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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    Video: AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves brawl on … and off the ice

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    The AHL’s Iowa Wild and Chicago Wolves engaged in a brawl that eventually spilled out into a hallway at the Allstate Arena on Saturday — the same day the cult classic movie ‘Slap Shot’ apparently celebrated the 40th anniversary of its release.

    Talk about timing.

    A line brawl broke out on the ice between the Wolves and Wild with less than three minutes remaining in the third period of Saturday’s game. But the fighting didn’t end there. Video highlights show several players, still in full gear, involved shortly after in an altercation off the ice.

    Video shows Vince Dunn of the Wolves and Kurtis Gabriel trading punches off the ice before Gabriel is knocked to the ground and more players — and staff in the arena — intervene.

    It looked like Dunn was on his way to the dressing room when Gabriel came over, leading to their off-ice bout.

    The incident is sure to result in supplementary discipline from the AHL.

    These teams, which combined for 70 penalty minutes Saturday, meet again Sunday. So, that could be interesting — to say the least.

    Canucks GM Benning says mumps outbreak won’t impact trade deadline plans

    BUFFALO, NY - JUNE 24: Jim Benning of the Vancouver Canucks attends round one of the 2016 NHL Draft on June 24, 2016 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Let’s set the scene for what the Vancouver Canucks were facing Saturday:

    — On Friday, it was announced the team was dealing with an outbreak of the mumps. Rookie defenseman Troy Stecher was the first confirmed case and four others — Chris Tanev, Nikita Tryamkin, Markus Granlund and Mike Chaput — were all showing symptoms.

    — Currently out of a playoff spot, the Canucks were facing the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.

    — The Canucks were playing their first game out of the bye week and many other teams have struggled in the first game back from their mandated week off.

    — The trade deadline is looming and the Canucks are expected to be sellers next week.

    Pressure is growing in Vancouver ahead of the trade deadline, especially after last year’s debacle. The Canucks had a 1.3 per cent chance of making the playoffs before Saturday’s 4-1 loss to San Jose. The playoff dream is over. It has been for a long time. But the Canucks do have veteran players — the names Alex Burrows, Jannik Hansen and Ryan Miller have been brought up — other teams in contention might be willing to trade for, which would help Vancouver add draft picks or perhaps even some quality prospects.

    In an interview with TSN 1040 on Friday, GM Jim Benning admitted he’s asked players with no-trade clauses to submit a list of teams they would accept a trade to ahead of the deadline.

    From the Vancouver Sun:

    Winger Alex Burrows, a 12-year-Canuck who like Miller is due to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, will draw trade interest but can veto a move with his NTC.

    Not so Miller and Hansen, who can limit Benning’s trade field but cannot fully prevent a deal.

    Miller, 36, submitted a list of five teams he can be traded to, while Hansen was required to identify eight potential trade destinations.

    Now, how will this recent mumps outbreak impact Benning’s plans leading up to Wednesday?

    “I don’t know if it will have any effect on that or not,” Benning said in his radio interview.

    “This happened to other teams a few years ago and once the players go through the five-day incubation period, they’re fine. And so they can keep playing. I don’t think it will have any effect on that.”

    Despite their playoff hopes hanging by a thread and a lineup with three AHL call-ups in Alex Grenier, Joseph LaBate and Evan McEneny, the Canucks somehow kept this close until midway through the third period.

    LaBate planted Melker Karlsson with a hit and was eventually challenged to a fight in the third period. Karlsson left the game but did return for the third period.

    At times, they actually outplayed the visitors through two periods but couldn’t find the lead and eventually the Sharks took over in the third period. Patrick Marleau gave them the lead late in the second period and Mikkel Boedker essentially put it out of reach.

    For the Canucks, there was another case of illness Saturday.

    Defenseman Luca Sbisa left the game and didn’t return with what the club said was a stomach flu, although given the situation in Vancouver, it will be worth monitoring to see if that diagnosis changes.

    Crosby, Penguins deliver blow to Flyers’ playoff chances in Stadium Series

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    PITTSBURGH — The first time the Pittsburgh Penguins played a game at Heinz Field, Sidney Crosby was on top of the NHL and having one of the most dominant offensive seasons in recent history. That was the game he was on the receiving end of the Dave Steckel hit that started the chain of events that basically cost him two of the prime years of his career.

    The Heinz Field experience was significantly better for him and the Penguins this time around.

    Crosby opened the scoring midway through the first period with his league-leading 34th goal of the season — finishing a slick feed from rookie forward Jake Guentzel — to help lead the Penguins to a 4-2 in the 2017 NHL Stadium Series game.

    “We were thrilled for him,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan when asked about Crosby scoring a goal in his return to Heinz Field.

    “I am sure the experience of coming back here probably brought back some memories that he probably would like to forget. So to have a night like tonight, and an opportunity to play in such an exciting venue and start the game off the way he did, it did probably just helped him put that experience behind and move forward. I thought he played a solid game, his line was really good all night long and he scored a huge goal for us.”

