Preface: Starting off the Central division, we'll be looking at the St Louis Blues—a strange team, to say the least.
Not strange in the way that they've accomplished their rebuilding process, or where it's headed, or even the fact that they his a wall a few years ago and started to struggle.
It was just weird to see it all happen to them.
Needless to say, I can't wait until they're competitive again—there's just something about a competitive Blues-Red Wings rivalry.
The past few seasons, St Louis has struggled. But in sports, there's always a bright side to struggling—high draft picks.
Over the past two seasons, the St Louis Blues have benefited from those draft picks, and from the opportunity to let their youth mature.
Throughout that process, they've been able to build something that no one else in the conference can really sport—two young defensemen capable of being All Stars. We'll get to them in a minute, though.
Roster Additions: Yan Statsny-F (F.A.), Mike Weaver-D (F.A.), Matt Foy-F (F.A.), Brad Winchester-F (Free Agent), Andy Wozniewski-D (F.A.), Chris Mason-G (Trade) (F.A.),
Roster Subtractions: Martin Rucinsky-F (F.A.), Mike Johnson-F (F.A.), Micki Dupont-D (F.A.), Petr Cajanek-F (F.A.), Jamal Mayers-F (Trade)
How did 2007-08 go? 33-36-13, 79 points, 14th in conference, fifth in division
2008-09 Goal: Finish in the top twelve of the conference
Let's Break'er down...
It’s amazing when you think back to the days of dominance for the St. Louis Blues.
They had produced a stoud defense, featuring Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger, while Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight were the basis of a strong, reliable, and productive scoring attack, along with Pavel Demitra.
And can you remember the days when Roman Turek was actually an NHL goalie? Yup, that was in St Louis.
After that, the Blues went a fair ways downhill. Now they’re looking up, but it could still take them a couple of years to get there.
Get out of the (C)Eller(s) and put on your Berglunds…
In the future, the St. Louis Blues will be a force to be reckoned with, as their top lines will be home to the likes of Lars Ellers and Patrik Berglund. Both are quality scoring forwards that the Blues hope to build around. However, the speed at which they acclimatize to the North American style of hockey will be determine how fast they ascend to the NHL, and how effective they can be early on in their careers.
Also bringing a look into St Louis' future this season will be T.J. Oshie. There’s no doubt that Oshie will be the Blues' big-time energy forward with the propensity to put up some good offensive totals, but the Blues have to ensure that Oshie remains immersed in the hockey environment.
All three of those players—and a few other stars-in-the-making—are surely going to help the Blues down the road. This year, Berglund and Oshie could be a Kane-Toews combination. But don’t expect the the rest of the forwards to contribute to improving upon the third-worst scoring attack of last season (205 goals).
Keith Tkachuk is old and getting older (well...that IS how it goes), and he may not even be worth a quality package of picks or prospects anymore if the Blues look to deal him at the deadline. The three forwards that the Blues added over the summer—Foy, Winchester, and Statsny—are anything but dynamos, no matter how much ice they see.
Joining the ranks of the aging and ineffective will be Paul Kariya. Although Kariya rings in at 33, he’ll have to prove he still has the legs and hands to keep up with this young roster. Nevertheless, he seems a lock to play the entire season, posting three consecutive 82-game seasons so far.
The two biggest hopes for the Blues are Andy McDonald and Brad Boyes this season.
Early on last season, McDonald—who played a pivotal role in the Anaheim Ducks' Stanley Cup Championship run—struggled to say the least. However, following a deal which saw Doug Weight go the other way, McDonald started to find his scoring touch again, raising his point-per-game average to 0.73 with the Blues—a mark much closer to his 2006-07 mark of 0.95 than his early-season 0.48 with the Ducks—leading to hopes that McDonald can be the number-one guy in St Louis.
After spending time with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the San Jose Sharks, and the Boston Bruins, Brad Boyes proved he can stick at the NHL level, posting his first ever 40-goal season, while remaining almost unbeknownst to anyone outside of St. Louis.
Blues brass will be closely watching the development of David Perron, David Backes, and Lee Stempniak this season as well. Both Backes and Perron had impressive seasons for youngsters as both hovered next to the 30-point plateau. Stempniak will look to continue his jump up the St. Louis roster, as 40 points for both him and Backes is realistic, while Perron could impress with 35-40 points, while anything more would certainly be a sign of good things in his development.
