Tampa Bay Lightning v St. Louis Blues

2011-2012 season preview: St. Louis Blues

2010-2011 record: 38-33-11, 87 points; 4th in Central and 11th in West

Playoffs: Did not qualify

The Blues missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season — they haven’t won a playoff game since before the lockout. Missing the playoffs has been something new for the fans in St. Louis, since they made the postseason every single year between 1980 and 2004. With a good balance of youngsters and veterans, the Blues are a dark-horse candidate to make it back to the playoffs this season. Then again, they were a dark-horse candidate to make noise last season as well.

Offense

The offense looks to improve this season as they’ll enjoy Chris Stewart’s talents for the full 82 games. It’s not just Stewart who will help the Blues this season either. Forwards David Perron, Andy McDonald, and TJ Oshie all missed significant time last season with serious injuries. In essence, this is a team that hopes to have four players (who weren’t available for stretches last season), who are all capable of playing on the Blues’ top-six. Not too bad for a team that proved they could score goals last season. They were 10th in the league in scoring and power play last season; and there’s no reason to think that they can’t improve upon those numbers this season. Newly-minted captain David Backes will look to prove that his 31 goals weren’t a fluke as well.

Defense

The Erik Johnson experiment finally came to a close when the Blues sent former No. 1 overall pick to the Avalanche in a mid-season blockbuster last season. The reason they were able to trade a player with that kind of potential was simple: they thought they had a better cornerstone defenseman in Alex Pietrangelo. The 21-year-old defenseman showed down the stretch that he’s the type of player who can play in all types of situations — from the power play to the penalty kill. Barret Jackman and Carlo Colaiacovo are well respected in the locker room and Kevin Shattenkirk has shown that he’ll be a productive NHL blueliner. There’s potential here — but the drop-off after Pietrangelo is fairly significant.

Goalies

Goaltending was one of the big reasons why people thought the Blues would be a contender last season. Jaroslav Halak was coming off a spectacular playoff run with the Canadiens and many thought he was the missing piece for a team that seemingly had a strong core of young forwards and defensemen. Like the rest of the team, Halak was inconsistent last season. His (and the team’s) play at the beginning of the season made the Blues look like world beaters. But over the course of the season, Halak struggled to replicate his playoff success over an 82-game season. His 2.48 goals against average was alright, but he’ll undoubtedly need to improve upon his .910 save percentage. Newly acquired back-up Brian Elliott was picked up in the offseason to be just that — a backup. There’s no question that Halak needs to improve his consistency if they Blues want to improve this season.

Coaching

The jury is still out on Blues’ headman Davis Payne. The Blues got a bump when he took over for Andy Murray during the 2009-10 season, but injuries and inconsistency killed their playoff chances this season. Optimists will tell you that Payne is a good coach who wasn’t able to overcome injuries; pessimists will tell you that he’s an average coach leading and average team. This will be an important year for Payne to show that he has what it takes to lead a team with potential to the playoffs.

Breakout candidate

Some will say he broke out last season, but Pietrangelo is looking to take the next step this season. The superstar-in-the-making was handed the keys to the defense in the middle of last season and didn’t disappoint. This year, he’ll look to improve upon his 11 goals, 43 points, and team best (for defensemen) +18 rating. Last season he established himself as the best defenseman on the team – this season he’ll look to establish himself as one of the best defensemen in the league. Don’t be surprised if people are mentioning Pietrangelo and the Norris Trophy in the same sentence in the next few years.

Best-case scenario

On paper, this team has all the makings of a playoff contender. If everyone can stay healthy (a big “if” after last season), the Blues forward lineup takes on a completely different complexion. Veteran newcomers Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner should help teach the young core how to play like professionals and fulfill expectations. If the defense holds up and Halak returns to the form that he showed in Montreal, the Blues can battle for the second place in the Central and a solid spot in the playoffs.

