David Backes, Chris Stewart

Could the St. Louis Blues be a ‘sleeper team’ in the West?


Last off-season, I thought the St. Louis Blues were really onto something. While I’m not a huge proponent of spending big on a goalie with a small resume, I thought that Jaroslav Halak would get enough support from backup Ty Conklin to succeed reasonably well. Adding more talented goaltending to a solid stable of young talent prompted me to pick the Blues to make the playoffs in 2010-11.

Obviously, I was wrong with that one. Halak wasn’t awful, but Conklin certainly was. The Blues dealt with a litany of injuries, with David Perron still in a depressing state of concussion limbo. The team even traded Erik Johnson – the first pick of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft – although it wasn’t one of those trades in which a team essentially admits defeat by not getting much in return for a top pick (see: James Sheppard with Minnesota, Nikita Filatov and Columbus).

The 2010-11 season had enough lows and such a dearth of highs that it’s almost tough to believe my own gut feelings from last year. Yet if you look at that roster, the Blues have a diverse group of scorers and enough talent that they might have a chance at sneaking up on some people in the Western Conference.

USA Today’s Kevin Allen shares that hypothesis, calling the Blues “the sleeper team” of the West. Allen gives 10 reasons why, but we’ll look at some of the biggest points.

1. They have six returning forwards (David Backes, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Andy McDonald and Matt D’Agostini) who scored 20 or more goals last season. To put that into perspective, the Boston Bruins have four and Vancouver has three.

Allen points out that T.J. Oshie didn’t make that list largely because he missed 33 games with injuries and Perron also deserves a mention since he scored exactly 20 in a healthy 2009-10 season. It could be said that the Blues lack a true superstar forward, but teams have had success with a scoring by committee approach before. Stewart and Backes are the types of big forwards who can score in the rugged Northwest Division.

Allen also points to the free agent acquisitions of Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott. There are some serious questions about how much each player has left in the tank (Langenbrunner’s game looked especially “off” during his time with the Devils and Stars), but the Blues were wise enough to sign them to one-year deals to reduce their overall risks. If nothing else, those veterans reinforce the impressive depth this team has on offense.

4. Jaroslav Halak, 26, is entering the best years of his career. Last season was his first season as a wire-to-wire No. 1 goalie. You can bet he learned something. Would anyone be surprised if his save percentage was .920 this season?

5. St. Louis’ defense is still a work in progress, but presumably Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk will be more polished this season.

Ultimately, it all rests on Halak even more than last year with the Blues’ backup situation being a considerable question mark. The only problem is that the Blues defense isn’t likely to provide the kind of support Halak enjoyed during some of his better moments with the Montreal Canadiens. The Blues might hope that they’re “just good enough” in their own end.

10. The Blues have players who are hard to play against. Backes had 213 hits last season. It seems as if solid defenseman Barret Jackman has been around forever, but he’s only 30. He plays 20 minutes a game and blocks plenty of shots. Roman Polak is another 20-minute defenseman who will dish out some hits.

Toughness can be a serious asset in a division and conference that rewards grit a bit more than the East (at least it seems).


So what do you think about the Blues? Do they have the offense and just enough goaltending to sneak into the playoffs next season, like the 2009-10 Colorado Avalanche? Will their question marks on defense and lack of a true star on offense doom them next season? Let us know in the comments.

The Panthers are healthy scratching Bolland, and he is their highest-paid forward, but they insist they’re not sending a message

Dave Bolland, Derek Nansen
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It feels like there’s a story brewing in Florida, where Dave Bolland — the team’s most-expensive forward, at $5.5 million a season — has been a healthy scratch for three consecutive games.

But according to head coach Gerard Gallant, there’s nothing to see here. Move along.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Gallant said, per the Miami Herald. “He sat out, our team is playing well. There’s nothing more than that. We have to sit two guys and I like the way we’re playing. The next game is a different game. We may change something up, who knows.”

Bolland had just one goal and five points in 18 games prior to getting parked in the press box. Well, technically he got dropped to the fourth line before hitting the press box, but you get the idea. He’s not exactly in Gallant’s good graces.