The Re-Rise of the Dynamic Duo
It's been a few years, but Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger are gone.
In their place, though? Alex Pietrangelo and Erik Johnson.
Although the Blues will give him the chance, the idea of Pietrangelo making the Blues' roster out of training camp really depends on who you ask. The Blues' top pick from this past draft has drawn comparisons to Chris Pronger from people within the organization—and if he impresses in camp, it could spell doom for a veteran on a one year contract. (All eyes are on you, Jeff Woywitka).
His future partner—2006 first-overall pick Erik Johnson—will once again have all eyes on him though. Following a 33-point campaign, it’s expected Johnson could produce even better numbers, while he gains the experience he needs to fix the flaws in his game.
This is weird. We've only named two defensemen so far, and already the defense seems scary.
What adds to the fear is the implementation of captain Eric Brewer, former Calder-winner Barret Jackman, and grizzled veteran Jay McKee.
The big sticking point for Brewer last season was his production. After scoring 46 goals in six NHL seasons, in 2007-08 Brewer was held to just one goal—a big disappointment for the man acquired in the Chris Pronger trade.
If Brewer can bring back those goal totals from past seasons, though, he'll be able to establish more of a two-way presence—making the defensive-minded McKee and the gritty Jackman each more dangerous in their own rights.
A St. Louis legacy or a story of Masonry?
As for who this defense will play in front of? Well...at least they've got options.
With the acquisition of Chris Mason, St. Louis has done two things. First of all, they’ve provided some competition for Manny Legace for the starters role that he’s earned the past few seasons with St. Louis. Second, they’ve insured themselves in the event that Legace reaggravates the knee that has bothered him the past two seasons.
Although he’s 35 years old, Legace has utilized the knowledge he gained throughout a long time spent with some quality starters in Detroit to the best of his ability. In his two years starting for the Blues, Legace has single-handedly made them competitive, garnering 23 and 25 wins in 2006-07 and 2007-08, respectively.
One might look at those totals as a far cry from his final season in Detroit when he won 37 games—but St Louis isn't Detroit. Or at least they aren't right now. Not by a long shot.
But in trading for Mason, the Blues allowed the former Devil to reacquire the right to compete for a starting gig in the NHL—something the Nashville Predators had no need for with the emergence of Dan Ellis.
Before we get to deep into Mason, though, his time may be over before it begins. In all of the hoopla surrounding the promising young forwards and defensemen in St. Louis, the young man from the Czech Republic—star goalie Marek Schwarz—has been patiently biding his time in the AHL, awaiting his turn to take a chance at stopping pucks at the NHL level.
Then, you have to look at the fact that both goalies are in the last years of their respective deals. In other words, if Mason starts to struggle again this season, and/or Legace gets hurt, Schwartz could get his chance.
And if he flourishes, don't be surprised if ether (or both) of these guys are dumped at the deadline to a team in need of depth between the pipes.
Sometimes you get some of the most interesting position battles in some of the most unlikely places.
So what does it all mean?
Let's face it—any team forced to play Detroit, especially during their rebuilding years, is in big trouble. Columbus, Nashville, and Chicago had to suffer through it, but the Blues are a little less familiar with these "problems," as they weren't bottom-feeders when the rest were.
Despite that, they’ve been forced into the cellar to watch as the Wings run amok of the league, while they began to rebuild through the draft after a near four-decade span of playoff fruition.
Although none of the players on the current roster can realistically play a meaningful part in each year of a streak that long, the Blues are looking to the future, where they could restart their streak despite heavy competition from every division rival.
This upcoming season, though? Well it’ll be another tough year, unless the rookies and young guys come up huge—which isn’t always out of the question.
Today, they don’t have the offensive dominance to compete, but tomorrow they most likely will. Today, their goalies’ health are concerns, but tomorrow the biggest task may be finding a plausible backup for Marek Schwarz. Today, the defense is good, but still growing. Tomorrow, the defense will be one of the most prominent puck-control units in the league.
Why so Blue? This year may be tough, but the sun’ll come out tomorrow.
Prediciton: Fifth in Central
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer, and an NHL Community Leader on Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan, you can do so through his profile. If you want to read more of his previous work, you can do so in his archives.