David Backes, Chris Stewart

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

3 Comments

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.

Strome saga continues, will be a healthy scratch for Game 3

Ryan Strome, Johnny Boychuk
Getty Images
Leave a comment

Ryan Strome‘s tough year just got a little bit tougher.

After seemingly re-establishing himself in the Islanders lineup, Strome will be a healthy scratch for tonight’s Game 3 against the Lightning.

Head coach Jack Capuano will drop Strome in favor of Josh Bailey, who returns from a two-game absence due to injury.

“I try to be a good team guy and I don’t want to draw any negative attention to myself,” Strome continued, per Newsday.

The fifth overall pick in 2011, Strome endured a difficult campaign that included a three-week stint in the AHL.

Those difficulties have carried over to the postseason. After playing the first four games of New York’s opening-round playoff series against the Panthers, Strome was dropped for Games 5 and 6 — but Bailey was hurt in the clincher, meaning Strome drew back in for the opening two games of the Bolts series.

It’s hard to say what exactly got him scratched. In Game 1, he assisted on both of Shane Prince‘s goals, helping the Isles to a 5-3 win — despite fairly limited ice time (12:26, third-lowest among forwards.)

In Game 2, his numbers weren’t as good — no points, two shots on goal, minus-1 rating, 35.9 Corsi — but his ice time jumped to 17:59, easily his biggest of the postseason.

The decision to park Strome probably isn’t about numbers. Following the Game 2 loss, Capuano said the Isles were “a little soft,” which has been one of the complaints about Strome’s game this year.

In fact, the 22-year-old alluded to it today.

“Last series [the message was] I needed to be a little harder to play against,” Strome said. “Points don’t always tell the whole story. I’m always confident in my game, but unfortunately I don’t make the decisions.

“I have to live with it.”

Boudreau wants a new job right away, and it sure looks like he’ll get one

Anaheim Ducks v Vancouver Canucks
Getty Images
5 Comments

Bruce Boudreau doesn’t like being unemployed.

“I’ve always worked,” Boudreau said this week, per the O.C. Register. “Since I was 17 years old, there was never a time I never had a job. In the hockey jobs when I’ve gotten fired, I’ve tried to get back into work right away.”

You don’t say.

Back in 2011, Boudreau was out of a job for 48 hours when — after getting fired by the Caps on a Monday — Anaheim hired him that Wednesday.

Now he’s looking at a similar situation.

Last Friday, Boudreau was fired after Anaheim’s disappointing opening-round playoff exit to Nashville.

Today, the Ottawa Sun reported the Senators have officially received permission to speak with Boudreau about their vacant head coaching gig.

Oh, and guess what else happened today? Calgary fired Bob Hartley, just one year after Hartley captured the Jack Adams as NHL coach of the year.

Almost immediately, Boudreau was floated as a potential replacement in Calgary — or, depending how you look at it, part of the reason GM Brad Treliving decided to turf Hartley.

There’s another team believed to be interested in Boudreau’s services as well — Minnesota.

Sportsnet reported that Wild GM Chuck Fletcher reached out to Anaheim about interviewing Boudreau. But the Minnesota situation seems to be on hold, until all discussions have wrapped with interim bench boss John Torchetti.

There’s little surprise teams are clamoring to get Boudreau on board.

Playoff failures aside, his resume is stacked. He won eight division titles in nine years with Washington and Anaheim, boasts a 409-192-80 career record, and won the 2008 Jack Adams Award.

In firing Boudreau, Ducks GM Bob Murray lauded him as a “good coach” and “very passionate hockey guy.” Boudreau’s also earned the reputation as a player’s coach, largely because of his communication skills — he comes by that “Gabby” nickname honestly — and open door policy.

“He was a friend, you could talk to him at any point and time,” Corey Perry said following Boudreau’s dismissal, per the Ducks website. “The door was always open. He coached this team, and I can’t say enough about him.

“He did a lot for my game.”

So yeah, all signs certainly point to Boudreau being back behind a bench next year.

Unless he’s not.

The coaching world is fluid, and constantly changing. Ottawa’s got a lengthy list of candidates aside from Boudreau, Minnesota could easily stick with Torchetti and, per TSN’s Bob McKenzie, Calgary’s decision to turf Hartley wasn’t about who’s available, but rather about getting a new voice behind the bench.

