Having missed the playoffs in five of the past six seasons, the time for results is fast approaching for the St. Louis Blues.
Off-Season Game Plan look at a young team that should be ready to take the next step, though that's been said before.
Team president John Davidson signed a three-year contract extension and it's entirely within reason to expect the Blues to be a playoff team in the years to come.
"It's realistic," Davidson told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "It's sensible now to say we're close and I'd hate to go off and move away and see this team really do what we think it can. This city deserves a team that is going to represent it and win a championship."
While it's natural for a team's management to be optimistic about their chances, there is enough talent on the Blues roster to have high expectations; it's just a matter of staying healthy and having young players continue to develop.
After the Blues lost in the first round of the 2009 playoffs to Vancouver, it looked like the beginning of big things as St. Louis had a bunch of young players getting their first taste of the playoffs.
Well, the next year there were slumps and not enough of the young players progressed (to say nothing of those that regressed) and the Blues just missed the playoffs.
Last season, there were some signs of progress, but a number of key injuries early in the year (including David Perron, T.J. Oshie and Andy McDonald) left the Blues in chase mode for much of the season.
So, in the midst of this disappointment, it would be easy to expect dramatic changes, to overhaul a roster that still has a young core, but this is also the time that patience pays off.
The Blues can certainly augment to what they already have and if David Perron is still feeling the effects of his concussion, then it would make sense to find another scoring winger, but the pieces are in place for the Blues to be a playoff team.
That requires continued progress from a young core of Chris Stewart, T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund, David Perron (if healthy), Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, and 27-year-olds David Backes and Alex Steen, who are just hitting their prime years.
It makes no sense to spend for the sake of spending, particularly for a team that has quite a few young players to get signed to new contracts, but if the Blues can find a few veteran pieces this summer, perhaps a reliable defenceman and an experienced checking forward or two, there is no reason to expect anything but a playoff appearance from the Blues in 2012.
The playoffs have been an expectation the last two seasons too and the results ultimately haven't been there, so it's time for the Blues to stop being the young up-and-comers and take the next step to becoming a perennial playoff team here and now.
Doug Armstrong/Davis Payne
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A concussion knocked David Perron out of the Blues lineup in early November and the season ended without any suggestion that he would necessarily be ready for next season. Certainly, with a full summer of rest, it's possible that Perron will be ready to play by next season, but if not, it could be a long process before ths skilled winger gets back to hockey.
Perron's absence is most certainly felt in the St. Louis lineup as he has the kind of game-breaking talent that would allow him to put up big offensive numbers.
33-year-old Andy McDonald has had his own concussion issues, and missed 24 games last season after taking an inadvertent knee to the head in early December. When McDonald returned in February, he finished the season scoring a point-per-game in the final 33 games, so he can still be a game-changer offensively.
There isn't a team in the league that wouldn't love to have David Backes, a power forward who can do it all, including lead the team in hits and faceoffs taken, though, to be fair, Backes needs to improve in the circle, as last year's 44.5% isn't good enough and he's never had a season in which he's won even 48% of his draws.
In the last 20 years, there have been 14 instances, including Backes last season, in which a forward had at least 30 goals, 30 assists, a plus-30 rating and 90 penalty minutes. That list includes Gary Roberts three times, Theoren Fleury twice, Eric Lindros twice, Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan, John MacLean, Alex Burrows, Doug Gilmour and Keith Primeau.
Acquired from the Avalanche in a blockbuster trade last season, Chris Stewart has a chance to form a dangerous power forward duo with Backes, as Stewart scored 15 goals in 26 games for the Blues after the trade.
With 56 goals in 139 games over the last two seasons, Stewart ranks in the Top 20 in the league in goals per game over that time frame and that could be just the beginning.
Underrated two-way forward Alexander Steen can play in any situation and do it well. When injuries decimated the Blues' forward ranks, Steen scored 32 points in a 34-game span from December through late February while playing 20 minutes a night.
He's not always asked to take on such a prominent role, but is valuable for his versatility and had the second-best five-on-five shot differential on the team last season.
