St Louis Blues
2008/09 Record: 41-31-10, 92 points, 6th in West—Swept by Vancouver Canucks in first round
Additions: Ty Conklin—G (2 years/$2.6 mil), Derek Armstrong—F (FA), Brendan Bell—D (FA), Darryl Sydor—(T.C. Invite)
Subtractions: Jay McKee—D (FA), Jeff Woywitka—D (FA), Manny Legace—G (FA), Dan Hinote—F (FA),
The Central Division is by far the toughest division in the NHL.
Not only do you have two of the top teams in the West in the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, but you also three very evenly-matched teams in St. Louis, the Columbus Blue Jackets (who tied with identical records last year), and the Nashville Predators.
As Nashville found out last year, it’s impossible to take a game off and expect to make the playoffs.
Nothing is Brewin’ on the back end this year…
For the Blues, there’s a fair bit of turnover on the back end.
Out is quality low-pairing scoring option Jeff Woywitka, and in his place is former Maple Leaf and Senator Brendan Bell. Bell has great mobility on the back end and offers much of the same assets as Woywitka did, with just a touch more offense and a little more room for improvement.
Then the Blues lost both stay-at-home defenseman Jay McKee through a buyout, and Captain Eric Brewer to injury. While Darryl Sydor won’t replace McKee’s presence or Brewer’s powerful shot or strong frame, he can offer some tutelage to the younger blueliners on this roster (If he makes the team—he's on a training camp invite).
The two that most people think about when they think “young St. Louis Blue blueliners” are Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Johnson—both of whom went in opposite directions last year.
Pietrangelo made the team out of training camp last year and didn’t look out of place at the NHL level. The drawback, though, was that he was kept out of action for six games due to a hit to the head, and eventually returned to Niagara where he registered 29 points in 38 OHL games.
Johnson, meanwhile, suffered through injury concerns of his own, but he wasn’t fortunate enough to get back on the ice in the same season. After tearing his ACL due to “improper use of a golf cart”, Johnson will have to work to get back to where he was before. In the 2007/08 season, Johnson displayed great skating ability and was the point man for the St. Louis powerplay. Although the Blues survived without him last year, a healthy Johnson is a big boost for the Blues.
After being acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs last year, Carlo Colaiacovo turned into a go-to defenseman for the Blues, becoming the power play setup man notching 19 assists with the extra man (most likely seeing a boost in those numbers if Johnson returns to form) and averaging big minutes for the team from time-to-time.
Leafs fans had soured on Colaiacovo’s inability to stay healthy, but if he can stay on the ice in St Louis he’ll realize his top-four ability, leaving Leafs' fans to bang their heads of windowns, desks, and frying pans out of frustration.
Along with them, shut-down option extraordinaire Barret Jackman continues to bruise opposing forwards. His offense will always be back and forth, but that’s not what Jackman is paid for—he’s paid for his ability to play sound, smart defensive hockey, and lay the body without remorse.
Roman Polak played his first full year in the NHL last season, and while there were ups (15 points) and downs (-15 rating), Polak will slide in nicely on the lower pairing for the Blues, offering a quiet consistency down low.
There are plenty of other depth options in Missouri like Bryce Lampman, Steve Wagner, and Mike Weaver, but the man worth waiting for is far at the end of the tunnel as Ian Cole should be set to join the Blues’ defense after his final NCAA season.
Conked on the Head, the Mason didn’t know what to do...
The place where the Blues truly lack a star is in the crease.
Once thinking that Marek Schwarz could be that future star, Schwarz left for the Czech league halfway through last season and won't be back, while Ben Bishop is expected to see big minutes in the AHL this season so that he can hone his game and be ready for his next NHL callup.
That leaves Chris Mason and Ty Conklin—two goalies who are very similar.
Many remember Mason as the former starter for the Nashville Predators who supplanted Tomas Vokoun, and then was overtaken by Dan Ellis. In his lone season in St Louis, Mason played in a career-high 57 games last year, and posted a 2.41 goals-against and save percentage.
While those numbers are excellent, one has to wonder if Mason will be able to stay within that realm.
The acquisition of Ty Conklin protects the Blues in the event Mason falters.
Conklin has been a starter in the league, a playoff bust, a backup, and a tandem goalie, proving himself last year when Detroit’s Chris Osgood slipped up.
After having to find himself after a playoff meltdown with Edmonton, Conklin has played two outstanding years with Detroit and Pittsburgh and is a quality option for up to 45 games if need be.
Although he’s far from receiving a full-fledged starting role, Conklin is the ideal man to back up Mason with his preparation and willingness to go in at a moment’s notice.
However, with Mason's ability to grow a beard, the facial hair alone may cement his hold on the spot, as well as his drive to go back to the playoffs.
Boyes…we aren’t going Backes to McDonald’s…
There’s one forward for the Blues that everyone seems to have a vested interest in seeing this season: Paul Kariya.
As Kariya missed 75 games combined last year due to hip surgery, the big things to watch for will be if the agility and speed are hindered at all in Kariya’s game. If not, the Blues have just added a dangerous point-per-game winger to the mix. If there’s any lingering effect, Kariya could be in for another long and difficult year.
While Kariya may or may not see a return to form, and the veteran presence of Keith Tkachuk is approaching the twilight of a grand career, the Blues are certainly prepared.
Waiting in the wings are the likes of Patrik Berglund (a puck-moving center who had a solid rookie campaign last year), Lars Eller (a highly touted forward who’s debut will be delayed by lingering shoulder surgery), the balanced David Perron (touting 15 goals and 35 assists last season), and the pesky TJ Oshie (who’ll turn into a consistent 20-goal scorer).
Along with those promising youngsters, there are established scoring NHLers dotting the lineup. Brad Boyes is the second (first in chronological order) reason on this roster that Leafs fans have grown impatient with their franchise’s lack of patience. The big-time shooting winger may eventually settle in the 35-goal range for a few seasons.
Andy McDonald has the ability to skate with some of the more gifted forwards on the St. Louis roster, and he’s also got the hands and vision to feed a shooter of Boyes’ caliber.
Inching back to the "forlorn Maple Leafs”, Alex Steen will have to stay with third-line responsibilities for the Blues due to all of the depth, but the lesser attention may work for Steen who seemed to rediscover his touch following the mid-November trade from Hogtown (six goals and 18 assists in 61 games).
We’ve also forgotten to mention David Backes, whose 31 goals defined an offensive explosion for the burly winger. While matching those totals may seem a little lofty, Backes will still score goals and will be the big power forward the Blues need.
After that, the Blues feature an outstanding penalty killer in Jay McClement, and some solid depth players in Brad Winchester and DJ King. Enforcer Cam Janssen will continue to drop the gloves, while B.J. Crombeen could develop into a low-line complimentary scorer.
So what’s it all mean?
The Blues need to outperform a Columbus team eager to prove last year was no fluke, and a Nashville team that wants to return to the Spring Fling.
The scoring will be there, whether Kariya is back or not, and the defense can only get better with a returning Erik Johnson and a further-developing Alex Pietrangelo.
Goaltending is the only question for the Blues, but even then it’s not that tough of one with Mason being supported by Conklin. The only time it becomes a question is when you look past this season.
3rd in Central
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile or you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out all of his previous work in his archives.