The St. Louis Blues have been a young team on the rise for several years now, but finally took a step forward in 2011-2012, reaching the second round of the playoffs after finishing with the second-highest point total in franchise history.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at a promising Blues team that appears to have found the right path under new head coach Ken Hitchcock.
When the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne early last season, replacing him with Hitchcock, the Blues' fortunes turned and they were in contention for the Presidents' Trophy for much of the season.
One of the game's top goaltending tandems helped fuel the ride for the Blues and it's fair to wonder whether that can continue at such a high level, but there are other reasons to be optimistic about the Blues.
One is the relative youth of their core. Of their top nine scorers, Jason Arnott was the only one older than 28, so there are a lot of Blues that are approaching or just hitting their prime years of production.
Additionally the Blues, with new ownership, also have loads of cap room. Sure, there are some restricted free agents due for raises and there are unrestricted free agents on defence, but the Blues have both the financial flexibility to be players for top free agents and have the assets to deal if they are inclined to fill any holes that way.
Having made the playoffs twice in the last seven seasons, the Blues can hardly be complacent, so this summer will require savvy moves to keep the Blues on the right path. The good news is, they've finally started to realize some results.
The TSN.ca Rating is an efficiency rating based on per-game statistics including goals and assists -- weighted for strength (ie. power play, even, shorthanded) -- plus-minus, hits, blocked shots, giveaways, takeaways, penalty differential and faceoffs. (Stats are listed in this format: G-A-PTS, +/-, PIM, GP). Generally, a replacement-level player is around a 60, a top six forward and top four defenceman will be 70-plus and the biggest stars will be over 80. Evgeni Malkin finished at the top of the regular season ratings with a 93.12.
Salary cap information all comes from the indispensable www.capgeek.com.
Doug Armstrong/Ken Hitchcock
Perhaps the most skilled point producer on the club, Andy McDonald has 72 points in 83 games over the last two seasons, but that also means he has missed 81 games in those two seasons as he has suffered several concussions. Obviously, the more he stays in the lineup, the better off the Blues will be offensively.
A concussion sidelined Alex Steen for nearly half of the 2011-2012 season, but it didn't affect his spectacular two-way play when he was in the lineup. 28 points in 43 games was about typical per-game production from Steen, but his plus-24 rating was a career-high and doing that in only 43 games was impressive. Steen is skilled enough to play in a top-six role, if needed, but is such a sound defensive player that he can take on a serious checking role too.
Over the last four seasons, four players have scored 100 goals and put up 400 penalty minutes. Corey Perry, Alex Burrows and Scott Hartnell are three of them and David Backes is the other, yet that only tells part of Backes' story. He also takes on the toughest checking assignments night-in and night-out and he's a plus-47 over the last two seasons in that heavy-lifting role.
24-year-old centre Patrik Berglund has been up-and-down in his four NHL seasons and last season his point production dropped to 38 from 52 the year before, despite more playing time. The good news for the Blues is that, if the trend continues, Berglund should rebound offensively next season.
When Chris Stewart arrived in a trade from Colorado in the 2010-2011 season, he scored 15 goals in 26 games with St. Louis, then managed 15 goals in 79 games last season with his role decreasing as the season went along. Stewart was just signed to a one-year contract extension, but that seems more like a motivational carrot rather than a reward for a job well done.
Matt D'Agostini was another Blues forward hampered by injuries last season, playing only 55 games and managing just 18 points as a result, but he scored 21 goals in 2010-2011. When the Blues have everyone healthy, it's tough for D'Agostini to fit in a regular role, but he does provide skill in a depth role.
Checking centre Vladimir Sobotka doesn't put up a lot of points (49 over the last two seasons), but he's capable of handling tough defensive work. Scoring 18 goals in 272 career games limits his upside, yet he's a good fit in his role.
The club's heavyweight, Ryan Reaves has fought 21 times (registering eight points) in 88 career games. He plays little and in protected minutes, but Reaves has been serviceable in that limited role.
B.J. Crombeen is another pugilist, who has racked up 60 fights over the last four seasons (www.hockeyfights.com). His role declined last season and three points in 40 games was his least productive season. Even in a minimal fourth-line role, he needs to be better.
A concussion suffered early in 2010-2011, cost David Perron more than 100 games, but when he finally returned to action, he still had his high-end skill with the puck. If the 24-year-old can stay healthy now, a 30-goal season should be within his grasp.
25-year-old winger T.J. Oshie wrapped up the best season of his career, scoring a career-high 54 points with a plus-15 rating while playing a career-high 19:32 and usually getting tough matchups. Oshie's hard-driving style of play has led to injuries and he ran afoul of the previous coaching regime in the 2010-2011 season, so those are issues to be aware of, but if he can stay healthy and on the right track, Oshie is a core piece around which the Blues can build.
The Blues have some prospects on the way, including Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, but they might also look for some veteran help in depth roles. Dominic Moore, Samuel Pahlsson or Jeff Halpern could be viable veteran options for depth.
Alex Pietrangelo ascent has been rapid. In his second full season, he emerged as a potential Norris Trophy contender, finishing with 40 points in 44 games from January through the end of the season. Among the 15 defencemen that are at least plus-30 over the last two seasons, Pietrangelo ranks second with 94 points (Zdeno Chara has 96) and the 22-year-old is going to keep getting better.
