The '04-'05 NHL lockout marked the end of an era for the St. Louis Blues; their remarkable stretch of 24 straight years of playoff hockey come to an end. Unbeknownst to the team at the time, however, was the fact that the lockout would also mark the end of their status as an NHL power.
In the six seasons since, the Blues have failed to win a single postseason series, and, actually, have qualified for the playoffs just once (as the sixth seed in '08-'09). They've fired three coaches, finished last in the league for the first time in franchise history, and accumulated five of their eight total non-playoff seasons over a 44-year club history.
Needless to say, entering the '11-'12 season, St. Louis is in desperate need of a rise out of mediocrity. With the team they've put together lately, though, we don't figure that achieving that goal will be too difficult.
Doug Armstrong took over the general manager position from Larry Pleau a summer ago and has improved the team's roster significantly since then. Armstrong used the 2010 offseason to replace Chris Mason with Jaroslav Halak in goal and add depth at center with Vladimir Sabotka and T.J. Hensick. He added to the Blues' newfound toughness this past July, throwing in an infusion of time-tested, rough-and-tumble strength to a relatively young squad.
St. Louis eventually finished the '10-'11 campaign this past spring in 11th place in the Western Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot, even after a 6-2-2 run to finish out the year. Next season, conversely, it wouldn't be a surprise to us to see them easily bypass that margin and run away with a top-eight slot in standings...and here's why.
Note: This slideshow is the final installment of a four-part series looking in-depth at a few specific teams who we believe have become new Stanley Cup contenders or new playoff teams with their offseason moves.
Part One, portraying why the Buffalo Sabres will be a Cup contender in '11-12, can be found here. Part Two, explaining why the Florida Panthers will be a playoff team next season, can be read here. Part Three, stating our reasoning behind calling the Los Angeles Kings a Cup contender, is available at this link.
For the St. Louis Blues, who would've been the youngest team in the NHL at this moment if not for their free agent additions, obviously were concerned about two key components of their team: experience and grit. This summer, they solved those problems with five out-of-town free agent signings.
Longtime winger Paul Kariya retired after a couple years of injury problems and decreased production, and bottom-six forward Cam Janssen also departed to New Jersey. On the other hand, though, the Blues were easily able to re-stabilize their roster despite those losses, and actually ended up one of the more improved teams of the month.
Four of their five signings are 32 or older, and the two headlining players of the group—Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner—are both age 36 with 17 and 16 NHL seasons, respectively, under their belts. The two players have both played more than 1,000 games and have a combined 637 goals, including 15 different 20-plus score campaigns, and 1,542 points over their careers. Though their production has declined, as would be expected, of late, Arnott's 17 goals and 14 assists with the Devils and Capitals and Langenbrunner's nine tallies and 23 helpers for New Jersey and Dallas in '10-'11 are both still respectable totals.
Outside of that duo of veterans, Doug Armstrong inked three other resilient, scrappy depth players to the Blues' ranks. 36-year-old Scott Nichol can fill a fourth-line gap, Kent Huskins, 32, is a reputable sixth or seventh defenseman, and 26-year-old Brian Elliot replaces Ty Conklin (pictured being scored on by, interestingly enough, Jason Arnott) as the backup goaltender.
They might not be the flashiest crew, but the five-some of new arrivals are an impressive load for a team like St. Louis that didn't have a lot of holes to fill in the first place.
For an above-average, but not world-class, offense like the one St. Louis has—they ranked 10th in goals for last season—the Blues are undeniably well-balanced.
David Backes was the leading scorer on the team with just 31 strikes; in fact, out of the top-14 teams in the NHL in terms of offense, only one club had a team scoring leader with fewer goals than that.
However, a extraordinary five other players who finished the season with the team also topped the highly-regarded 20-goal plateau. Chris Stewart, who spent the first half of the year with the Avalanche, finished with 28 goals; Patrick Berglund, meanwhile, ended up third with 22 strikes. Furthermore, Matt D'Agostini hit the finish line with 21 tallies, and, lastly, Alexander Steen and Andy McDonald each racked up 20 of their own.
Upon further research, it turns out that only two teams completed the '10-'11 regular season with more 20-goal scorers than St. Louis. In fact, a mere six NHL teams even had more than four players who hit the mark last year.
