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.

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

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Andrei Markov wanted to play his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. With that option officially off the table, Markov announced that he’s headed for Russia and the KHL.

“I didn’t see myself with any other NHL team,” Markov said during a conference call wrapping up his lengthy stay with the Habs. “I didn’t see myself wearing another jersey.”

(At least not the jersey of another NHL team.)

The 38-year-old also noted that he hasn’t closed the door to a return to Montreal. That makes sense since it seems like it was largely the Canadiens’ decision to part ways with Markov, essentially replacing him with Mark Streit at a heavily discounted rate.

Beyond the comforts of home, Markov was almost certainly motivated to play in the KHL because of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The veteran blueliner did not mention which KHL team he’ll end up playing for. There were some rumblings that Markov might sign with the Florida Panthers, but that turned out to not be true.

If it’s a one-year deal, a return to the Habs is at least feasible in 2018-19. Considering his age, it sure seems like this is the end of Markov’s lengthy run with the Canadiens, though.

After making NHL debut, Jones re-ups with Isles

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One of the Isles’ feel-good stories from last season wrote a new chapter on Thursday.

Connor Jones, the undrafted 26-year-old that made his NHL debut in April, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced.

Jones certainly earned his way to the show. He spent four years at Quinnipiac before catching on with the Oilers, spending time with both their AHL and ECHL affiliates before jumping to the Isles organization in 2015.

Though he’s not an offensive producer — just 19 points in 58 games with Bridgeport last season — Jones emerged as a good energy guy that proved an effective penalty killer.

With AHL Bridgeport, he also played alongside his twin brother, Kellen, who was in attendance as Connor made his NHL debut in April.

Connor would go on to play four games for the Isles, averaging just under 12 minutes per night.

Report: Dwight King could be KHL-bound

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Dwight King, the burly forward that won a pair of Stanley Cups in Los Angeles, may be on his way to Russia.

Per News 1130 in Vancouver, King is set to sign in the KHL after failing to land a contract this summer. The 28-year-old finished last season in Montreal after spending the first seven years of his NHL career in Los Angeles.

For a time, King was an effective skater for L.A. He posted a career-high 15 goals and 30 points during the ’13-14 campaign, and followed that up with a 13-goal, 26-point effort the year following. He also had a nice showing during the Kings’ 2014 Cup run, finishing with 11 points in 26 games.

King’s biggest issue is his skating ability. At 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, he was never the fleetest of foot, but had been working on his speed this offseason.

More, from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

King is still looking for work after finishing the season in Montreal. There are a few Western Conference teams poking around.

“I’m just looking for an opportunity at this point. I’m going to be on the ice more this year, doing a little more skills and skating. Any bit of improvement I can find.”

King is going to try a couple new teachers, then decide which route to take. One also works with former teammate (and new Golden Knight) Brayden McNabb. King is quite the physical specimen, but will take a new approach. He regularly played at 230–231 pounds, but is going to go to 225–226. And he believes the Western Conference is better for him.

News 1130 reported that Vancouver had shown “mild interest” in King, who just wrapped a three-year $5.85 million deal with a $1.95M cap hit.

King appeared in 17 games for the Habs after being picked up at the deadline last season, scoring once. He went pointless in six playoff games.

McLellan excited about addition of ‘utility player’ Strome

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To hear Todd McLellan explain it, Ryan Strome could be wearing many hats next season.

That’s what the Oilers head coach said on Wednesday of the former Isles forward, acquired earlier this summer in the Jordan Eberle trade. McLellan expressed excitement over Strome’s ability to play both center and wing.

“He (Strome) is a utility player,” McLellan said, per the Sun. “He has the ability to play center and has in the past. He’s been able to win faceoffs and he’s comfortable on the wing. We have the luxury of moving players around, and as the fans here know, we like to do that.”

That last sentence is clearly a reference to Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl has flipped back and forth between playing as Edmonton’s No. 2 center and as a winger on the top line alongside Connor McDavid. The talented German’s had success at both, which is why Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli is still unsure if Draisaitl is a center or a winger.

More: Strome pumped at prospect of playing with Draisaitl, McDavid

As for Strome, he certainly gives Edmonton some flexibility — on the ice, and on the books.

With a $2.5 million cap hit (compared to Eberle’s $6M), he’s provided Chiarelli with more cap space to get the Draisaitl contract done. And there’s also the potential for him to be a real bargain. Remember, Strome is only two years removed from a sophomore campaign in which he scored 17 goals and 50 points in 81 contests. His subsequent two years with the Isles were a disappointment, but the talent is still there.

The wildcard in all this is the fact that Strome’s heading into a contract year. He’ll be a restricted free agent next July, so the ’17-18 campaign will go a long way in determining his value… and, potentially, his future in Edmonton.