T.J. Oshie is the kind of hard-driving skilled forward that can be a centrepiece for the team, but the 24-year-old still needs to mature into the leader that he can be, as evidenced by his unexcused absence from practice late in the season, which resulted in a team suspension.
Oshie's fearless style also makes him an injury risk -- he's missed 64 games through his first three seasons -- but there's a lot to like when he's in the lineup.
Patrik Berglund's strong bounceback effort in his third NHL season (a career-best 52 points in 81 games) was further enhanced by his impressive performance for Sweden at the World Championships (eight goals, ten points in nine games).
Berglund has the size and skill to be a frontline scoring centre and if the 22-year-old is ready to make that leap, the Blues will be very difficult to contain.
It was a breakthrough offensive season for Matt D'Agostini, who scored 21 goals and 46 points while playing under 15 minutes per game. As such, he's likely due a nice raise, but certainly provides excellent depth.
Picked up from Boston, Vladimir Sobotka performed well as a checking centre, playing well in a more significant role than he was allowed in Boston. As a faceoff man and penalty killer, he's more important to the Blues' cause now that Jay McClement in in Colorado.
A tough winger who can play a little, Brandon Crombeen will scrap but if he's going to play 13 minutes per game he has to be better than he was in 2010-2011, when he was a team-worst minus-18.
Ryan Reaves has increased his fighting in recent seasons and it earned him a look with the Blues last season. He's a limited player, but he can handle himself when the going gets rough.
Once the restricted free agents are signed, the Blues have an impressive complement of forwards, but could use some depth; a checking centre for the fourth line would be a wise investment; free agents like Pittsburgh's Michael Rupp or Max Talbot would bring valuable experience to a young team that has yet to achieve postseason success.
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Youth is served on the Blues defence, first and foremost with 21-year-old Alex Pietrangelo, who wasn't officially a rookie due to games played requirements, but was for all intents and purposes in 2010-2011 and ended the year as legitimate No. 1 defenceman.
Pietrangelo finished the season with 43 points and a plus-18 rating. Only four defencemen in the league -- Zdeno Chara, Alex Goligoski, Christian Ehrhoff and Lubomir Visnovsky -- could match Pietrangelo in both categories.
Kevin Shattenkirk, 22, came over from Colorado in a trade part way through his rookie season and performed well for the Blues, providing a puck-moving presence for the power play.
With Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk leading the way, the Blues have their future mapped out on the blueline, but could also use more experienced help for their young offensive defencemen.
He still doesn't stay healthy for an entire season, but Carlo Colaiacovo has at least been able to establish that he's an NHL-calibre defenceman in St. Louis. He moves the puck well and is a good fit on the third pairing, where he can avoid the most difficult matchups.
Veteran Barret Jackman plays harder minutes, with a more defensive focus, but has also missed 38 games over the last two seasons, so the 30-year-old could be wearing down from years of physical play.
With such a young group, Jackman is a valuable veteran, but is going into the final year of his contract.
Ian Cole is a promising defensive defenceman, who hits and blocks shots and made a rather smooth transition to the NHL after a little more than half a season in the AHL.
A block of granite on skates, Roman Polak takes on the tough defensive assignments and could be the nearest that the Blues have to a shutdown defender, but the 25-year-old is probably not quite to that level yet. Perhaps with good health next season (he missed 27 games with injuries last season), Polak will take that next step in his development.
He's only played a half season in the NHL, Nikita Nikitin has developed to the point that he has to be considered an NHL defenceman. After a rough start with minimal ice time and a minus-7 rating in 15 games, Nikitin responded to an increaseed role in the second half of the season, putting up nine points and a plus-8 rating in his last 26 games.
Merely by signing their restricted free agents, the Blues would have a competent group of defencemen with some upside. If they were looking to go bolder, perhaps signing a free agent like Kevin Bieksa, or if the Blues' ownership situation makes that big-ticket signing untenable, then Roman Hamrlik might provide a more stabilizing defensive presence (and make Carlo Colaiacovo expendable).
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Expected to be a saviour of sorts after coming over in a trade from Montreal last summer, Jaroslav Halak didn't meet expectations in his first full season as a starter in the NHL, starting and finishing the season well, but going through some rough patches in between.
