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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    Stars put Spezza on injured reserve, recall Faksa from AHL Texas

    Dallas Stars v Arizona Coyotes
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    Sitting three points out of top spot in the Central Division and on the eve of an important divisional clash on home ice with the Chicago Blackhawks, the Dallas Stars have placed center Jason Spezza on injured reserve retroactive to Thursday, the club announced on Friday.

    Spezza, 32, was injured during Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche. The Stars can move back to within a point of Chicago for the division lead with a regulation win on Saturday.

    In 52 games this season, Spezza has 18 goals and 40 points, which ties him with Patrick Sharp for fourth on the team in total points.

    With Spezza out, the Stars recalled 22-year-old forward Radek Faksa from the Texas Stars in the AHL.

    Faksa has 15 goals and 26 points in 28 games this season with Texas. In 18 games with the NHL Stars, he has one goal and three points.

    Hitch’s recipe for more goals is a pretty simple one

    Ken Hitchcock, David Backes, Dmitrij Jaskin, Paul Stastny, Patrik Berglund
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    Ken Hitchcock wants the Blues to spend more time attacking and less time defending.

    Because hockey isn’t rocket science, that’s why.

    “To score and win games in the National Hockey League…you have to spend as much time in the offensive zone as you can,” Hitchcock told the Post-Dispatch.

    “When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, you’re forechecking more. When you’re occupying the offensive zone more, the goalie has to make saves. They’re having to defend more. And the opposing team takes penalties on you. So they’re all connected. … What I want to see from us is staying on the puck for longer stretches.”

    According to the stats, the Blues have not been spending as much time in the offensive zone as we’re used to seeing from them. In fact, in their last 20 games, they rank in the bottom third of the league in score-adjusted Corsi. That compares to their first 20 games when they were in the top third.

    The result is fewer shots, and more importantly, fewer goals. The Blues have fallen all the way to 25th in offense, averaging just 2.37 goals per game. Last year, they finished fifth (2.91).

    Yes, some of that may be due to the absence of Jaden Schwartz, and he should be back soon. But there’s a reason people are watching GM Doug Armstrong as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. This team could probably use another piece up front.

    The Blues host Minnesota Saturday.

    St. Louis has scored just five goals in its last five games.

    Goalie nods: Lindback ‘really excited’ for first start in almost three weeks

    Anders Lindback
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    Tonight in Anaheim, Anders Lindback will make his first start for the Arizona Coyotes since Jan. 16.

    The Coyotes have been riding rookie Louis Domingue since just before Christmas, but Domingue has allowed five goals in each of his last three starts, including last night’s 5-4 loss to Chicago.

    Lindback’s last appearance came Tuesday in relief, when he allowed one goal on 10 shots in a 6-2 loss to the Kings.

    Lindback was in goal for one of Arizona’s three victories this season over Anaheim, stopping 33 of 36 shots in a 4-3 overtime win on Nov. 9. However, his .896 save percentage ranks among the lowest in the league.

    Frederik Andersen is expected to start for the Ducks.

    Elsewhere…

    — No word yet on a Penguins starter in Tampa, but Ben Bishop will go for the Bolts.

    Cam Ward will start for the Hurricanes in Winnipeg, where Connor Hellebuyck is expected for the increasingly desperate Jets.

    — Joonas Korpisalo was solid last night in Vancouver, but the Blue Jackets have not announced their starter for tonight’s game in Calgary. Karri Ramo will be in goal for the Flames.

    A ‘pretty solid two-way player,’ Sundqvist to make NHL debut for Penguins

    Pittsburgh Penguins' Oskar Sundqvist (49) collides with Minnesota Wild's Jason Zucker (16) in the first period of a NHL preseason hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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    The latest Penguins injuries, these ones to Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr, have led to an opportunity for Oskar Sundqvist.

    Sundqvist will make his NHL debut for the Penguins tonight in Tampa. The 21-year-old center has five goals and 11 assists in 39 AHL games this season.

    “Sunny’s a pretty solid two-way player,” coach Mike Sullivan said, per the Tribune-Review.

    “I don’t think he’s going to dazzle you with flashy plays, but I think he’s a guy who plays the game the right way. He’s hard to play against because of his size. He’s got a long reach, and he’s got a good stick.”

    Sundqvist was selected 81st overall by the Pens in 2012. He’ll become the fourth player out of that Pittsburgh draft class to make his NHL debut, after Olli Maatta, Derrick Pouliot, and Matt Murray.

    Veteran Matt Cullen will replace Malkin on the second line, skating with wingers Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel.

    Related: Nick Bonino out ‘at least a month’ with hand injury