As of January 12, the Blues were considered by Vegas Insider as one of the likeliest teams in the league to claim the coveted Stanley Cup. With 11-2 odds to win it all, that ties them with both the Pittsburgh Penguins and defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Their first half of the season was the best in franchise history with 63 points over 41 games, they are scoring at the second-highest rate per game while allowing the third-fewest goals against and they've got the kind of depth most teams dream of.
How they got to this point in their quest for their first Stanley Cup is impressive: a combination of great drafting and patient tutoring, shrewd and timely trades, and putting the right people in place to bring it all together.
A Young Core of Scorers
Not a single member of their top six in scoring so far this season has celebrated his 30th birthday. When teams are able to draft well and develop their players as a group that goes through its growing pains together, good things happen.
The Blues are getting offense from the young and old(er), and their top scoring forwards are just entering their prime if you believe they peak between 26 and 30.
|Top Blues Scorers|
Having three lines that can score on any given shift, as opposed to a top-heavy team that relies one one or two trios for all of its offense, is what seems to separate the Blues from the competition. It also bodes well for their future when five of their top 12 scorers are 25 and under.
Even their veterans aren't expected to be affected anytime soon by the inevitable depreciation of speed and reaction time that comes with age.
Demonstrating Serious Draft Skills
Outside of the top five players in any given NHL draft, it's a bit of a crapshoot. You have to make your first-rounders count to be successful, building strength and developing from within.
The Blues have done an incredible job over the last decade of finding key pieces in higher rounds as well as a couple of stable contributors with later picks. Their current roster boasts 10 players they drafted and developed themselves.
|Blues draft picks on the current roster|
Of these 10 homegrown talents, only defenseman Alex Pietrangelo was considered a can't-miss kid. He was taken in a banner year for blueliners and could be the best of the bunch as far as an overall skill set—even over Erik Karlsson.
Netting not one but two kids in the first round of the 2010 draft who are both making a massive impact this season—Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko—has given the Blues the kind of youthful depth other teams envy.
Schwartz is turning out to be one of the surprise stories of the season with his impressive point production (15 goals and 32 points in 42 games complemented by his league-leading plus-24 rating (tied with Chris Kunitz and Matt Niskanen).
While Tarasenko is more of a pure playmaker and skill player, Schwartz is the kind of diminutive but plucky winger who plays much bigger than his 5'10" frame and with more determination than many of his much bigger or more skilled opponents.
The Blues have drafted a nice mix of those types. Like Schwartz, David Backes and T.J. Oshie are gritty but talented. Patrik Berglund is more dynamic as a playmaker, like Tarasenko.
They've also discovered leaders on the back end in veterans Barret Jackman and Roman Polak. Their regular enforcer, Ryan Reaves, has the ability to contribute on the fourth line in an energy role.
Blues executives have also done a nice job of identifying which former draft picks they should deal away either because of a lack of fit with the identity the team wants to maintain or the need to bring in players with other dimensions.
Wheeling and Dealing Their Way to the Top
Picked up with Carlo Colaiacovo on Nov. 24, 2008, Alexander Steen has been a steadily improving player with two 20-goal seasons and an increasingly well-rounded, confident game. Steen's incredible start to the year, sniping a career-high 24 goals in his first 35 games this season, has paced the Blues.
Other trades have contributed to the Blues' success—even in the absence of Steen, who is dealing with a concussion.
Goaltender Jaroslav Halak is as big a piece as any. When the Blues picked him up from the Montreal Canadiens in June of 2010—just after a heroic performance by the Slovakian netminder in the Stanley Cup playoffs—it was with the expectations that he would be the answer to their woes between the pipes and was young enough to grow along with the talented core general manager Doug Armstrong was assembling.
Injuries have been about the only thing to have stood in the 28-year-old's way, but when he's healthy, he's a dynamic puck-stopper and is once again showing the league his talent.
One of the most underrated deals of Armstrong's tenure may be the move to get Vladimir Sobotka from the Boston Bruins in return for Boston product David Warsofsky in June of 2010. Sobotka is currently filling in for David Backes at center on the top line, but has become one of the integral pieces in the team's top nine forward ranks thanks to his versatility and an increasingly noticeable scoring touch.
Talented defenseman Erik Johnson is doing well for the Avalanche these days, but the return has formed part of the stellar nucleus in St. Louis with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart. Stewart's toughness and physical game wear down opponents and Shattenkirk is as skilled as Johnson, which makes him a valuable second-pairing blueliner behind Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester.
Bouwmeester cost the Blues prospect Mark Cundari, goaltender Reto Berra and a first-round pick, but they knew their cupboards were full of young players who will be good for a long time and that a piece or two could give them a serious crack at the Cup.
The franchise is a contender today because of some great work by former president of hockey operations John Davidson, who left the team a year ago in much better shape than he found it in 2006 after a league-worst 21-46-15 record.
As strong as the drafts have been since then, and as savvy as they've been with their trades and signings, the best move may have been to hire Ken Hitchcock to bring everything together on the ice.
Following up its awful 2010-11 season with a 6-7 start, the team was flailing with Davis Payne at the helm. Davidson and Armstrong turned to Hitchcock for help.
Under Hitchcock's guidance, the team quickly turned things around. Using a relentless forecheck and physical game full of pace and puck possession, the Blues racked up a 43-15-11 record in the 69 games Hitchcock coached, earning him the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
|Hitchcock's record with the Blues|
The Blues were among the lockout's best teams a year ago and are looking like potential champions again this season, proving to have found the winning formula.
Now all they have to do is prove it in the playoffs.
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