Central Division Preview- The Same Old Tune
The St. Louis Blues went into another summer shaking their heads at what went wrong. As the franchise enters its 49th season of existence in the NHL, they’ve yet to drink from Lord Stanley’s Cup. As a matter of fact, they haven’t even played in the Final since 1970. 39 playoff appearances and nothing to show for it. During their 25-year streak of qualifying for the post-season from 1980-2004, they made the conference finals just twice. So, why should this season be any different?
There’s no questioning the talent this team has up front, led by 23-year old Russian superstar Vladimir Tarasenko. He led the charge with 37 goals during the regular season, and did all he could to prevent another playoff meltdown with 6 goals in the 6-game series loss to the Wild. He, along with David Backes, Alexander Steen, Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Paul Stastny form a fantastic top two lines. Even without the injured Patrik Berglund, the rest of the forward group is solid with the likes of Troy Brouwer, Kyle Brodziak, Dmitrij Jaskin, Steve Ott, Ryan Reaves and newly signed Scottie Upshall. The Blues will have decisions to make around the midway point of the season when Berglund comes back, as they are firmly pressed up against the cap. So if the minor injuries start adding up, they, like Chicago, will have to make some roster moves.
It could be argued that their blue line is as talented as the top forwards. Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarsson round out their top two pairings, with a serviceable Robert Bortuzzo leading the 3rd pairing. With the exception of Bouwmeester, all of them are in the prime of their careers. The one glaring piece that’s missing from a season ago is 13-year veteran Barrett Jackman, who signed with division rival Nashville. Jackman’s physical presence will be missed, but they have enough incumbents to still be great defensively.
Here is the team’s biggest question mark, when it really didn’t have to be. Not so long ago, Jaroslav Halak was the solid number 1 goalie for the Blues, posting 20 shutouts and a 2.23 GAA in his 4 seasons with the club. Then management decided to trade him away as part of a package, for rental Ryan Miller and the aforementioned Ott. This was a panic move in my mind as they ignored the fact Halak historically is better in the post-season than Miller. Once Miller became a free agent and signed with Vancouver, things became cloudy. With the enigmatic Brian Elliott already in place, Jake Allen stepped in to fill the backup role. Elliott, even with his time in Ottawa, has been as inconsistent as any netminder in the NHL. When Elliott missed time due to injury last year, Hitchcock didn’t feel comfortable enough with Allen to taking the full-time role, so they signed quasi-retired (and current St. Louis legend?) Martin Brodeur. So what message does that send to the then 24-year old goaltender? Hitchcock threw Brodeur in because he didn’t trust Allen, and yet when the playoffs began, Allen started ahead of Elliott. If someone can explain this logic, I’d love to hear it. If it wasn’t for the Canucks trading away BOTH Roberto Luongo and Corey Schneider recently, I’d say nobody is worse at handling goalies than the Blues.
I personally feel like St. Louis dug their own grave already this season with keeping Hitchcock. He is the type of coach with an expiration date at his locations and his message has already gone stale there. He won the Cup in ’99 and won the West a year later, but that was ages ago. Less than two years after going to the Final, he was fired in Dallas. He then moved on to Philly where he lasted just over 3 years, was fired in season 4 with Columbus, and is entering year 5 with St Louis. The last time his team won a game past the first round was 2004. I expect the same old tune for the Blues with a strong regular season, followed by an early playoff exit. Hitch might even win another division if things break right, but that will be just a resume builder for his next team.