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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    Sharks finally solve Gibson in OT to defeat rival Ducks

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    Talk about perfect timing.

    Marc-Edouard Vlasic scored his first goal of the season on Tuesday, doing so in overtime to lift the San Jose Sharks past the goaltending of John Gibson in a 2-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks.

    Facing off against their California rivals for the first time this season, the Sharks dominated puck possession and on the shot clock. Had it not been for the play of Gibson, this one could’ve been a lopsided win for San Jose.

    Gibson replaced Jonathan Bernier to begin the second period. Bernier left the game with an upper-body injury.

    In relief, Gibson made 24 saves on 25 shots. Vlasic was the only San Jose player to get the puck past him, but not before the Ducks managed to steal a single point.

    The Ducks recorded the single point, but did so faced with a short-handed lineup as the game continued. Not only did Bernier leave the game, but so, too, did Ryan Getzlaf, who didn’t play a shift in the third period.

    He left with an upper-body injury, as per the Ducks, who at the time listed his return as questionable.

    Elliott backstops Flames to victory in his return to St. Louis

    CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24: Matt Stajan #18 and Lance Bouma #17 of the Calgary Flames congratulate Brian Elliott #1 after a shootout win against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Flames defeated the Blachawks 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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    So, it seems Jake Allen was onto something.

    The St. Louis Blues goalie noted a few days ago that Calgary Flames fans shouldn’t be worried about Brian Elliott despite his early-season struggles.

    Well, Elliott has since put together strong performances in back-to-back games against Central Division opponents from Chicago and then St. Louis.

    After earning a shootout win over the Blackhawks on Monday, Elliott was put back in the Calgary net to finish off the back-to-back road set.

    Facing his former team, Elliott made 23 saves on 24 shots and the Flames recorded a 4-1 victory. It was a special return to St. Louis for Elliott, who spent five seasons with the Blues.

    “I saw that on the schedule from a while ago in the summer,” Elliott told NHL.com. “You want to come back here. I had so much fun playing in front of these fans in this building and wanted to do it again even though it was another team. The guys did a heck of a job in front of me to get that win for me.”

    Not a bad trip for the Flames, with a maximum four points against two teams considered to be contenders in the Western Conference.

    “I thought we were good in front of him, too,” Flames coach Glen Gulutzan told the Calgary Herald. “I thought we kept a lot of the stuff to the outside, but he made some big saves, especially at the end, when we knew their push was coming.

    “I thought that was when he was his best. And that’s what you need — we put ourselves in position to win and then he carried us through.”

    Bernier (upper-body injury) gives way to Gibson in Ducks net

    GLENDALE, AZ - OCTOBER 01:  Goaltender Jonathan Bernier #1 of the Anaheim Ducks during the preseason NHL game against Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on October 1, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. The Coyotes defeated the Ducks 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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    Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson began Tuesday’s game on the bench, but was forced into action to begin the second period against the San Jose Sharks.

    Jonathan Bernier, who got the start, left the game with an upper-body injury and was doubtful to return, the Ducks stated on Twitter.

    Bernier has played in only one other game for Anaheim so far, making 42 saves on 45 shots in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 15.

    ‘Dig in there with the rest of the guys,’ says Babcock after leaving Andersen in against Bolts

    OTTAWA, ON - OCTOBER 12: In his first game as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs Frederik Andersen #31 puts his mask on against the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on October 12, 2016 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
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    Frederik Andersen‘s difficult start to the season continues.

    After an interesting exchange when questioned about his goaltender prior to Tuesday’s game against the visiting Tampa Bay Lightning and some guy named Steven Stamkos, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock was once again forced to answer inquiries about the play of Andersen, who allowed seven goals on just 24 shots.

    Andersen stayed in the crease for the entire game, as the Leafs lost 7-3. He certainly didn’t get much help in the defensive end from his teammates in front of him.

    Stamkos started the scoring for Tampa Bay, and continued it with a rocket one-timer past Andersen, before finishing with a four-point night.

    But in Toronto, the conversation about the amazing play of rookies like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner seems to have shifted to the play of their goalie, acquired in a blockbuster deal with Anaheim, in which Toronto parted ways with a first- and second-round pick to make it happen. The Leafs then signed him to a five-year, $25 million deal.

    Playing on a new team in a hockey-crazed market has likely been an adjustment. His season also started with an injury in Olympic qualifying.

    Following the loss Tuesday, Babcock explained his reasoning for leaving Andersen in net for all seven Tampa Bay goals, two of which came late in the third period.

    “I want him to play. He’s my guy. I want him to play,” said Babcock, as per Jonas Siegel of The Canadian Press. “So I could pull him and then say, ‘Okay I showed you!’ But what did I show him? To me, dig in there with the rest of the guys, make the next save and give us a chance to come back and win the game. You can’t do that sitting on the bench.”

    The Maple Leafs face the Florida Panthers on Thursday. Florida’s goalie Roberto Luongo knows all-too-well about the pressures that come with playing the position in a Canadian market.

    It is early in Andersen’s Toronto tenure.

    But Babcock will likely be facing a similar line of questioning until his goalie turns it around.