Two years ago the St. Louis Blues were a team to watch out for. They were young, talented and had just come off a successful season in which they moved up eight spots in the Western Conference standings to sixth place.
It seemed as though this was only the beginning for a team filled with young forwards who were only getting better and that the playoffs would be an annual event.
But sometimes things don’t go as planned.
The Blues regressed in the standings during the last two seasons, missing the playoffs both years. This prompted a coaching change and a change of general manager in 2010, so it was clear that more was expected of the team by St. Louis president of hockey operations John Davidson.
However, a closer inspection of the Blues' play the over the last two seasons shows many reasons to be optimistic for 2011-12.
First, the Blues have actually scored more total goals than they’ve allowed in each of the last two seasons, despite missing the playoffs.
In 2009-2010, their plus-two goal differential was good enough for a 90-point season and a ninth-place finish in the conference. That’s really not much different than their 92-point, even goal differential season just a year earlier, when they made the playoffs.
Before the 2010-11 season began, the Blues made arguably the biggest trade of the summer by acquiring Jaroslav Halak, their first legitimately elite goaltender in ages.
But Halak was merely average for the Blues compared to his heroics with the Montreal Canadiens the year before.
Combine that with over 400 man-games lost due to injury—many of those to key players—and the season was almost a write-off.
The good news is that head coach Davis Payne’s boys still managed 87 points and a plus-six goal differential for the season.
This is why, despite their modest activity during the free agent frenzy period earlier this month, you should be optimistic about the Blues' chances this season.
The team may not have Eric Brewer or Erik Johnson to lead the defensive unit, but Alex Pietrangelo looks as though he’s more than ready to step into a leadership role and become a legitimate No. 1 defenseman.
Kevin Shattenkirk—who came over in the Johnson trade—is another young D-man who appears ready to play in the top four.
Then there’s the one defenseman the Blues did snag from the free agent market, Kent Huskins. He’s a very underrated signing who will provide size, leadership and most importantly depth to the Blues defense in case the injury bug bites again.
Up front, the Blues' acquisition of Chris Stewart at the trade deadline was probably the team's best move of the calendar year. Stewart is arguably one of the best power forwards in hockey and, along with Shattenkirk, is making GM Doug Armstrong look smart for trading a former first overall draft pick in Johnson.
However, we can’t ignore the free agent signings of two proven veteran scorers and leaders who both have Stanley Cup rings.
Both Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner are exactly what a Blues team full of young forwards needs. They’ll significantly strengthen the third line, which has proven to be extremely important in recent years, and they can still produce points when needed as well.
The problem with the Blues last season was their lack of depth in scoring and experience amongst forwards. When Andy McDonald, David Perron and T.J. Oshie went down with injuries that caused them to miss a combined 129 games last season, the Blues had very few options to put the puck in the net.
Arnott and Langenbrunner will not only help in that area, but they’ll also provide grit and leadership for the large group of Blues forwards under 25 years old.
Furthermore, Langenbrunner will help on the penalty kill. The Blues ranked only 18th in the league in that category last season and will more than welcome the savvy play of Langenbrunner in his own zone.
Are the St. Louis Blues a legitimate playoff contender in 2011-2012?
They should be, but one could have said the same thing last year and the year before that.
It’s never easy to fight the injury bug, but this season the Blues appear to have something they haven’t had in a long time. It equalizes potential injuries, slumps and complacency over the course of a long season.
It is depth, and it will hopefully carry the Blues back to the postseason next spring.