Not helping Bolland’s case is the fact that, as Gallant pointed out, the club is playing pretty well without him. The Panthers have rebounded from a rough start to November by winning back-to-back games against the Islanders and Red Wings, which set them up nicely for the remainder of this current five-game road swing.

Florida has games still to play in St. Louis, Nashville, Columbus and New Jersey. It’ll be interesting to see when — or, if — he draws back into the lineup.

In closing, a reminder that Bolland’s in the second of a five-year, $27.5 million deal.

Canucks rookie Virtanen exits with upper-body injury, won’t return


After sitting out Friday’s game in Dallas, Vancouver’s Jake Virtanen had to be excited at drawing back in for tonight’s game against the Ducks.

Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last long.

Virtanen suffered an upper-body injury after playing just 1:45 in the opening frame, and was ruled out of the contest during the intermission. It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it looks like Virtanen was injured on a hit by Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf.

Virtanen didn’t take another shift following the incident, and Getzlaf was given a minor penalty on the play.

While we don’t know what the injury is or it’s severity, losing Virtanen for any length of time would have ramifications for the Canucks and this year’s Canadian entry at the World Juniors. There has been talk of Virtanen possibly being released by the Canucks to participate in the tournament; last year, he was part of the team that captured gold in Montreal and Toronto.

Virtanen has played in 18 games for the Canucks this year, scoring one goal and four points while averaging 10:17 TOI per night.

McLellan sounds off on Oilers after shutout loss in Toronto

Todd McLellan

Edmonton lost for the fourth time in five games on Monday, a 3-0 defeat in Toronto that marked the second time in a week the Oilers have been shut out.

Needless to say, the head coach wasn’t happy.

In a fairly blunt and harsh assessment aimed at a variety of players, Todd McLellan had some choice words for what he called a “disappointing” effort.

Some of the more choice quotes:

“I didn’t think we were a very hard team. I didn’t think we stood over a lot of pucks. I didn’t think we won a lot of battles along the boards. I didn’t think we were competitive enough in a lot of areas.”

“When I look at the trip as a whole, we had some key, key people really under-perform on the trip. Significant minus numbers, not hitting the score sheet. It can’t always be the [Leon DraisaitlTaylor Hall line] that provides that.”

It’s fair to suggest that last one was directed at Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle.

Nugent-Hopkins has just two points and zero goals in his last five games, with a minus-8 rating. Eberle is pointless entirely, and also at minus-8 over the same stretch.

They’re hardly the only Oilers not pulling their weight at the moment, however. Edmonton has lost 15 times in its first 25 games, a figure that suggests there are more problems that just a couple of underachieving forwards.

Just ask McLellan, who all but admitted his team has issues matching up.

“We’re not where we need to be,” he said. “We’ve got work to do as a team, work to do as an organization to get bigger, stronger, harder, and physically win more battles than we lose.”

Roy: Avs ‘need, expect more’ from Varlamov


The tough times continue for Semyon Varlamov.

After another unsuccessful outing on Monday — allowing four goals on 27 shots in a loss to the Islanders — Varlamov was subjected to a familiar refrain: Patrick Roy saying the Avs need more from their No. 1 netminder.


You can hear all of the head coach’s comments in the video above but, for brevity’s sake, here’s the Varlamov stuff:

“It’s not easy for him. Obviously we need that extra save and we didn’t get it on the road. It’s hard to win if you’re giving four goals on the road.

“We just need more from him. He’s our No. 1 guy and we’re behind him, but we need, we expect more from him.”

There has to be serious concern about Varlamov right now, if there wasn’t already.

His save percentage through seven games in November (.891) is marginally better than it was through seven games in October (.889), and that’s not the only alarming stat. Varlamov’s yet to record a shutout this year, yet to record back-to-back victories and has given up at least three goals in six of his last seven starts.

Not good.

Compounding things for Colorado are the standings. The Avs are now 9-14-1 and mired in the Central Division basement, meaning that — if they have any hope of going on a tear and getting back into playoff content — they’ll need to do it soon.

Which means they might not have the time, or the patience, for Varlamov to find his game.