2010-2011 NHL season preview: St. Louis Blues

davidbackes1.jpgLast season: (40-32-10, 90 points, 4th in Central Division, t-9th in Western Conference) A terrible start derailed the Blues’ chances at making the playoffs. The team got in such a hole that despite their furious play in the second half of the season, they weren’t able break into the playoffs the way they did two seasons ago. An unassuming bunch on paper manged to play hard at the end of the year once new coach Davis Payne took over for the deposed Andy Murray. Perhaps that’s a sign of things to come.

Head coach: Payne gets his first chance at a full season with the Blues, who went 23-15-4 after he took over. Factoring that kind of action out over a whole season would make the Blues a playoff team and it’s clear Payne’s attitude and style seems to better fit a now very young team.

Key departures: F Keith Tkachuk (retirement), F Paul Kariya, G Chris Mason, F D.J. King. Tkachuk’s retirement, while a tough loss for the team, clears the decks for more of the young players to get their shot this season. Same applies for Kariya’s departure as he sits out this season to deal with post-concussion syndrome. Mason signed on with the Thrashers in the offseason after the Blues acquired Jaroslav Halak from Montreal.

Key arrivals: G Halak, F Vladimir Sobotka, D Alex Pietrangelo. Halak is the big acquisition of the summer, coming over in a trade with Montreal. He was the Habs’ hero in the playoffs and the Blues are banking on him being the real deal after signing him to a four-year contract. Sobotka was tossed aside from Boston after getting fingered for a costly too many men on the ice penalty in Game 7 against Philadelphia. Pietrangelo will be coming out of junior hockey — potentially for real this time — after getting nine-game tryouts in previous seasons with St. Louis.

Under pressure: On such a young team with a new coach and a new goalie it’s tough to pick out a player or executive under pressure, but in this case the guy meant to shoulder the burden for the Blues is defenseman Erik Johnson.

Johnson is a former No. 1 overall pick of the Blues. After missing a full season from a questionable golf-cart incident two years ago, he came back last season and didn’t do much to impress. Coming back from knee injuries is a tough thing to do, but much is expected of Johnson and if there’s a weakness on this Blues it’s along the blue line. Johnson needs to step up and play like a No. 1 pick and put up the kinds of numbers he’s capable of doing. Another middling season from him should make Blues executives nervous.

GYI0061755551-halak-dilipvashnawat-getty.jpgProtecting the house: In case you missed it, Halak is the man in goal. He had a solid season for the Canadiens and was one of the best goalies in the playoffs, carrying Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals. Ty Conklin is still around to provide relief in the backup role. If there’s something that Halak dealt with on occasion in Montreal that will help him be prepared for St. Louis it’s being expected to bail out your defensemen on occasion because he’ll get his resolve tested in Missouri this year.

Johnson leads the way on defense for the Blues with Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, and Roman Polak backing him up. Where things go from there defensively is the question. Carlo Colaiacovo is banged up again, Pietrangelo is still trying to win a job and they’re both being pushed by former Notre Dame defenseman Ian Cole. How things factor out there for St. Louis with a host of youth to contend with means the Blues will be a bit mistake prone at times as guys get to learn on the job. Then again, that could apply for a lot of guys in St. Louis.

Top line we’d like to see: Alex Steen-Andy McDonald-David Backes. McDonald is the ‘old man’ of this bunch at 33. Steen had a breakout season last year playing on the third line and Backes is a freakin’ American hero. He’s also a pretty good power forward to boot. Let McDonald do his thing and win faceoffs, let Steen run free to skate and set things up and just let Backes steamroll people into submission and score dirty goals. There’s no way this doesn’t work.

Oh captain, my captain: It’s Brewer. We’re betting you weren’t too aware of that because, let’s face it, the Blues stay under the radar pretty well and Brewer isn’t a guy you immediately think of when listing off Blues players. There was some debate during the offseason wondering if Brewer should continue to be the captain, but Payne stuck by him. That’s likely a good move to make with such a young locker room. There’s no need to throw things out of whack like that in such a situation and, let’s face it, Brewer isn’t a guy we hear bad things about. He’s got the experience to be a good enough leader in St. Louis and until someone amongst the newer bunch of Blues emerges as a leader on the ice and the locker room (ahem, Backes) status quo will do for now.

camjanssen3.jpgStreet fighting man: The Blues love to drop the gloves. Even with D.J. King now in Washington, the Blues top three fighters from last season are still around. Cam Janssen. Janssen is the ring leader here for pugnaciousness with 19 fights last season. Not far behind him is sneaky fighter B.J. Crombeen with 18. Chances are if you’ve got a problem with something the Blues are doing on the ice, you’ll have your choice of guys to address it with. If you’re looking for more of a small-time fighter, Jesse Winchester will be happy to oblige you as he had 10 fights last season. If you’re matching up with St. Louis, you’d best be putting on the foil.

