Jaroslav Halak's arrival in St. Louis is one huge reason for Blues fans to be excited this season.
As part of a continuing series, writer Benjamin Benya will be previewing all 30 NHL teams over the next two weeks in preparation for the 2010-2011 regular season.
As we enter the Western Conference playoffs, we find the St. Louis Blues.
Key Additions: G Jaroslav Halak, C T.J. Hensick, C Vladimir Sobotka, C Dave Scatchard, D Nathan Oystrick.
Key Subtractions: C Lars Eller, LW Paul Kariya, D David Rundblad, D Nate Guenin, D Mike Weaver, G Chris Mason, LW Keith Tkachuk, D Darryl Sydor.
Playing under the radar seems to be a staple of the St. Louis Blues organization for year. A new youth movement and some surprising veteran leadership has given the Blues a solid core, but again, they went generally unnoticed. That was, until the huge deal that brought them a franchise goaltender.
Jaroslav Halak became notorious for his late season and playoff heroics as the unthinkable eight seed, the Montreal Canadiens, spent all their energy en route to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Blues benefited most from the Habs’ off-season changes, however, scooping up Halak and signing him long term. In that single move, the Blues have established they’ll have the goaltending to stay afloat, but there’s so much more in St. Louis.
Offensively, the youth movement is in full effect for St. Louis. Gone are veterans like Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya, replaced by several homegrown talents and waiver wire acquisitions.
At the top, Andy McDonald finally completed a full year in a St. Louis uniform, excelling with a strong 57-point showing. Though he’s still light years from his 85-point peak in Anaheim five years ago, McDonald is working to find the happy medium as he ages.
T.J. Oshie also made significant strides towards superstardom with a solid season. Oshie is as fast as he is agile and has the hands to score more than the 18 goals he posted last year. Teammate Alexander Steen is also on the up and up, returning to his former glory not seen since his full-time gig in Toronto.
Though it isn’t a cause for concern, Brad Boyes and Patrik Berglund both saw big drops in production this year while David Perron and David Backes slipped just slightly. That said, having half a dozen or more players with 50-point seasons makes for a positively splendid season.
Boyes and Backes, in particular, will be the ones to watch. Backes was sidetracked last year with an Olympic conquest, yet his play was slightly more productive even without an appearance on the score sheet. Boyes, however, completely derailed as a scorer and could use a major comeback year to keep his value within the team. Just two years ago, Boyes scored 43 goals with the Blues. He scrounged up only 14 this past season.
On the defensive side of the puck, the Blues are, not surprisingly, relying on youth to take a big step up. Alex Pietrangelo is the one to watch, as St. Louis expects him to finally make the jump to full-time duty on the blueline. Pietrangelo has been through two camps and less than 20 games in two seasons, but his play is exemplary and he could become a power play quarterback for the next decade.
He’ll be joined by the more experienced Erik Johnson, who may well threaten the rest of the league with a more physical game this year. Johnson was, as you’ll remember, the No. 1 selection of the 2006 draft and carries an incredibly high expectation wherever he goes. Both he and Pietrangelo are about to become the core of the St. Louis defense.
Those roles, however, still belong to Eric Brewer, the captain of the franchise, and longtime St. Louis defender Barrett Jackman, who himself was once a rookie of the year. Jackman developed into a stay-at-home specialist and Brewer, playing his two previous years from the injured reserve list, has a lot to prove for his health.
One more keeper, Toronto misfit Carlo Colaiacovo, has played his best hockey for the Blues, nearly tripling his production in half the time.
So when we move to the net, we move to the aforementioned Halak, and a new faith in the entire team. Halak may be hyped the stratosphere, but it isn’t without good reason. Halak was a stellar playoff player, but perhaps an even better Olympian just a few months before.
Team Slovakia became a dark horse runner late during the Winter Olympics when they put up solid performance backed by a consistent Halak. The only worry with Halak is that his endurance could leave a team snake bitten if he burns out at the wrong time.
Despite all his heroics, Slovakia finished 4th in the Olympics and the Habs were eliminated by the Flyers in five games.
Halak will be backed this year by Ty Conklin, who is quite familiar with replacing star goalies of the future when they struggle and/or get hurt (see: Fleury, Marc-Andre).
Caught between Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Johnson is a 21-year-old defenseman with a similar potential. Ian Cole might be sandwiched between two highly touted youngsters, but that doesn’t mean he should be overlooked altogether. Cole still has a distance to go but his 6’2” frame shouldn’t be ignored, either.
The Blues rode a hot goalie into the playoffs two years ago as a big surprise to the entire NHL. They could easily do the same again this year, but will more than likely be perceived as the threat they are by the entirety of the NHL, as well as their division, which still includes the Blackhawks and Red Wings.
Third in the Central, Eighth in the Western Conference.