Reality

The reality is the Blues have a lot of question marks surrounding their potential. They need to stay healthy, they need to figure out a way to mix Langenbrunner and Arnott into the fold up front, they’ll need their second and third pairings on the blue line to play strong defense all season, and they need their up-and-down goaltender to keep the puck out of the net. There’s too much talent to ignore here — expect the Blues to win the battle with a few other teams to sneak into that final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They may finish behind the ‘Hawks, Wings, and Preds in the Central, but that still may be good enough for the eighth and final spot in the West.

Red Wings approach training camp with an expensive goalie situation

Detroit Red Wings' Petr Mrazek (34) replaces goalie Jimmy Howard (35) during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. (Trevor Hagan/The Canadian Press via AP)
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This post is part of Detroit Red Wings day at PHT…

There was a stretch in January when Petr Mrazek wasn’t unbeatable, but it may have felt that way. He allowed only 12 goals during a nine-game stretch. Subsequently, he posted a 7-1-1 record that month.

Then, there was a stretch in February and into March when he gave up 24 goals in eight appearances, including a trio of five-spots and that got people talking. His coach, Jeff Blashill, said at the time that such a run in January — citing a .956 save percentage — simply wasn’t sustainable and that Mrazek’s struggles a short time later were part of the ebb and flow of a season.

When the playoffs began, Jimmy Howard started the first-round series versus Tampa Bay but gave up seven goals in two games, before giving way to Mrazek for the final three games.

Over the summer, the Red Wings and Mrazek were able to come to an agreement on a two-year, $8 million deal just before the two sides were to have a scheduled arbitration hearing.

That is a large raise from the $737,500 average annual value Mrazek was making on his entry-level contract. The Red Wings now have more than $9 million dedicated to both Mrazek and Howard in the salary cap.

Howard, 32, is signed for three more years at $5.29 million. He posted a 14-14-5 record, with a .906 save percentage, which is well below his career average of .915.

General manager Ken Holland — he’s under pressure — has offered conflicting takes on Howard’s future prospects in Detroit, saying he had thought about trading the veteran goalie but then he made the case to keep Howard almost as insurance in goal, as Detroit continues to develop Mrazek as the true No. 1.

“Some teams have goalies that make $8 million, $7 million,” Holland told the Detroit Free Press. “We’re on the higher end in terms of the money we’ve got in net, but we see goaltending as a strength for us.”

Blashill told MLive.com during the winter that he went into last season with a three-week plan to alternate between Howard and Mrazek, to see which of those two goalies could separate themselves and take charge of that No. 1 position.

The plan this time around will be one to keep an eye on when the season begins. It’s shaping up right now to be an expensive one.

Coyotes hire skating guru Dawn Braid, believed to be first full-time female coach in NHL history

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) The Arizona Coyotes have hired Dawn Braid as skating coach and say she is believed to be the first full-time female coach in NHL history.

Braid has a long association with the NHL.

She worked part-time for the Coyotes last year and has served as a skating consultant with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres and Calgary Flames.

Braid also spent seven years with the Athletes Training Center as director of skating development. Among the skaters she worked with while there is New York Islanders center John Tavares.

From NHL.com:

“Dawn has wanted to put me in to make myself a more powerful and efficient skater,” Tavares told NHL.com in 2012. “Dawn always says, ‘If you didn’t train properly and do the certain things you need to do, you’re not going to be strong enough to do the things I want you to do.'”

Braid’s hiring continues the trend of full-time female coaches in men’s pro sports; she follows Becky Hammon of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs (2014) and Kathryn Smith of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills (2016) as the first full-time women’s coach in their respective leagues.

It’s all about experience for Red Wings sophomore bench boss Blashill

Detroit Red Wing training camp, day one
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This post is part of Detroit Red Wings day at PHT…

Let’s be honest: It’s probably not easy to replace a coach of Mike Babcock’s repute.

More than a year ago, Babcock went to the rebuilding Toronto Maple Leafs and is being paid a lot of money — an estimated $50 million over eight years — to coach in that market. Meanwhile, back in Detroit and with Babcock out of the picture, the Red Wings turned to Jeff Blashill as their new bench boss.