The end result was a respectable 2.48 goals against average and .910 save percentage, but hopes were naturally for something better than respectable and, with Halak signed for three more seasons, there will be more chances for him to provide the top level goaltending that the Blues need to take this team into the playoffs.
Usually reliable veteran backup Ty Conklin struggled last season, with numbers far worse than any of the previous three campaigns, so the Blues may look at other alternatives. Veterans Mike Smith, Brian Boucher or Marty Turco would be options that might be relatively inexpensive to fulfill the backup role.
|Vladimir Tarasenko||RW||Novosibirsk Siber (KHL)||9-10-19,+1, 42 GP|
|Jaden Schwartz||C||Colorado College (WCHA)||17-30-47,-3, 30 GP|
|Jake Allen||G||Peoria (AHL)||2.52 GAA, .917 SV%, 47 GP|
|Philip McRae||C||Peoria (AHL)||12-14-26,-3, 46 GP|
|Jonas Junland||D||Farjestad (SEL)||5-17-22,+7, 41 GP|
|Stefan Della Rovere||LW||Peoria (AHL)||8-8-16,even, 66 GP|
|Mark Cundari||D||Peoria (AHL)||10-20-30,+6, 69 GP|
|Jori Lehtera||C||Yaroslavl Lokomotiv (KHL)||16-21-37,+16, 53 GP|
|Brett Ponich||D||Portland (AHL)||0-12-12,+23, 45 GP|
|Ben Bishop||G||Peoria (AHL)||2.55 GAA, .914 SV%, 35 GP|
Despite a dominating performance (11 points, plus-8 in seven games) at the World Junior Championships, leading Russia to the gold medal, Vladimir Tarasenko is expected to stay in the KHL for another season.
His production didn't really improve in the KHL last season, so maybe another year will allow him to take on a bigger offensive role, which would make him more valuable when he does finally join the Blues. Surely the Blues would be happy to have Tarasenko now, but it appears they'll have to wait.
After an impressive freshman season, Jaden Schwartz is returning to Colorado College for his sophomore year, after which he'll probably be ready for the NHL. As productive as he was, in a league of that calibre, Schwartz may just need some fine-tuning before he gives the pro game a try.
Jake Allen's first pro season was a good one, re-affirming his credentials as a quality goaltending prospect. The 20-year-old will have some time to mature before he is needed to carry the load in St. Louis.
While Philip McRae has some promise as a two-way forward, the 20-year-old was overmatched in his 15 games with the Blues last season, finishing with a minus-10 rating.
23-year-old defenceman Jonas Junland returned to Sweden last season, so he may not be pressing for a spot in St. Louis anytime soon, but he's probably good enough to play in the NHL; he just might have a hard time getting ahead of the rest of the Blues' blueline prospects.
A feisty winger with minimal offensive upside, Stefan Della Rovere didn't score more than 51 points in any junior season and had 16 points in 66 AHL games last season, but could still find a role in the NHL as an agitator.
An undrafted free agent signing, Mark Cundari stepped right into the American Hockey League and produced, the defenceman finishing as the top rookie scorer in Peoria last season. If he continues on this path, it won't take long before he gets a look with the Blues.
The Blues may never see Jori Lehtera in action, as he plies his trade in the KHL, but he has size and skill to be an intriguing commodity should he ever decide to come over to North America.
6-foot-7 defenceman Brett Ponich has just two goals in four seasons with Portland of the WHL, but was also plus-23 in 45 games with Portland last season, so he might be able to carve out a niche as a stay-at-home defenceman.
6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop could conceivably get a shot as Halak's backup next season if the Blues don't sign a veteran free agent, though Bishops's play in 13 NHL appearances hasn't been strong enough to make him the favourite for the role and acquiring a veteran backup would ultimately leave Bishop behind Allen on the organizational depth chart.
No first-round pick.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blues have approximately $31.6M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 10 players.
Needs: Checking centre, top-four defenceman, backup goaltender.
What I said the Blues needed last year: One top six forward, one top four defenceman, two additional defencemen, starting goaltender.
They added: Vladimir Sobotka, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaroslav Halak.