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Off-Season Game Plan: Blues

Scott Cullen
4/17/2008 11:31:48 PM
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A second-half collapse left the St. Louis Blues with a disappointing 2007-2008 season, and should provide the impetus for the franchise to focus on their young talent in an effort to get better for next season.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Blues' roster and how they might improve in order to compete for a playoff spot.

After opening the season with an entirely respectable 22-14-5 record in the first half, the Blues went 11-22-8 in the second half, revealing some shortcomings that will need to be addressed this summer.

Since the Blues finished 26th in the league with 2.46 goals per game, an obvious solution would be to find more guys to put the puck in the net.

However, with Paul Kariya and Lee Stempniak coming off down seasons, and David Perron playing a minimal role as a rookie, the Blues may already have the personnel capable of increasing their scoring, particularly if a couple of talented prospects make the jump to improve the depth and skill level up front.

Where the Blues might be better is if they can improve the puckhandling skills on the blueline. Erik Johnson was the top marksman among St. Louis defencemen with a mere five goals and he was the only one with more than two, so there's an obvious place to start.

But don't expect the Blues to rush into the free agent market and throw money around haphazardly in an effort to change their fortunes.

Team president John Davidson addressed the free agent market with reporters following the season, saying, "Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn't make sense. We want to grow our skill from within if we can."

Building from within is often the path to long-term success, but it takes time. If the Blues stay committed to developing their youth next season, it could be another year of development that is good for the long run, but not necessarily equating to a playoff berth in 2008-2009.

GM/COACH
Larry Pleau/Andy Murray

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Salary
Brad Boyes 76.80 $2.5M
Keith Tkachuk 73.63 $4.5M
Paul Kariya 71.47 $6.0M
David Perron 68.73 $875K
Lee Stempniak 67.38 $2.5M
Andy McDonald 65.51 $3.33M
Jamal Mayers 59.91 $1.4M
Dan Hinote 58.44 $1.0M
Cam Janssen 55.68 $550K
D.J. King 55.59 $550K

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
David Backes 66.61 RFA $802K
Martin Rucinsky 62.03 UFA $3.0M
Ryan Johnson 59.99 UFA $800K
Mike Johnson 58.68 UFA $750K
Jay McClement 57.20 RFA $700K

Top Prospects: T.J. Oshie , Patrik Berglund , Lars Eller

For all the disappointments in St. Louis this past season, at least they found a first-line scorer in Brad Boyes . While it may be optimistic to expect another 43-goal season out of him, Boyes has shown enough in his three NHL seasons that he can be counted on for 30-plus moving forward.

Following up Boyes, the Blues have two veterans in decline. Keith Tkachuk had a respectable 58 points, but the 36-year-old is no longer an impact player. He's entering the final year of his current contract, which may also mean the end of his NHL career and Tkachuk may need to play a supporting role next year, yielding to the Blues' youth movement.

Paul Kariya was brought in to be the leader of the franchise and he fit the role well for about two-thirds of the season, before completely collapsing down the stretch, scoring one goal in the final 26 games. Kariya is still just 33 years-old, so it's not like his game should be completely gone, but it's troubling for the Blues to be paying him $6-million for each of the next two seasons when he's coming off a season in which he managed 16 goals and a minus-10 rating.

The next generation of Blues forwards will be responsible for picking up the slack, and that means 19-year-old David Perron is due for a bigger role next season. To say the Blues were cautious with the teenager as a rookie would be an understatement, letting him off the bench for just 12:33 per game, but 27 points and a team-best plus-16 rating indicates that Perron will be ready for more in his second season.

One of the bigger disappointments among the Blues' forwards was Lee Stempniak , a 25-year-old who saw his goal total dip from 27 to 13. Stempniak had virtually identical shots on goal per game numbers in each of the last two seasons, however, so the Blues may simply hope that he was snakebitten around the net and is due for a bounceback campaign.

Getting Andy McDonald from the Ducks was a definite upgrade in terms of speed, but McDonald's horrible plus-minus (minus-17 in 49 games with the Blues) has to get cleaned up if he's going to anchor a top scoring unit. Theoretically, McDonald and Kariya should have the kind of speed that keeps opposing defences back on their heels, but that didn't immediately pan out as expected.

The Blues have a promising two-way winger in David Backes , the hard-hitting 23-year-old who has the grit to play a checking role and enough skill to slide up to a scoring line, if necessary.

Jay McClement 's third NHL season was a letdown as his scoring (down 14 points) and plus-minus (down by 20) dropped significantly. Nevertheless, McClement is a conscientious checker who can still fill a depth role.

Veteran checking centre Jamal Mayers plays a hard-nosed game, but he's also a minus-79 over the past four seasons so the Blues might consider limiting his role or upgrading his linemates in an effort to change that pattern.

Dan Hinote is another hard-working winger, but he was a healthy scratch at times and his hell-bent style inevitably leads to injuries.

