Reasons Why St. Louis Blues Will Win the Central Division
The St. Louis Blues have had a lot of time to think about what went wrong in the team’s shortened 2013 season.
A year removed from snubbing the hockey world’s expectations and surprisingly winning the NHL Central Division, the Blues narrowly won the fourth seed in the Western Conference last season—only six points ahead of missing the postseason entirely.
They took on the Los Angeles Kings for the second consecutive year and were issued a familiar result—losing to the Kings in six games in the Western Conference Quarter Finals.
Despite these setbacks, however, the future is still very bright in St. Louis, and the Blues are expected to have a strong showing in this year’s revamped Central Division.
With Detroit and Columbus leaving the Western Conference in favor of the East, the Central Division will see the additions of Dallas, Colorado and Winnipeg, while still retaining competitive clubs in Nashville and Chicago.
Given recent history, the Central Division isn’t expected to be the powerhouse it has been in the last couple of years. Other than the reigning Stanley Cup Champions in Chicago, the Blues were the only other team in the division to qualify for the playoffs last season, and as such, the Hawks and Blues are seen to be the presumed front-runners in the renovated division.
Despite predictions aligning the upcoming Central Division crown with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Blues have more than enough ammunition to dethrone the reigning Central Division champs. Here’s how.
Consistent and Oppressive Defense
After giving up less than two goals per game the previous season and leading the NHL with the lowest goals-against average, the St. Louis Blues tied for seventh last year with the L.A. Kings, allowing 2.38 goals-against per-game on average.
While not outshining the league defensively last season by any means, the Blues still had one of the best defensive units in 2013. The addition of veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester from the Calgary Flames helped to provide some much needed veteran leadership on the blue line and gave reprieve to the Blues younger, still developing defensemen.
Their Central Division rivals in Chicago were statistically the best defensive team last year, but the Blues have a tremendous balance in defensive depth. Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk will only get better as time goes along, and they can rely on the leadership of veteran stalwarts like Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold and Barret Jackman.
There is no good defense without good goaltending.
In the 2011-12 season, the Blues found success in goaltending I’m sure they didn’t expect. They signed goaltender Brian Elliott to a one-year, two-way contract—a contract not even guaranteeing him a spot on the Blues roster. Elliott turned that signing into gold as he made the NHL Western Conference All-Star team that year and helped himself and starter Jaroslav Halak earn the William M. Jennings Trophy as the goaltending duo with the fewest number of goals scored against it.
Last year, however, did not pan out as Elliott and the Blues expected.
Despite an above average goals-against total on the year, both Halak and Elliott had long spurts of inconsistency and injury, and some of the season even saw rookie Jake Allen grab hold of the reigns for consecutive periods of time as the teams top-performing goaltender. However, Brian Elliott rebounded brilliantly and carried a stellar second-half performance into the playoffs.
Halak and Elliott are both very talented goaltenders in their prime, and they can easily be seen as the best goaltending duo in the NHL headed into the upcoming season.
Maturity of Core Players
The current incarnation of the St. Louis Blues is very homegrown.
It is a team that has been developed tremendously well. In fact, nine of the St. Louis Blues current regular lineup features players drafted by the Blues.
They also have made some astounding transactions—Chris Stewart, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka, and Kevin Shattenkirk have all joined the organization via trade without costing the Blues many assets.
Many of these players are still learning the rules of the trade when it comes to being an NHL player. With a plethora of youth on their side, the Blues can expect the experience of major league action to set in, and we should see a remarkable amount of growth within the organization.
While the Dallas Stars may have added a future franchise player in Tyler Seguin and the Nashville Predators have been given a strong offensive boost in Viktor Stalberg, the St. Louis Blues were not just coasting through the offseason.
The Blues made two big moves this past summer: signing Derek Roy to a one-year, $4 million contract, and trading flashy winger David Perron to Edmonton in exchange for youngster Magnus Paajarvi.
While Paajarvi is still developing into a consistent professional player, Derek Roy has the potential to really produce for the Blues. The 30-year-old veteran had a string of 20+ goals from 2006-09, and each of those seasons included a 60+ point effort. While his production has slipped in the last couple of years, the Blues are hoping centering the second line with power-winger Chris Stewart will help both of them reach their offensive potential this season.
The Blues are one of the few teams that upgraded offensively in their division this offseason, and that can only help the team climb up in the standings.
The St. Louis Blues have a plethora of players who are offensively effectual yet defensively responsible.
You won’t see the same offensive firepower out of the Blues that you will see out of their divisional rivals in Chicago, but the Blues may have some of the best two-way forwards in their division. In the first line alone, wingers Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie combined with the efforts of captain David Backes may be the most defensively competent top offensive line in the NHL.
With the addition of Maxime Lapierre over the offseason, the Blues have added even more aggression to their offensive punch.
The Blues blue line also has a number of players proficient on both ends of the ice. Although Jay Bouwmeester never flourished in Calgary as a consistent blue-line threat, he still has the talent to put up respectable offensive numbers, and Alex Pietrangelo is quickly developing into one of the best two-way defensemen in the NHL.
After the results of last season, St. Louis Blues’ head coach Ken Hitchcock may receive some appropriate backlash after being dismissed from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings for the second consecutive year.
However, Hitchcock is not only a veteran coach with a Stanley Cup championship under his belt, he has also proven to be very effectual at corralling this young Blues team.
The Blues were headed for another dismal season in 2011-12 before Hitchcock took the helm. They were 6-7-0 with Davis Payne at the helm, but as the torch was passed to Hitchcock, he led the St. Louis Blues to their first Central Division victory in over ten years and earned himself a well-deserved Jack Adams Award as Coach of the Year.
His sophomore season with the Blues may have not been as glamorous, but he was able to direct his team towards playoff contention, and he is still one of the most successful head coaches in the NHL today.
All of these ingredients combined, there should be substantial optimism that the St. Louis Blues will find their winning ways and end the upcoming season atop the Central Division.