The balance that the Blues have gives them a great advantage when dealing with injuries and when mixing up their top lines. It also makes them a very tough team for opponents to completely shut down when defending, a fact that proved itself last season as St. Louis was shut out only twice, the second-lowest number in the league.
The additions of Arnott and Langenbrunner give the Blues the potential for a third line—even if we're not sure who will play on it yet—that may be the most dangerous one around.
Assuming David Perron, David Backes and Chris Stewart earn spots on the first line and Patrik Berglund and Matt D'Agostini, both of whom were retained through the summer, secure second line roles alongside Andy McDonald, the Blues have plenty of talented options left for that final spot and the entire third line, as well.
Competing with the two new signings for the jobs will likely be injury-weakened 24-year-old T.J. Oshie, a former first round pick who has scored 39, 48 and 34 points over the past three seasons, 27-year-old Alexander Steen, who's surprisingly put up 44 goals in two years since his disappointing '08-'09 campaign, or even possibly hard-hitting Vladimir Sabotka, who had just 29 points a season ago but was second on the team in hits.
No matter who wins out with which jobs in training camp, St. Louis won't only have a nicely viable top six unit of forwards, but they'll also have an extremely threatening third line. Undoubtedly, it's a line which has the capability to score 50 to 55 goals of their own over the course of the season. And, as it always should be, there's certainly a lot for the Blues to love about having a third trio of forwards with nearly the same capabilities that their top two groups have.
The offense that we've raved about for three slides in a row might be pretty enticing, but, at least with this team, it's impossible to forget there's also a promising defense back on the blue line, too.
Young Kevin Shattenkirk, St. Louis's biggest prize in the blockbuster mid-season trade that also sent Erik Johnson to Colorado, may now be ready to move up into the top pairing this fall. Shattenkirk had 34 assists and 43 points last year and was also, among defensemen, third in blocked shots and first in takeaways, but remained fourth out of six dressed players in average time on ice (TOI). The 22-year-old looks like he'll function more like a No. 2 guy now from Opening Day forward.
Last season's TOI leader, Alex Pietrangelo, is a good bet to join him as the nightly defensive starters. In his rookie campaign, Pietrangelo, another former first-round selection, led all Blues 'D'-men in goals (11), plus/minus (plus-18) and blocked shots (121).
On the second pairing should be Roman Polak and Barret Jackman, the enforcers of the group. The pair combined for just three goals in '10-'11 but finished first and second, respectively, in hits. Carlo Colaiacovo, a 26-point contributor a season ago, anchors the bottom duo. Matching up with him will probably be a rotation between two youngsters, Ian Cole and Nikita Nikitin, who were both part-timers last season, and veteran Kent Huskins.
Injuries may be a bit hampering for this unit—it's five NHL regulars totaled up 79 appearances missed to injury a year ago—but their youth ought to make up for it; except for Jackman and Huskins, the entire defense is in their 20's, and five are no older than 25.
Unlike many of the star-laden, fast-flying dynasty teams that typically dominate the playoff field, St. Louis has a factor that could come in handy quite a bit as they fight for their spot on the top of the playoff bubble: physicality.
The Blues were eighth out of the 30 teams in terms of hitting in '10-'11, way up from 17th the season before. Actually, although the defense accumulated plenty of their own, forwards actually dominated the show in that regard.
All-Star David Backes was 18th in the NHL with 213 hits, and not too far behind him was Vladamir Sobotka, who dealt 137 despite only playing 65 games. Patrik Berglund (116 hits), B.J. Crombeen (93) and Chris Porter (91 in only 45 appearances) each made their presence known, as well, as did now-departed Cam Janssen (95).
They only got more physical this summer, however. Jamie Langenbrunner, even at his age, can still dish out a check or two, finishing third on the Devils in '09-'10 and seventh on the Stars in '10-'11 in hits. Nevertheless, the big fish in this pool is Scott Nichol, who led the Sharks in average hits per minute (0.209 in last season, 2.19 the previous year) for both of his two seasons in San Jose.
With the extra physicality these two checkers bring to the table, St. Louis only appears to be able to go move up even higher than eighth. But, actually, that's not the only place where it looks like the only direction they'll be headed anytime soon is up; the Western Conference standings also fit that description. With an offense as well-rounded and a defense as promising as what the Blues have created, it's hard to not see them in the postseason come next April.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 34 months so far with the site, he has written over 300 articles and received more than 340,000 total reads.