Getting Cam Janssen at the trade deadline does give D.J. King some support in the fisticuffs department. Neither one of them offers much more, but both are willing to take on all comers and ensure that the Blues won't get bullied.

If the Blues are going to upgrade their forward ranks, the easiest way to do so may be from within the organization.

Swedish prospect Patrik Berglund is considered a potential franchise centre and his elite puck skills would immediately improve the Blues offensively, but the lanky 19-year-old centre will be trying to make a huge jump to the NHL from Swedish junior hockey.

A prospect who is a little closer, in terms of physical maturity as well as geography, is T.J. Oshie , who was the leading scorer at the University of North Dakota. Oshie has one year of college elibility remaining, but the Blues most assuredly want to get him signed and into the organization as quickly as possible.

If both Oshie and Berglund are ready for the NHL, then the Blues may have the makings of a decent crop of forwards, with a balance of youth and experience. Since their readiness is still a question mark, however, the Blues may dip into the free agent market if there is a good veteran who will come at a decent price (Chicago's Jason Williams comes to mind), but don't expect the Blues to break the bank for a "name" guy.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Salary
Erik Johnson 70.26 $850K
Steve Wagner 66.85 $635K
Jay McKee 65.21 $4.0M
Barret Jackman 63.57 $3.6M
Eric Brewer 63.24 $4.5M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Jeff Woywitka 67.48 RFA $690K
Matt Walker 61.06 UFA $600K

Top Prospects: Roman Polak , Ian Cole

St. Louis' defence corps is developing, and time alone will help it get better, but the group could use a quality puck-moving defenceman if they are going to rise to the next level.

Erik Johnson is emerging as a franchise defenceman, but he's only 20 years old so it would be prudent not to heap too much responsibility on his broad shoulders, as was the case late in the season when he ended up going minus-16 in the final 33 games.

One potential solution to the puck-moving woes on the backend could come in the person of Steve Wagner, a surprise out of training camp last season who split time with the Blues and Peoria of the AHL, whose poise with the puck should earn him a spot next season.

After that pair of young defenders, the Blues turn to veterans.

Eric Brewer is the captain and is headed for off-season shoulder surgery, but he's also been a minus player in eight of his nine NHL seasons, including a minus-45 in three years with the Blues. He has good size and can skate, but the results have to be better for the kind of money he's being paid.

Rough and tumble defenceman Barret Jackman has managed to stay relatively healthy the last couple of seasons and he's somewhat toned down the aggressiveness he had when first entering the league. He can be a solid part of the top four with the right partner.

At the other end of the spectrum, health-wise, Jay McKee has played in only 89 games over two seasons since signing as a free agent in the summer of 2006. When he is in the lineup, McKee doesn't do anything exciting, but he's a willing shot blocker who plays a smart defensive game. He might be a little pricey, though, for a team that isn't yet on the verge of contending.

It's taken some time for Jeff Woywitka to make his mark in the NHL, but the 24-year-old has shown, in 61 decent games over the past two seasons, that he's certainly capable of fulfilling a role on the third pairing.

Should the Blues take a shot at free agency, there is no shortage of puck-moving defencemen available to be brought in, and that group would include Ron Hainsey , John-Michael Liles and Brad Stuart or possibly Montreal's power play weapon, Mark Streit . Adding any of those guys to the current group would benefit the power play, which should be one of the Blues' primary off-season objectives.

Top prospect Roman Polak is a physical defensive presence who should be able to provide depth at the NHL level next season.

If the Blues add another defenceman in the draft (as might be anticipated with the No. 4 pick), it would give the organization superb depth since last year's first-rounder Ian Cole is coming off a fine freshman season at the University of Notre Dame.  A couple of years down the line, the Blues defence could be very well stocked.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Salary
Manny Legace 77.07 $2.5M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '07-'08 Salary
Hannu Toivonen 43.27 RFA $532K

Top Prospects: Ben Bishop , Marek Schwarz , Christian Beckford-Tseu

Manny Legace played in a career-high 66 games, a workload that needs to be curtailed. However, the 35-year-old has played well in St. Louis and will be counted on to handle the starter's job again next season.

The backup position isn't quite as settled, since Hannu Toivonen went in the tank, recording a 2-7-4 record with a 4.05 goals against average and .873 save percentage from December through March. The 23-year-old has potential, but the Blues may need to look for a more proven backup in an effort to stabilize the position.

One-time top prospect Marek Schwarz appears to have stagnated in his development, which opens the door for 6-foot-7 Ben Bishop as the best bet to be Legace's potential successor.

DRAFT
4th - Zach Bogosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Filatov , Cody Hodgson

FREE AGENCY
The Blues have approximately $33-million committed to salaries for next season.

Needs: Two top nine forwards, one top four defenceman, backup goaltender

What I said the Blues needed last year: One-two top six forwards, one-two checking forwards

Who did they add? Paul Kariya , Keith Tkachuk , Doug Weight , David Perron

TRADE MARKET
McKee, Mayers, Toivonen

Scott Cullen can be reached at scullen@tsn.ca 




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