    Crosby’s goal is only part of the story in this one.

    Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen and Chad Ruhwedel also scored goals in the win, while Matt Murray stopped 35 of the 37 shots he faced.

    First, for Pittsburgh, it was a huge win given the status of an undermanned defense that was playing without three of its top players. With Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta already sidelined, they were also without Kris Letang on Saturday night due to an upper body injury that currently has him listed as day-to-day. That meant they had to rely significantly on their depth.

    Ron Hainsey, playing in his debut with the team after being acquired in a trade earlier this week from the Carolina Hurricanes, played more than 20 minutes in the win, including more than three minutes on the penalty kill. They also received a huge goal from Ruhwedel in the third period to help put the game away.

    It wasn’t a flawless effort by the group (37 shots against illustrates that) but considering who was out of the lineup and the situation they were facing it was a huge performance to remain ahead of the New York Rangers for the second spot in the Metropolitan Division and improve their record to 7-1-3 in their past 11 games.

    Things are not quite as optimistic for the Flyers at the moment.

    The loss on Saturday is a pretty damaging blow to their already fading playoff chances as they remain five points out of a playoff spot — with three teams ahead of them — with only 21 games to go.

    They are also just 9-16-4 in their past 29 games since their 10-game winning streak ended on Dec. 14.

    “It’s a tough result, walking away,” said Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after the game. “It’s a pretty close, tight hockey game where I thought our team played well, battled extremely well, and did a lot of good things but we walk away with the wrong result.”

    That has happened a lot lately for the Flyers.

    So why are they not getting the results? Well, the problem on Saturday was a familiar one for the Flyers — goaltending and defensive zone breakdowns.

    Crosby’s goal to open the scoring was the result of a breakdown in defensive zone coverage that allowed the game’s best offensive player to be left wide open along the side of the net for an easy one-timer. Even though Michal Neuvirth didn’t have much of a chance on that play, he didn’t exactly play a strong game, allowing four goals on 29 shots.

    The Matt Cullen goal to give the Penguins a 3-1 lead in the third period was a particularly tough one for Neuvirth to give up.

    It is already the 10th time in 24 games this season he has given up at least three goals in a game, while his save percentage on the season remains well below the .890 mark. For a goalie that was one of the best values in the league last season in terms of performance and salary cap hit, it has been a massive regression this season.

    Even though the results are not going their way at the moment Hakstol remains convinced the team is doing the right things and that the key to turning things around is just sticking with what they are doing.

    “Couple little things within the game tonight,” said Hakstol. “We haven’t been able to score a whole lot. There has been a lot made of that, and fairly so. You look at the opportunities tonight, the type of opportunities we generate were pretty reasonable. You have to stick with it. We have gone through a tough stretch here, but for the vast majority we have played some pretty good hockey and we need to stick with it. We have to stay together as we have and we have to keep pushing the envelope.”

    The Flyers are back in action on Tuesday against the Colorado Avalanche.

    A bye week hangover? Not for the Blue Jackets

    COLUMBUS, OH - DECEMBER 20:  Nick Foligno #71 of the Columbus Blue Jackets warms up prior to the start of the game against the Los Angeles Kings on December 20, 2016 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)
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    COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) Josh Anderson and Nick Foligno each scored twice, sending the Columbus Blue Jackets to a 7-0 romp over the New York Islanders on Saturday.

    The high-energy Blue Jackets didn’t show any rust in their first game back following their five-day break, unlike many teams that have struggled coming out of the bye week this season. Columbus scored three times in the first period, chasing New York goalie Thomas Greiss.

    David Savard had a goal and three assists, Boone Jenner and Jack Johnson also scored and backup goaltender Joonas Korpisalo stopped all 24 shots for the Blue Jackets, who ended New York’s three-game winning streak. Columbus has a comfortable hold on the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, while the Islanders are in a tight race for the final playoff berth.

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    Greiss stopped 14 of 17 shots in the first period. His replacement, Jean-Francois Berube, saved 24 of 28.

    Johnson got Columbus started when his shot from the point bounced off the skate of New York’s Nick Leddy and through Greiss’ pads 5:19 into the game.

    Later in the first period, Cam Atkinson‘s shot from the left circle was stopped by Greiss, but the rebound trickled back out from between his legs and a charging Jenner tapped it in.

    Foligno capped the first-period barrage when he deked the goalie and scored on a backhand.

    The Blue Jackets outshot the Islanders 17-9 in the period, leading to Greiss’ benching.

    Anderson kept it going 4:31 into the second with a sharp one-timer from the high slot off Jenner’s pass. Late in the period, Anderson got another one when he picked the pocket of defender Thomas Hickey in the neutral zone and launched a rocket past Berube from the right circle.

    The highlight-reel goals continued in the third period when an airborne pass from Savard found Foligno for a breakaway 6:06 in. Savard got the seventh goal with 6 1/2 minutes left.