True, Blashill had spent time as a head coach in the USHL, college ranks and with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the AHL. But he had no experience as an NHL head coach prior to the 2015-16 season and just one season as an NHL assistant when he was part of Babcock’s staff in 2011-12.

After a 41-30-11 regular season record and another playoff appearance, the 25th straight in Detroit, the Red Wings were bounced in the first round. One of the priorities for general manager Ken Holland this offseason was to insulate Blashill by bringing in more experienced assistants.

The Red Wings hired John Torchetti, previously the interim head coach in Minnesota, and long-time Boston assistant Doug Houda. Those moves were part of a larger coaching shake-up within the organization, as Tony Granato left for a head coaching job at Wisconsin, goalie coach Jim Bedard was not brought back and assistant Pat Ferschweiler, who ran the team’s 13th-ranked power play last season, was reassigned.

Blashill told MLive.com that “player development” will be a large part of Ferschweiler’s role going forward.

“I think it’ll be a real benefit,” Blashill told the Detroit Free Press of the additions to the Red Wings staff. “Lots of years behind NHL benches. I’ve only had two years on an NHL bench. That’s a scenario where I can learn from their past experiences.”

It’s all about experience.

Two years ago, Blashill was touted by Holland as an “NHL coach in the making.” A month later, he was given a three-year contract extension to coach the Griffins, so clearly they thought highly of Blashill by keeping him as opposed to potentially losing him to another NHL club. A year later, he was tapped on to replace Mike Babcock.

In this case, patience may be required, too. That may be easier said than done from a fan’s perspective because as impressive as Detroit’s current run of consecutive playoff appearances is, they haven’t made it out of the first round in their last three tries.

“I think he’s a tremendous coach and I think he’s going to be in the League a long time. He’s had a lot of success at every level he’s been at except the NHL,” Holland told NHL.com.

“He did guide us to a playoff spot in a League when it’s hard to qualify for the playoffs, but I also think as you looked at our team last year, there were lots of decisions to be made and I think the experiences of last year are going to be important for Jeff.”

If the Red Wings place such a great deal of value on Blashill gaining experience, and leaning on the experience of veteran coaches beside him, it would seem then that they are willing to invest a substantial amount of time in him as he continues to grow and establish himself as an NHL coach.

But with such experienced assistant coaches having joined his staff this offseason, it makes you wonder about what could happen if the Red Wings struggle significantly or fail to make the playoffs.

“I think there’s always pressure in this job and there always will be and I welcomed that when I took the job,” Blashill told MLive.com this summer.

“But really, I don’t spend lots of time worrying about what could happen bad. I spend all my time worrying about how we’re going to do things to make sure we win.”

Bouwmeester named to Canada’s World Cup team, replacing the injured Duncan Keith

KANATA, ON - AUGUST 25:  Jay Bouwmeester #3 of Team Canada skates against Team USA during their exhibition game in the World Cup of Hockey on August 25, 2004 at the Corel Centre in Kanata, Canada.  (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/WCOH via Getty Images)
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St. Louis Blues veteran defenseman Jay Bouwmeester has been named to Canada’s 23-man roster for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey.

He will replace Chicago Blackhawks blue liner Duncan Keith, who is rehabbing a right knee injury.

“As Duncan continues offseason rehabilitation on the right knee injury that he sustained last season, we understand his decision not to participate in next month’s World Cup of Hockey,” Blackhawks team physician, Dr. Michael Terry, said in a statement.

“We believe it is in his best interests to focus on getting stronger and not risk further injury.”

Bouwmeester, a left-handed shot just as Keith is, which maintains the left-right philosophy for defensive pairings, joins his Blues teammate Alex Pietrangelo on the Canadian roster.

The two not only play together in St. Louis, but they were matched together on the blue line for Canada when it won gold at the 2014 Olympics.

The decision is, well, an interesting one and open to plenty of debate, as the Team Canada brass opted to take Bouwmeester over other Canadian blue liners — right-handed shots P.K. Subban and Kris Letang among the names — with far more offensive production from the back end.