So it’s probably too early to say what the Flames want to do next.

Boudreau, though, knows exactly what he wants to do next.

“I love the game,” Boudreau said. “I love the people involved in the game. There’s no place I’d rather be than a hockey arena.

“I just know that’s me.”

IIHF president is pessimistic that NHLers will go to the 2018 Olympics

Gary Bettman, Rene Fasel, Don Fehr
AP
1 Comment

IIHF president Rene Fasel puts the chances of NHL participation in the 2018 Winter Olympics at just 40 percent.

Fasel’s pessimism is a result of the IOC’s decision not to cover millions of dollars in transportation and insurance costs for the NHL players that would’ve been headed to Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“It’s always difficult to get (to) the Olympics, the games,” Fasel told the Associated Press. “And now with some problems on our side, 50-50 is very positive. I would be more 60 percent that they are not coming.”

But Fasel is not giving up. His plan now is to go “do some begging” from the national Olympic committees of the hockey-playing countries.

Just don’t count on the NHL to cover any shortfall. The owners already don’t like shutting down the league to risk their star players’ health. If there’s no Olympic participation in 2018, they won’t be devastated.

Related:

Bettman unsure if Beijing Olympics represents ‘an opportunity to grow the game in China’

Fehr: Players want to be in both Olympics, World Cup

Ovechkin will ‘definitely’ go to South Korea for 2018 Winter Olympics

For Blues, Pietrangelo is playing ‘heavy minutes,’ and a lot of them

St. Louis Blues' Alex Pietrangelo (27) skates against the Chicago Blackhawks' in an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce)
AP
Leave a comment

ST. LOUIS (AP) Alex Pietrangelo is used to playing a lot – especially this time of year. The St. Louis Blues linchpin defenseman plays with a high motor and appears to have no issues piling up the ice time.

Pietrangelo is fourth overall in the playoffs averaging 30 minutes, 34 seconds, including more than 35 minutes in the Blues’ overtime victory in Game 2 in Dallas on Sunday. Among the surviving eight teams, he’s at the top of the list.

“The more you play him, the better he plays,” coach Ken Hitchcock said Monday, a day ahead of Game 3 against the Stars (9:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in a series knotted at a game apiece. “I think he keeps his focus razor-sharp, and when he’s like that, he’s going to help us.”

A key to Pietrangelo’s success is channeling attention deficit disorder and putting excess energy to good use. He’s constantly talking, compensating for soft-spoken defensive partner Jay Bouwmeester.

“He is go, go, go and guys sometimes wish he had a muzzle on him at times,” Backes said. “He’s a big reason why we’re still playing.”

Pietrangelo leads the rush at times and has a goal and five assists in the playoffs for a team savoring its first victory in the second round since 2002.

Several teammates believe Pietrangelo, the fourth overall pick in 2008, was the Blues’ MVP in the first round. He was instrumental in holding down Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

“I like having the opportunity to play on a big stage,” Pietrangelo said. “Sometimes it’s hard minutes, but I’ll take that as long as it’s going to help us.”

All of the minutes leaders still in the playoffs are defensemen, with Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang right behind Pietrangelo at 29:24 per game. The Islanders have two players getting heavy rotation, Nick Leddy (28:33) and Travis Hamonic (27:03). Nashville’s Roman Josi (27:22) and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman (27:02) also are high on the list.

Two mainstays are watching now, Chicago’s Duncan Keith (31:27) and Los Angeles’ Drew Doughty (30:49).

Pietrangelo’s minutes stand out even more given he’s not on the first power play unit, duty that’s not usually as taxing as regular shifts.

“You have to recognize that those are heavy minutes he’s playing,” coach Ken Hitchcock said. “He’s getting challenged, he’s playing against top players, he’s killing all the penalties.”

The odds of Pietrangelo getting more extremely heavy duty would seem to be high, given the Stars and Blues have met seven times with four going to overtime and one decided in a shootout. He can be a calming influence, although inside he’s going 100 mph.

“I’m still amped up, you can ask my teammates,” Pietrangelo said. “I’m always on the go.”