With training camp approaching in less than a month, we’re looking around the new-look Central Division at the Blackhawks’ opponents this year.
Earlier this week, we started with the Winnipeg Jets preview. Now, let’s look at a familiar Hawks rival: the St. Louis Blues.
The Blues finished the 2013 regular season on a high note, winning their last three and seven of their last ten games. St. Louis posted 60 points (29-17-2) and were the fourth seed in the Western Conference.
In the first round, they skated against the defending champion LA Kings and, though they won the first two games by identical 2-1 scores, they lost the series in six games. Unfortunately for the Blues, they were only able to score ten goals in the six games, with each game finishing with a one-goal difference on the scoreboard.
Scoring was the story for the Blues the entire season. Only three players on their roster reached double-digits in goals, led by 18 goals from Chris Stewart. Six of Stewart’s goals came on the powerplay, though; the Blues scored only 83 even-strength goals in 48 regular season games, which ranked 20th in the NHL.
Their captain, David Backes, had a rough 2013 season. After scoring 55 goals in his previous two seasons, Backes found the back of the net only six times in 48 regular season games last year. And while Stewart enjoyed scoring success on the powerplay, Backes’ production with the advantage disappeared; after scoring 13 powerplay goals over his previous two seasons, he only tallied one powerplay goal last season.
One player the Blues hope will help boost their offense in a full, 82-game season will be Vladimir Tarasenko. In his rookie season, Tarasenko got off to a blistering start with five goals in his first ten games in the NHL. But a concussion cost him three weeks and he only managed seven points in 21 games after returning. He was a front-runner for the Calder before the concussion, and the Blues are looking to him for big things in a healthy 2013-14 season.
They will also be looking for improvement from Jaden Schwartz, who scored seven goals in 38 games, and TJ Oshie, who also posted seven goals in 30 games. Keeping Tarasenko, Schwartz and Oshie healthy should provide a boost to the offense in St. Louis.
The Blues made a number of moves during the offseason to address their scoring woes, most notably signing free agent center Derek Roy. They also traded David Perron, who ranked third on the team with 10 goals, to Edmonton for Magnus Paajarvi.
Unfortunately, St. Louis lost Andy McDonald to an early retirement because of concussion issues. McDonald was one of their primary powerplay components, ranking second among Blues forwards in ice time per game with an advantage (2:31) behind only Alex Steen (2:33).
Also gone from last year’s lineup will be Jamie Langenbrunner, Scott Nichol and Andrew Murray. However, those three forwards only combined for one goal and one assist in 35 games, 30 of which were played by Nichol.
Replacing the departed veterans will be a couple new faces. The Blues are hoping for strong rookie performances from a couple of second round picks from the 2011 Draft. Forwards Dmitri Jaskin and Ty Rattie are considered the best bets to make the Blues roster out of training camp.
Also new to the Blues dressing room this year will be Keith Aucoin, Alexandre Bulduc and Maxim Lapierre.
The blue line has been good in St. Louis for a couple of years, and figures to stay the team’s strength for years to come. However, the best player in their deep group of defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo, remains an unsigned restricted free agent. The Blues and Pietrangelo continue talking into the middle of August.
Pietrangelo’s situation has been complicated by deals the Blues have already given to other defensemen. Kevin Shattenkirk will begin a four-year, $17M deal this year, and Jay Bouwmeester received a five-year, $27M contract this summer (that begins in the 2014-15 season). With Bouwmeester, who will turn 30 less than a week before the 2013-14 season begins, owning a cap number of $5.4M, the Blues already have nearly $20M committed to defensemen in 2013-14 and over $18.6M for the 2014-15 season.
The Blues have a number of young defensemen that could push for a spot on the NHL roster this year as well. Joel Edmundson, Jani Hakanpaa and Petteri Lindbohm are all considered close to being NHL-ready, and could make life uncomfortable for Ian Cole and Roman Polak this season.
One handicap the Blues will have to deal with if one of the youngsters earns a promotion are the no-trade clauses owned by Bouwmeester and Barret Jackman. Jordan Leopold begins a two-year deal this season that also has a modified no-trade clause.
The core group of defensemen will try to continue the Blues solid play on penalty kill duty, where St. Louis ranked seventh in the NHL last season (84.7 percent). They also had three short-handed goals, two from Berglund and one from Oshie.
One position the Blues do not have a significant long-term financial commitment made to is between the pipes. Next season is the final year of the contracts of both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, and youngster Jake Allen is signed only through the 2014-15 season.
After a dominant 2011-12 season, Elliott and Halak came back to Earth last season. They combined for six shutouts, but struggled through rough stretches and health issues that led to Allen seeing significant playing time down the stretch.
Allen won nine of 13 games last year and posted a .905 save percentage with one shutout. Between Feb. 13 and March 16, Allen won eight of nine and pushed himself into the conversation for the starting job this season. Because of the two veterans under contract, Allen might be forced start the year in the AHL again.
The Blues combination of goaltenders finished the year ranked seventh in the NHL, allowing only 2.38 goals per game.
The Blues have a couple young goalies coming up behind Allen that could factor into their future. Jordan Binnington, a third round pick in 2011, was the best netminder in the OHL last year with Owen Sound. And Niklas Lundstrom, a fifth round pick in 2011, started for the silver medal-winning Swedish squad at the World Juniors and played 15 games for AIK of the Swedish Elite League last year.