St. Louis Blues: Watching Kids Grow Up

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St. Louis Blues: Watching Kids Grow Up
(Photo by Nick Didlick/Getty Images)

What’s the difference between the Blues and the Blackhawks this year? They have a lot in common—in particular both teams have a strong nucleus of young players.

Interestingly enough, I think the big difference is that the Blues have demonstrated that they are the better playoff team.

How’s that, you ask. Weren’t the Blues eliminated from the playoffs by the same team that the Blackhawks just dispatched? Isn’t Chicago in the Western Conference Finals and the Blues teeing it up on a golf course?

Well, duh.

Except for one thing: The Blues have been in “must win” mode since January. The Blackhawks have stepped it up just recently.

This year’s Blues team of young guns delivered a 92-point season and earned a first-round ticket to the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Along the way, they breathed life and provided entertainment and excitement and for a franchise that need to be revived and hadn’t seen the playoffs since a quick five game exist in 2004, when they lost to the Sharks.

For St. Louis, obviously, there is still work to do. This is still a process. The construction isn’t complete. The Blues were swept out of the first round by Vancouver. Mostly, the kids (and veterans) fumbled on the power play and never sufficiently buzzed the net to disrupt Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who was white hot in the first round.

While, on the other hand, the Chicago Blackhawks’ youth movement had no such problem. They met Vancouver in the second round and banished Luongo and the Canucks in six games.

The Blackhawks broke Luongo down by getting him moving and keeping him moving. He didn’t seem sharp enough to match the Blackhawks’ quickness down low. When the Hawks attacked the net, he couldn’t react and wound up with a terrible .879 save percentage in the series.

This was the Blues’ plan, but they couldn’t execute it. And the Blues’ primary kids — T.J. Oshie, David Perron and Patrik Berglund—didn’t reach a true postseason tempo and elevate their game until late in the four-game sweep.

Only Perron scored a goal. David Backes, a huge part of the Blues young nucleus, was also held to one goal in the Vancouver series. Patrick Berglund seemed like he cared more about the World Championships than the Stanley Cup.

But the playoff run started back in January when the Blues decided to roll the dice with the team it had and not sell off the veterans and the fans down the Mississippi River. The gamble to play a pat hand paid off.

Still, it’s bad enough to have to chase Detroit in the same division, which the Blues have been doing for my whole life. Now it’s a little more frustrating to come to grips with the reality that the The Note is running behind Chicago in the youth cycle.

The Blackhawks are further along in the process. The United Center is a tough place to play when the home team is decent. And, as sick as it makes my stomach, now they’ll play in the Western Conference Final, which will be a valuable experience for a young Chicago roster with an average age 25, not counting the goaltenders.

(And a few other things about Chicago and its luck this year: they fire Denis Savard at the beginning of the year and pick up former Blues Coach Joel Quenneville. They have former St. Louis and Detroit coach Scottie Bowman working for them.

And they spent the preseason shopping and threatening to send to the minors the guy who is playing between the pipes. Every single button the Black Hawks pushed this year was the right one. Hang on, I’m going to lose my lunch.)

OK. I’m better now.

I love what the Blues are doing. I love the way they went after it in 2008-2009. They’re going to be fun to watch for years to come. After all, in December 2008, the web site hockeysfuture.com, ranked them as the NHL’s No. 1 organization (in terms of their quality of prospects).

The Blues will need to keep the talented kids coming if they’re to keep pace and overtake Chicago.

The Blackhawks are ahead at this point because they hit bottom before the Blues did, and got an earlier start on a massive franchise overhaul. In a rundown of the Chicago roster, the Blackhawks got 158 goals and 216 assists this season from forwards age 25 or younger.

The Blues? They got 101 goals and 139 assists from players 25 or younger. (That includes a couple of goals that Alex Steen scored for Toronto before being traded to St. Louis.)

Chicago got 23 goals and 90 assists from defensemen age 25 or younger.

The Blues: Four goals and 59 assists from d-men age 25 or younger. That total would have been much higher but top defenseman Erik Johnson missed the entire season after knee surgery.

And, despite the pain in my chest I feel as I type this, that’s only part of the equation: Chicago’s U-25 players have really shined during the playoffs—pumping in 25 goals in two series so far.

The Blues finished 12 points behind the Blackhawks in the regular season despite dominating Chicago in head-to-head matchups. But the Chicago kids went to another level this spring.

Forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien and defensemen Duncan Keith and Cam Barker have come up big in the postseason. The confidence that’s expanded and reinforced by postseason success will only make the Blackhawks tougher to deal with next season and beyond.

Chicago ownership is also willing to throw around the big dollars for free agents, as was the case last summer when defenseman Brian Campbell signed on for $56 million.

Blackhawks ownership, led by Rocky Wirtz, has more resources than the Blues’ Dave Checketts and partners. Like his late father, the young Wirtz wants to win. Unlike his father, he’ll be gunning for a Stanley Cup because he is willing to open his wallet.

To close the gap, the Blues just have to hope that Alex Pietrangelo, Lars Eller, Phil McRae, Ian Cole, Ben Bishop and others are as good as touted. They also have to get a little lucky and have some unexpected surprises develop.

I hope it’s going to be fun watching the Blues and the Blackhawks battle over the next several seasons. It would be just my luck that the Blues will play out of their minds and over their skill level and eclipse the Red Wings only to fall short against Chicago.

Still, the rivalry that was once huge in the '80s and '90s and was noted across all over the NHL will soon be back to what it once was, and the playoff battles are not too far off.

Even if the Blackhawks do have a head start.

AB

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