When the St. Louis Blues got back into the playoffs for the first time in four years back in 2008-09, it looked like the team was turning a corner. But the team has failed to live up to expectations since then, missing out on the post-season in each of the last two seasons. They had particularly high hopes entering last season after the team traded for netminder Jaroslav Halak and had plenty of young talent seemingly poised for breakout years. However, a combination of injuries, inexperience and tough luck caught up to the Blues as they finished 38-33-11 and missed the playoffs by 10 points.
David Perron, Andy McDonald and T.J. Oshie all missed significant time with injuries and while Perron is being brought back slowly, the other two are ready to go. Their healthy arrival should give fans reason for optimism going into this season. David Backes was impressive last season while scoring 31 goals and 31 assists alongside a career-best plus-32 rating. He should give the Blues more steady production this year.
The team also addressed some other areas that were in need of fixing which will further improve the club.
Eric Brewer's trade to Tampa Bay last season left a void of veteran leadership and GM Doug Armstrong brought in Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott in his two biggest moves this offseason. They will bring a solid veteran presence to the team and should be a big help to some of the team's youngsters.
To improve their penalty kill and defence, the Blues also brought in hard-charging centre Scott Nichol and dependable blueliner Kent Huskins. With Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk also on the blue line, the team has a solid defensive core.
In net, Halak is the type of goalie who can completely shut down the opposition and win games all by himself. If he can find a bit more consistency and improve on last season's performance, the Blues could really make some noise in the Central Division.
Prospect Report: Russian RW Vladimir Tarasenko, the Blues' 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft, is the type of prospect who could be worth the wait. He will play out the final year of his KHL contract this season but intends to play in the NHL as soon as possible. When he does make it over to the Blues they will have a potential star on their hands. Tarasenko is a tank and uses his strength and speed to his advantage. He has great puck skills, strong acceleration and balance and is a terrific scorer. The tenacious winger showcased his skills at last year's World Juniors where he helped power Russia to the gold with an incredible comeback win over Team Canada.
Jaden Schwartz is another player whom the Blues may have to wait for but who also has the potential for a bright future. Schwartz is an excellent playmaker with great vision and a deadly accurate shot. Last season he posted 47 points in only 30 games for Colorado in the NCAA last year. His biggest asset though may be his character, as he's had to deal with plenty of hardship in his young career. He also showed guts in scoring a goal for Canada at the World Juniors while playing with a broken ankle.
Breakout Player to Watch: Patrick Berglund. The 23-year-old centre signed a two-year contract extension this offseason after establishing new career-highs with 22 goals and 52 points in 2010-11. He also led the Blues with eight power-play goals. There are big expectations for the young Swede this year and having Jason Arnott around should benefit his development. Berglund has the potential to build on last year's totals and score 30 goals.
Marquee Match-Up: Tuesday, January 10: Halak faced his former Montreal teammates in St. Louis last season, but will make his first trip back to the Bell Centre as a member of the opposition.
There's also a stretch of four potentially critical games against division rivals late in the season. Between March 27 and April 4, the Blues will take on all four of their divisional rivals. First up they get Nashville at home on March 27. Next they travel to Chicago on March 29. Then it's Columbus at home on March 31 followed by the Red Wings at home on April 4. It could be a make-or-break stanza.
Other Dates To Watch: Saturday, February 25: The Blues travel to Winnipeg for their only matchup with the new Jets franchise. The Blues haven't been to Winnipeg since April 8, 1996 when they tied the Jets, 2-2.
Reason To Get Excited: There's plenty of reason to believe the Blues can get back into the playoffs next spring. This is a team that went 6-1-2 to finish up the 2010-11 season and they will have a healthy McDonald and Oshie ready to go. Adding the likes of Arnott and Langenbrunner will be huge for some of their young talent and who knows - maybe Jonathan Cheechoo finds his scoring touch.
On the back end, Alex Pietrangelo put up 43 points and was a plus-18 last season. With Kevin Shattenkirk in the mix as well, they give the Blues a potentially potent offensive combo from the blue line. Halak gives the Blues a solid presence in net and has the potential, like he showed in Montreal, to win games singlehandedly.
Home Hardware: The Blues don't have a superstar player in the fold, but do have a lot of good players making up their roster. If head coach Davis Payne can pull all his pieces together and make an impact in the always-tough Central Division, some consideration for the Jack Adams Award will definitely be warranted.
On The Hot Seat: Again, head coach Davis Payne. The Blues have had fairly high expectations since making the playoffs in 2008-09 but haven't been back since. Heading into his third season with the club, it's time for Payne to start producing some results with the talent assembled. Another disappointing season could result in a coaching change on the Blues bench.
It's Your! Call: The Blues have an exciting, talented lineup but will it be enough for them to get back into the playoffs or will it be another season of unmet expectations?
St. Louis plays in, arguably, the toughest division in the NHL. The Central Division has produced two of the last four Stanley Cup Champions in Detroit and Chicago and also features a strong Nashville team and a Columbus team that made several big additions this summer.
The Blues, though, have the type of team that on paper should be more than capable of competing in the division. With solid veteran additions, a wealth of young talent and strong goaltending they could be one of the most improved teams in the league this year. All they have to do is live up to their potential. The question is, can they do it? It's Your! Call.