Best-case scenario: The Blues get the consistently good goaltending they’re praying for out of Halak. The Blues roll out two lines of scoring that all connect on the potential they’ve got to fill the net. Former 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes finds his touch once again while Backes and David Perron make jumps in their own goal production. Steen continues to improve his game built on his 24-goal success last season while Swedish centerman Patrik Berglund emerges into the playmaker they’re hoping he’ll become. T.J. Oshie and Jay McClement become a dynamic pairing of two-way forwards.The defense plays more than capable and the Blues roll back into the playoffs to potentially scare the living daylights out of a top-three seed.

Worst-case scenario: The offense sputters brutally once again and Halak plays inconsistently in goal, causing this season to resemble last season in lots of eerie ways. The defense plays as inconsistent and spotty as they look like they could on paper, meanwhile youngsters Berglund and Perron don’t evolve into better scorers leading to the Blues missing out on the playoffs once again, giving way to an equally inconsistent and hard-nosed team.

Keeping it real: The Blues have a nice setup. All four of their lines should be solid and while there’s not too much there to work with depth-wise, the team is very, very young. Payne’s most important job this season is to make sure the effort level from the team is consistent night in and night out and that the team plays hard at all times. Halak is an upgrade over Chris Mason in goal and the issues the Blues will have on defense could be remedied by having young guys like Pietrangelo or Cole jump into the lineup and seize the opportunity as both will eventually become good defensemen in the future.

There are a lot of question marks with the team because there are so many unknown factors, but this team could fly under the radar in the West thanks in part to being in the same division with the Red Wings and Blackhawks.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Blues are a 2. They’re not a terrible team by any means so they’re not worthy of being a 1, but they’re not consistent enough and worthy of a 3. That’s quibbling at its very worst. Suffice to say, a lot of things would need to go very right for St. Louis to get a shot in the West to make the finals and a lot of things would need to go very wrong for the contenders to fall down in front of them. St. Louis will give the fans some hope and perhaps a playoff spot to go with it, but that’s about all.

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    Pro Hockey Talk 2018 NHL Trade Deadline Tracker

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    The PHT NHL Trade Deadline Tracker is your one-stop shop for completed deals as the Feb. 26, 3 p.m. ET deadline approaches.

    Feb. 24 — New York Islanders acquire Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for a 2019 third-round draft pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 23 – Vegas Golden Knights acquire Ryan Reaves and a 2018 fourth-round pick; Pittsburgh Penguins acquire Derick Brassard, Vincent Dunn, Tobias Lindberg and a 2018 third-round pick; Ottawa Senators acquire Ian Cole, Filip Gustavsson, a 2018 first-round pick and a 2019 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 22 – New Jersey Devils acquire Michael Grabner from New York Rangers for 2018 second-round pick and Yegor Rykov. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 22 – Florida Panthers acquire Frank Vatrano from Boston Bruins for 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 21 – Washington Capitals acquire Jakub Jerabek from Montreal Canadiens for a 2019 fifth-round pick.

    Feb. 21 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Tobias Rieder* and Scott Wedgewood from Arizona Coyotes for Darcy Kuemper. (*Arizona retains 15 percent of Rieder’s salary.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 20 – Boston Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers for Rob O’Gara and a 2018 third-round pick. | PHT analysis

    Feb. 20 – San Jose Sharks acquire Eric Fehr from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2020 seventh-round pick.

    Feb. 19 – Washington Capitals acquire Michal Kempny from Chicago Blackhawks for a conditional* 2018 third-round pick. (*Chicago will receive the higher of Washington’s own third-round draft choice or the third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Washington acquired the Toronto draft pick from the New Jersey Devils as part of the Marcus Johansson trade on July 2, 2017.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 19 – Philadelphia Flyers acquire Petr Mrazek* from Detroit Red Wings for a conditional* 2nd round pick in 2018 or a 3rd round pick in 2018 or a 4th round pick in 2018 and a conditional* 3rd round pick in 2019 (*Red Wings retain half of Mrazek’s salary. *The 2018 fourth-round pick turns into a third-round pick if the Flyers make the playoffs and Mrazek wins five games during the regular season. That pick will become a second rounder if the Flyers win two playoff rounds and Mrazek wins six games. The 2019 third rounder becomes Red Wings property if Mrazek signs with the Flyers.) | PHT analysis

    Feb. 15 – Chicago Blackhawks acquire Chris DiDomenico from Ottawa Senators for Ville Pokka.