Though he struggled at times in the postseason, 23-year-old Kevin Shattenkirk has opened his career with back-to-back 43-point seasons and while that may not seem outstanding, there are only 11 defencemen league-wide that have topped 40 points in each of the last two seasons. Shattenkirk is a heady player with strong offensive instincts who, like Pietrangelo, still hs room to improve as he matures.
Re-united with Ken Hitchcock, who coached him in Columbus, Kris Russell didn't have a major role in St. Louis, playing a little under 17 minutes per game, but was plus-13 in 43 games with the Blus. Russell is a tremendous skater though undersized and that can work against him defensively.
A first-round pick in 2007, Ian Cole has been groomed slowly, playing 52 NHL games over the last two seasons, but the strong physical defenceman should be ready for a crack at a full-time job next season.
Roman Polak has limitations with the puck, but is as strong as an ox and can play shutdown minutes, even though his ice time last season (18:52 per game) was his lowest since 2007-2008.
There is the possibility that the Blues could lose three defencemen to free agency, including Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo, who was surprisingly effective in tough minutes last season.
Aside from Cole taking on more responsibility, the Blues may also consider free agents like Ryan Suter, Matt Carle, Jason Garrison and Sheldon Souray, particularly if they don't get Barret Jackman signed to a new deal.
There may not have been a more unlikely individual story in the NHL last season than Brian Elliott, the 27-year-old who was battling Ben Bishop in training camp for a spot on the roster, only to lead the league with a 1.56 goals against average and .940 save percentage. Certainly, the Blues' defensive play helps, but there isn't anything in Elliott's NHL history to suggest this was on the way, which makes it difficult to expect a repeat.
Jaroslav Halak was mediocre in his first year as the Blues' starter in 2010-2011, then started last season poorly (3.58 GAA, .843 SV% in first six games) before finishing much better once Ken Hitchcock took over. While he hasn't really established himself as a top-tier goaltender, Halak has a .919 save percentage over the last four seasons, which ranks seventh in the league among goaltenders with at least 160 starts.
||St. Petersburg SKA (KHL)
||23-24-47, +18, 54 GP
||Colorado College (WCHA)
||15-26-41, +6, 30 GP
||57-64-121, +23, 69 GP
||14-20-2, 2.93 GAA, .915 SV%, 38 GP
||Moose Jaw (WHL)
||15-41-56, +12, 58 GP
||5-7-12, +6, 41 GP
||27-31-58, +21, 59 GP
||8-26-34, +26, 68 GP
||3-7-10, -4, 39 GP
||Moose Jaw (WHL)
||4-19-23, +13, 56 GP
Stocky winger Vladimir Tarasenko is ready to come to the NHL after four seasons of development in the KHL. There may be a learning curve when he arrives in North America, but the 20-year-old has the skill to be a productive top-six forward.
A first-round pick in 2010, Jaden Schwartz left Colorado College following his sophomore season and scored two goals and three points in seven games with minimal ice time. Schwartz might have a difficult time cracking the Blues' deep forward depth chart right out of camp, but 88 points in 60 WCHA games indicates he's not far away.
Drafted in the second round last summer, Ty Rattie took his game up a notch, scoring 154 points in 90 regular season and playoff games for Portland of the WHL. The 19-year-old needs to get stronger before he gets serious consideration for the NHL.
Jake Allen is a solid goaltending prospect but, considering what the Blues already have in the NHL, it could be a few more years before he gets his chance at the next level. In the meantime, the 21-year-old can hold the starter's job in the AHL.
19-year-old winger Cody Beach was a fifth-round pick in 2010 and scored nearly a point-per-game last season. Considering that he's a 6-foot-5 scrapper, there could eventually be a role for him to play with the Blues.
A 6-foot-5 blueliner with puck-moving skills, Jani Hakanpaa could use further development, but the 20-year-old has potential and is the Blues' best defence prospect.
Taken in the fourth round last summer, Yannick Veilleux has good size and scored nearly a point per game while playing an aggressive, if inconsistent, game.
A smallish defenceman, Cade Fairchild impressed in his first pro campaign, earning a five-game look with the Blues. Considering the situation on the St. Louis blueline, Fairchild may have an opportunity to climb the organizational depth chart this season.
Acquired from the New York Rangers, Evgeny Grachev spent much of the first half of the season with the Blues, scoring four points in 26 games, and then wasn't very productive when he was demoted to the AHL. Nevertheless, the 22-year-old has good size and more skill than his numbers last season suggest.
Drafted in the second-round last summer, Joel Edmundson has the size and toughness to intrigue, particularly if he can continue to develop his skills.
Phil McRae, Jay Barriball, Dmitri Jaskin and Ryan Tesink provide additional forward prospect depth, while defenceman Teemu Eronen had a solid season in Finland.
25th - Dalton Thrower, Scott Laughton, Henrik Samuelsson, Brady Skjei
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blues have approximately $34.7M committed to the 2012-2013 salary cap for 15 players. Check out my potential 2012-2013 Blues roster on Cap Geek here.
Needs: One top nine forward, depth forwards, two top four defencemen.
What I said the Blues needed last year: Checking centre, top-four defenceman, backup goaltender.
They added: Jason Arnott, Jamie Langenbrunner, Evgeny Grachev, Scott Nichol, Kent Huskins, Brian Elliott.
TRADE MARKET Matt D'Agostini, Chris Stewart, B.J. Crombeen, prospects.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.