Blues: Five Things You Need To Know
By Craig Custance
It's one thing to emerge out of nowhere and rocket your way up the Western Conference standings. It's quite another to achieve the same success when everyone is predicting it and opponents are ready for it. And then build on it.
That's the challenge facing the St. Louis Blues right now.
"We're a good team trying to become a great team. That's the reality," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told ESPN The Magazine. "We've made very few changes and we trust our players, but there's a big difference between good and great. We have to put a lot more into it to become great."
Hitchcock has led some great teams. The success in St. Louis may hinge on how quickly guys like David Perron, David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo and the rest of the talented St. Louis core figure out how to become great.
"We realized during the playoffs there's another level out there," Hitchcock said.
1. Another dynamic duo?
Brian Elliott led the league in goals-against average last season, finishing with a 1.56 GAA in 36 starts. It topped Jonathan Quick's. It was better than Henrik Lundqvist's and Mike Smith's. And the guy he split starts with, Jaroslav Halak, was right there finishing tied for No. 4 overall at 1.97. Elliott also led the league with a .940 save percentage. In a condensed schedule that is harder on Western Conference teams because of travel, having those two goalies back in net is a huge advantage for the Blues if they can maintain that level. "We're going to need them both," Hitchcock said. "We're going to need a lot of people helping here."
2. Defense needs more depth
The Blues have one of the league's best general managers and coaches. They have arguably the best goalie duo and one of the deepest forward groups in the league. So maybe we're splitting hairs here, but depth on defense could become an issue in St. Louis. Stanley Cup contenders must be built to withstand injuries on defense because they are inevitable in today's NHL, and the Blues, as currently constructed, don't have it. This team is one veteran top-four (left-handed shot if we're being picky) defenseman from being ideal.
3. Tarasenko for Calder
Not only do the Blues love Vladimir Tarasenko's skill set, they also love his makeup. They see an enthusiasm for the game that is infectious and see him as an easy fit in the Blues' dressing room. He can play a bit, too. He has strong legs, a great release and that sixth sense to score around the net. "Tarasenko has played two years in the KHL, which is a pretty good hockey league. The step he's making now is the grind," Hitchcock said. "He's making the step into the smaller rink and the grind." If he makes that adjustment, he could give the Blues' deep forward group another dimension.
4. Kings provided a valuable lesson
Only the Canucks finished the regular season with more points than the Blues' 109, and St. Louis won a pretty darn good Central Division rather convincingly. But they were completely outclassed by the Kings in the second round of the playoffs. Los Angeles was bigger and faster and dominated a Blues team that was one of the best in the regular season. "They just went right through you," Hitchcock said of the eventual Stanley Cup champs. "That's the price you have to pay to win. It didn't happen overnight there. They went through a lot of trial and tribulations before they got to that level." Los Angeles' trials and tribulations included first-round playoff exits and firing Terry Murray, a coach they liked and respected, during the regular season. But they learned from it, as the Blues should learn from their mixed playoff success. Talent isn't enough; there also needs to be a desperation to win in the postseason.
5. Chris Stewart poised for turnaround
Yes, we liked Stewart to have a breakout season last year; he had scored 15 goals in 26 games with the Blues after coming over from Colorado in the 2011 Erik Johnson trade. And yes, that didn't happen. Stewart was a huge disappointment, registering only 30 points and finding time on the fourth line. We're willing to give him a mulligan. He signed a one-year, $3 million contract extension in June because Blues GM Doug Armstrong refuses to pay guys based on potential. He'd much rather reward players who are proven producers, and that's what Stewart is set to become this season. After conditioning issues slowed him down last season, Stewart had a strong offseason of training in Toronto and appears ready to get back on the path that had him headed for consistent 30-goal regular seasons.
Craig Custance covers the NHL for ESPN The Magazine.
Experience: Entering 16th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 1
Scoring Lines: Vladimir Tarasenko
It just seems more tangible that Tarasenko will have an impact with news that he is already headed to North America following the end of the lockout. Having missed some time with a concussion this season, Tarasenko still managed 31 points in 31 games in a much more competitive KHL this season. (For some perspective: Pavel Datsyuk has 36 points in 31 games in the KHL.) Do the Blues have room for Tarasenko? Absolutely not. Will they make room for a future superstar if he can show he is ready? They will find a way. -- Sean Allen
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Blues:
• June 14: Re-signed RW Chris Stewart.
• June 15: Named Gary Agnew assistant coach.
• June 18: Re-signed D Barret Jackman.
• June 28: Re-signed C Scott Nichol.
• July 2: Signed D Jeff Woywitka.
• July 5: Re-signed LW David Perron.
• July 6: Signed C Andrew Murray.
• July 10: Re-signed RW Jamie Langenbrunner.
• July 16: Re-signed LW Chris Porter.
• July 19: Re-signed RW T.J. Oshie.
• RW B.J. Crombeen (traded to Tampa Bay)
• D Carlo Colaiacovo (unrestricted free agent, signed by Detroit)
• C Jason Arnott (unrestricted free agent)
• D Kent Huskins (unrestricted free agent)
• LW Brett Sterling (unrestricted free agent)