo Colaiacovo
Defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo is a solid fantasy asset -- when he isn't in the infirmary. Good for a point every couple of contests or so, Colaiacovo would be a solid No. 3 defenseman if he wasn't so fragile. Count on a 65-game season (maximum) from the 28-year-old or risk having your fantasy heart broken. -- Victoria Matiash
Sleeper pick: Matt D'Agostini
D'Agostini will be hard pressed to repeat his 2010-11 season as the Blues' roster continues to improve. A solid 20-goal, 40-point season seems more likely because D'Agostini will be pressed into third-line duty if the Blues' depth chart remains healthy. His best chance for fantasy contributions will come if and when the Blues lose some players to injury. Looking at the history of Andy McDonald and Jason Arnott, that is a possibility. -- Sean Allen
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Blues:
• May 31: Re-signed C Patrik Berglund.
• June 2: Re-signed D Roman Polak.
• June 6: Re-signed C T.J. Hensick.
• June 9: Re-signed D Nikita Nikitin.
• June 13: Re-signed C Chris Porter.
• June 15: Re-signed C Vladimir Sobotka.
• June 22: Re-signed RW B.J. Crombeen.
• June 25: Acquired C Evgeny Grachev from Rangers for St. Louis' 2011 third-round pick.
• June 30: Re-signed C T.J. Oshie.
• July 1: Re-signed RW Matt D'Agostini.
• July 1: Signed G Brian Elliott.
• July 2: Signed D Kent Huskins.
• July 4: Signed LW Brett Sterling.
• July 5: Signed C Scott Nichol.
• July 5: Re-signed G Ben Bishop.
• July 6: Signed C Jason Arnott and RW Jamie Langenbrunner.
• July 13: Signed RW Jonathan Cheechoo.
• Aug. 8: Signed D Danny Syvret.
• G Ty Conklin (unrestricted free agent, signed by Detroit)
• D Nathan Oystrick (unrestricted free agent, signed by Phoenix)
• RW Cam Janssen (unrestricted free agent, signed by New Jersey)