    Feb. 15 – St. Louis Blues acquire Nikita Soshnikov from Toronto Maple Leafs for 2019 fourth-round pick.

    Feb. 13 – Los Angeles Kings acquire Dion Phaneuf*, Nate Thompson from Ottawa Senators for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. (*Senators retain 25 percent of Phaneuf’s salary.) | PHT analysis

    Flyers defensemen coming up big; Nolan Patrick on the rise

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    When it comes to the Philadelphia Flyers’ surge, some of it comes down to the usual suspects. Clearly, the training camp experiment of putting Sean Couturier at center with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek has been a smash success.

    The NHL is funny in this regard, though: successful teams might have flaws, but most of them also boast some variety. More and more, this seems like a league where you need star power and versatility.

    This season’s seen the big names rebound to old form, yet it’s exciting for Philly to see that Couturier isn’t the only guy who’s gone from “underrated gem” to a legitimate difference-maker.

    Two Flyers defensemen have really delivered, in particular this season, and they’re names that are no surprise to hardcore hockey fans: Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov are both coming along as planned, if not ahead of schedule.

    It’s also not surprising that they’re providing excellent value in very different ways, although in at least one way they converge: scoring goals. As of this writing, there are only 13 NHL defensemen who have scored at least 10 goals in 2017-18, and the Flyers boast two of them.

    (Fascinatingly, they aren’t the only teams that boast two defensemen at 10+. The Predators [P.K. Subban and Roman Josi] and Flames [Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton] also reach that mark, and the Sharks are close, as Brent Burns is there while Marc-Edouard Vlasic has scored nine.)

    Again, they’ve arrived at this point in different ways.

    “Ghost Bear” is just a blistering scorer. In just 58 games, he’s already at 50 points on the season, one of only three NHL defensemen to eclipse that mark so far.

    Provorov’s 11 goals and 29 points are nothing to sneeze at, but he’s checking a few more boxes from an all-around standpoint. Provorov is averaging exactly three more minutes per game (24:24 to 21:24) to Gostisbehere, and those are sometimes challenging minutes; Provorov leads Flyers defensemen with an average of 2:43 shorthanded time on ice per game versus an average of three seconds per night for “Ghost Bear.”

    This isn’t meant to disparage Gostisbehere, but rather to show that the Flyers boast a power-play phenom and an all-around, more defensive-minded stud on defense. Really, as you can see via this handy tool from CJ Turtoro using Corey Sznajder’s data, Gostisbehere and Provorov are basically off the charts in every category.

    (Wow.)

    With Provorov only being 21 and Gostisbehere hitting his prime at 24, it’s the sort of duo that’s the envy of most of the league. Tantalizingly, it’s not just about the future, as the present is already very bright.

    ***

    One other note: the Flyers are also seeing some signs that Nolan Patrick is coming into his own.

    The prominent rookie has been lost in the shuffle due to a slow start (not to mention more injury issues), but now he’s really starting to heat up. In 40 games before the All-Star Break, Patrick only managed nine points. He now has nine points in the 13 games since, including an ongoing five-game point streak, which included a goal in today’s 5-3 win against the Ottawa Senators.

    Tidily enough, Patrick’s point streak matches the Flyers’ five-game winning streak.

    With injuries to Wayne Simmonds and goalies Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth, the Flyers are going to need other players to support the likes of Voracek, Couturier, and Giroux. Gostisbehere and Provorov have been doing just that, and it’s looking like Patrick will be a key cog, as well.

    Such developments make you wonder if Ron Hextall might decide to add even more to an improving supporting cast with the trade deadline rapidly approaching on Monday …

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

    Olympic hockey medal-round shootouts aren’t going anywhere

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    GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — As Tony Granato watched the clock wind down in overtime, he found it hard to believe that an elimination game at the Olympics had to go to a shootout.

    The Czech Republic knocked Granato’s United States team out in the quarterfinals in the same skills competition used in the NHL for regular-season but never playoff games. It took a shootout for the U.S. women’s team to beat archrival Canada for the gold medal, and although Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson’s goal and Maddie Rooney’s saves provided theater, such a classic game going to a shootout felt wrong.

    ”It’s hard when it’s all said and done to say that it gets decided by a bunch of breakaways, but that’s the rules,” Granato said.

