- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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ST. LOUIS BLUES
This is an important season for this franchise. They’ve been knocking at the door for three years and have one playoff series win to show for it.
Of course, losing to powerhouse Chicago in the opening round last spring is hardly anything to be embarrassed about. And they lost to Los Angeles the other two postseasons. Talk about playoff royalty. It just underlines yet again the imbalance that exists in the NHL right now in terms of the predominance of the Western Conference.
It’s difficult, yes, but the Blues have to figure out how to join the Kings and Blackhawks at that level.
It’s why I really liked how GM Doug Armstrong responded in the offseason. This team has the work ethic, the coaching, the system and the physical will to battle. But where it has fallen short is scoring goals when it matters most.
The additions of Paul Stastny and Jori Lehtera up front and puck-moving defenseman Carl Gunnarsson on the back end help address those issues. Plus, the Blues hope that young, rising offensive players such as Jaden Schwartz (22) and Vladimir Tarasenko (22) can also continue to arc up in their offensive production. Throw in the fact they took a flyer on Peter Mueller and will give rookie Dmitrij Jaskin a chance and you see where the focus is here: adding more skill.
"The playoffs have been a reality check for us," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN.com this week. "We’ve worked our tail off, we’ve battled and competed, but for whatever reason we’ve been on the wrong side of some very intense series.
"The reality is that everyone works hard in the playoffs. Everybody competes hard. The players we’ve added bring a different element to our team. There’s more finish, there’s more skill, there’s more variety. We’ve got a great foundation here, a great hockey club. By adding these players it just makes us deeper and more dangerous now."
A real wild card in all this is Lehtera, a 26-year-old Finn whom the Blues tried to convince to come over for years after drafting him in 2008. Internally, the Blues’ front office was just as excited July 1 to have signed Lehtera as they were about winning the Stastny UFA sweepstakes.
"Lehtera is a guy that has great sense and moxie," said Hitchcock of Lehtera, who played for the Finnish Olympic team last year in Sochi and had 44 points (12-32) in 48 KHL games.
The Blues have seven players listed as centers on their roster, so there’s lots of options to mix and match.
"We’re going to do a little bit of experimenting in training camp," Hitchcock said. "We want Lehtera, Stastny and [captain David] Backes to be the three centers. We don’t know who’s No. 1, 2, or 3, we’ll let that sort through. The thing we’re going to experiment with, is with Jaskin and Schwartz, they’re both going to take some time at center ice during training camp early and give us an evaluation early. Jaskin played center in Europe and Schwartz before he came here was a center-ice man. So we’ll take a look at that. We’ve got a lot of depth at center now."
In goal, the Blues are going with a Brian Elliott-Jake Allen combo since the Ryan Miller experiment failed last spring. Elliott has been solid over the past few seasons while biding his time as a top-end backup, so he’s earned this chance to be a starter. But I’m willing to bet a healthy sum that Allen takes away the gig by season’s end.
"It’s Brian’s job as a starter, he’s earned it," Hitchcock said. "He sat and patiently watched us go through Jaro [Halak] and go through Ryan. He had his best season last year. So he’s the starter. Jake will fall in behind. If competition dictates that Jake takes it over, then it will be done through competition. But it’s Brian’s job."
And finally, I think this is a big year for Hitchcock himself. Every coach has a shelf life. This is his fourth year with the Blues, and with each season Hitchcock has brought his team along to another level in terms of their play. He remains one of the very best coaches in the NHL. But it’s a results business and the pressure will be there to win a round or two.
Speaking of coaches with pressure on them to win, that would apply to Bruce Boudreau, as well, in Anaheim.
The Ducks are on the rise, but I think a deep playoff run is a must this season.
The expectations are higher now in Anaheim and with that comes its own pressure.
"The last two years, even though we did really well, nobody thought we would do that well," Boudreau told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "If you looked at all the preseason prognostications, we were middle of the pack. This year is quite different. Instead of being the hunters, we’re going to be the hunted. Teams will be getting up for us."
He’s got a better team on his hands than a year ago. Ryan Kesler was a monster acquisition, giving the Ducks the one-two punch down the middle with Ryan Getzlaf that they needed to match up with the big boys in the West.
A flyer on Dany Heatley could pay off. At one year and $1 million, love this move. If it doesn’t work out, you’ve given up very little trying.
His days of 50 goals are long behind him, but 25 goals? He’ll be given every opportunity early on, that’s for sure. The early plan is slotting in with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry on the big line.
Like Dustin Penner a year ago, it’s a great opportunity for Heatley, but he has to earn it to keep it.
"I think that’s where we’ll slot him to start," Boudreau said of Heatley's top-line assignment. "We’ve talked to him, we told him this is a great opportunity for him. It’s up to him whether to take it and run with it. If he can’t run with it, we’ll deal with that. But this is similar to what we told Dustin last year, if you were told you’re getting a chance to play with Getzlaf and Perry, I would make sure I was in the best physical condition and ready to play. What a position to be in, quite frankly, when you’re in a contract year."
In the end, the goaltending will be a major factor in whether the Ducks can go deep next spring. Frederik Andersen, 24, and John Gibson, 21, provide an exciting, young duo with oodles of talent, but short on NHL experience. Are they ready?
Over the long haul, Gibson is the guy that has franchise goalie written all over him, but he’s going to have to earn it. Both goalies are going to get a shot.
"I have all the confidence in the world in both of them," said Boudreau, who also noted the comfort of having a solid veteran in Jason LaBarbera around.
"Over time, I think both [Gibson and Andersen] are going to get opportunities to be the guy. One might be the guy for five games when he’s going great, then maybe he gets tired and the other goes in and maybe goes for four or five games as well."
The bottom line, a healthy competition for a wide-open net is what this is.
"The net is open," Boudreau said. "We want to win. Whoever plays the best is going to play."
11hScott Burnside and Craig Custance