David Backes, Chris Stewart

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

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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).

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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.

Ekblad back on the ice for Panthers after World Cup injury

NASHVILLE, TN - JANUARY 30:  Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers poses for a 2016 NHL All-Star portrait at Bridgestone Arena on January 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Sanford Myers/Getty Images)
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The Florida Panthers had a bit of a scare during the 2016 World Cup when defenseman Aaron Ekblad, while playing for Team North America, was injured in a first-round game against Finland that kept him out for the remainder of the tournament.

On Saturday, Ekblad was back on the ice for the Panthers doing some individual workouts following the injury.

“Ekblad is going to be fine,” Panthers coach Gerard Galant said, via Alain Poupart of NHL.com.  “You see him out there skating already. I think it was a little scary, but he feels real good. He’s going to skate and see how he feels, but everything looks good.”

It was initially reported that Ekblad had a concussion, but it was later reported to be a neck injury.

The Panthers haven’t been overly concerned with the injury over the past week.

Ekblad, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, has quickly become one of the franchise building blocks for a Panthers team that is on the rise in the Eastern Conference.

Still only 20 years old, he is already a top-pairing defenseman in the league and has scored 27 goals in his career, a number that is pretty much unheard of for a defenseman that young.

According to the hockey-reference database, the only defenseman that has scored more goals at that age through their first two seasons is Phil Housley.

After winning the Atlantic Division in 2015-16 and having a busy offseason that saw them add Keith Yandle and Jason Demers to their defense, the Panthers look like they could be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference this season and Ekblad is going to be a major part of that.

Ilya Bryzgalov’s Canada – Russia take is the best take

VANCOUVER, BC - FEBRUARY 24:  Ilya Bryzgalov #30 of Russia comes into the game against Canada during the ice hockey men's quarter final game between Russia and Canada on day 13 of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics at Canada Hockey Place on February 24, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.  (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
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Admit it: you miss Ilya Bryzgalov.

Saturday presented the latest reminder that hockey’s just a little less fun thanks to the absence of Mr. Universe, as Bryzgalov regaled ESPN’s Craig Custance with his impeccable analysis of the drubbing Russia received from Canada during the 2010 Olympics.

You see, Breezy initially described Canada’s start “like gorillas out of a cage,” but upon further reflection …

… Well:

“Not gorillas,” Bryzgalov said. “More like Orcs from ‘The Hobbit.’ You watch that movie, right? Big. Mean. Scary.”

Fantastic.

Now, it’s possible that Bryzgalov meant “Lord of the Rings” rather than “The Hobbit,” but both series featured “Big. Mean. Scary” orcs, so who knows:

Really though, it paints quite the picture. Imagine, for a moment, Shea Weber or Brent Burns decked out like that one especially big, mean and scary orc. One can only imagine the Photoshop masterpieces that may sprout up thanks to the vivid story Bryzgalov told.

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Now, there are some great bits leading up to Saturday’s Canada – Russia semifinal. PHT should have more to come tonight.

Sportsnet looked back at a moment in which a seemingly sure-thing Canadian team hit a brick wall in a Russian opponent. NHL.com provided a fascinating look at Mike Babcock and his quest for control. TSN captures a moment of sorts for Steven Stamkos.

There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but Bryzgalov’s takes are truly one of a kind, and they’ve been truly missed.

Bruins’ Vatrano to miss three months with foot injury

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 17:  Frank Vatrano #72 of the Boston Bruins looks on during the third period against the San Jose Sharks at TD Garden on November 17, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Sharks defeat the Bruins 5-4.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Frank Vatrano is supposed to be one of the young players the Boston Bruins will be counting on this season to help replace some of the offense they lost when Loui Eriksson signed a free agent contract with the Vancouver Canucks.

Unfortunately for the Bruins they will have to wait a few months before he gets an opportunity to make an impact.

The team announced on Saturday that Vatrano is going to require surgery to repair torn ligaments in his foot and is expected to miss at least three months.

General manager Don Sweeney said that Vatrano was injured in his training in preparation for the team’s training camp.

Vatrano appeared in 39 games for the Bruins in 2015-16 season and scored eight goals, including a hat trick in an early season win against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He spent the rest of his season playing for Providence of the American Hockey League where he scored a league leading 36 goals in only 36 games. Just for some perspective on that goal total, only one other player in the league scored 30 goals for the entire season, and that was Chris Bourque who scored 30 in 72 games.

Star-crossed: Cody Eakin to miss about six weeks

NEWARK, NJ - JANUARY 02: Cody Eakin #20 of the Dallas Stars waits for the face off against the New Jersey Devils on January 2,2016 at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The Dallas Stars’ run of injuries hasn’t ended even with the World Cup of Hockey winding down.

Training camps are starting up, so that’s a new way that the team can encounter bad luck, and it didn’t take much time for the hits to keep coming. Cody Eakin suffered a lower-body injury that’s apparently bad enough to sideline him for six weeks, according to the team.

That same announcement revealed that Devin Shore will miss “some time.”

Before that bad Eakin news leaked through, head coach Lindy Ruff tried to spin the injuries as positively as possible, as the Dallas Morning News noted.

“We’ve got a little bit of the injury bug hitting us, but you’ve got to get through it,” Ruff said. “I’d rather have it now than three or four weeks from now.”

In case you’re wondering, Ruff didn’t pass around bubble wrap to everyone in the Stars’ locker room after making that statement.

Eakin has only missed four games over the last four seasons, so this injury bug is becoming quite the epidemic for the Stars.

Related: Stars might be the biggest losers of the World Cup