    And it’s likely to stay the rule even after two important medal-round games at the Pyeongchang Olympics ended in shootouts instead of teams continuing to play until someone scores like in the Stanley Cup playoffs. International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said continuous sudden-death overtime is not possible in a tournament.

    ”You cannot let the team play the whole night,” Fasel said Saturday at a news conference in Pyeongchang. ”Yes, it’s a skills test, but it’s a game. … I will never convince North Americans to accept that but it is like it is.”

    Fasel added, ”Maybe the Canadians can practice a little more the shootout,” and Granato was the first to admit that winning in a shootout doesn’t tarnish anything. U.S. women’s hockey coach Robb Stauber knows it can go both ways.

    ”Yesterday the men’s team lost in a shootout, and two of our coaches said, ‘God that’s a terrible way to lose,”’ Stauber said. ”And my first response was, ‘Unless you’re on the other end.”’

    Being on the other end is no fun. Ask Eric Lindros or any of Canada’s players from 1994, or Canada’s women’s team that lost the Olympic final for the first time since 1998 after going back and forth for 80 minutes with the Americans.

    ”It sucks,” Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados said. ”It becomes more individual and less of a team thing, so a little harder to swallow but (it’s) the way it goes.”

    IIHF overtime rules call for 10 minutes of 4-on-4 in the qualification, quarterfinal and semifinal rounds and 20 minutes of 4-on-4 in the final before a five-round shootout. The NHL implemented a three-round shootout in 2005-06 but never for the playoffs.

    Shootouts have provided some of the most entertaining drama in sports, whether it was Peter Forsberg’s move to win gold for Sweden in 1994 that’s commemorated on a postage stamp, Dominik Hasek stopping all five of Canada’s shooters on the way to the Czech Republic getting gold in Nagano in 1998 or Brandi Chastain and the U.S. women’s soccer team beating China to win the World Cup in 1999.

    That’s Fasel’s point: If it’s good enough for soccer, it’s good enough for hockey.

    ”We are growing up with football and we are used to it,” Fasel said. ”Football is the biggest sport in the world. It is. And they finish the final of the World Cup with a shootout, et voila. So I will never convince North Americans to accept that, but it is like it is. I cannot change it. I’m really sorry about that.”

    AP Sports Writers Jimmy Golden in Gangneung, South Korea, and James Ellingworth in Pyeongchang, South Korea, contributed to this report.

    Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno at https://www.twitter.com/SWhyno

    Trade: Islanders get Brandon Davidson from Oilers

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    Maybe the third time will be the charm for Peter Chiarelli.

    The first two times he has made a trade with New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow he has, well, let us just say he has not done well.

    There was the trade that sent two draft picks to the Islanders for Griffin Reinhart. Those two draft picks turned into Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauvillier. Reinhart is no longer in the Oilers organization and only played 29 games for the team.

    Then this past summer he traded Jordan Eberle for Ryan Strome. So far this season Eberle has 21 goals and 44 total points  for the Islanders while Strome, who has topped 40 points in a season just once in his career, has just nine goals and 15 assists for the Oilers.

    There is no way this trade can turn out to be that bad. Right? Right?!

    Let us take a look at it.

    The trade: The Edmonton Oilers traded defenseman Brandon Davidson to the New York Islanders in exchange for a 2019 third-round draft pick.

    Why the Islanders are making this trade: Have you seen their defense? Have you seen the way they play defensively? They are DESPERATE. They have an offense that can score with the best teams in the NHL. They are getting amazing years out of John Tavares, Josh Bailey, Mathew Barzal, Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle. They are fourth in the NHL in goals for. They are 31st in goals against. There are only 31 teams in the league. They need to find somebody — anybody! — that can help them prevent goals. Is Davidson a game-changer? Not at all. He is probably at best a bottom-pairing defenseman. But he is something.

    The Islanders enter play on Saturday one point out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    Why the Oilers are making this trade: They are going nowhere and looking to unload anyone they can. Davidson is in the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent this season and would probably get a bit of a raise over his $1.4 million salary cap hit this season. That is something the Oilers simply can not afford given their salary cap situation. A third-round draft pick in 2019 isn’t a huge score, but it is something.

    Davidson was originally drafted by the Oilers in 2010 and remained with the organization until he was traded to Montreal in February of 2017 for David Desharnais.

    He played with the Canadiens until a few weeks ago when he was placed on waivers and claimed by the Oilers.

    Who won the trade? The Islanders are, again, desperate for defense and picked up a warm body for very little price. The Oilers got a draft pick for somebody that was not even on their roster a few weeks ago and did not cost anything for them to originally acquire.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.