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.

Trade: Bruins send Frank Vatrano to Panthers

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After acquiring Nick Holden from the New York Rangers earlier this week the Boston Bruins were busy again on Thursday by completing their second trade of the week.

Let’s take a look at the deal.

The trade: Bruins trade forward Frank Vatrano to the Florida Panthers in exchange for a 2018 third-round draft pick.

Why the Bruins are making this trade: There was a time when Vatrano seemed like he was going to be a big deal for the Bruins but it simply has not worked out. They have had a wave of young talent come through the organization in recent years and Vatrano has kind of gotten lost in the shuffle. He was not getting regular playing time, his production has not been great when he has played, and it just seems like he might need a fresh start in a new situation. The Bruins were able to pick up a pick for him that they can maybe use as trade bait in another move or to help replenish the cupboard after making other moves leading up to the trade deadline (such as the one where they traded a pick for Holden).

Why the Panthers are making this trade: It is a good low-risk, potentially high-reward move. Even though things did not work out for Vatrano in Boston he is still a player that has some talent and has shown flashes of ability in the past. During the 2015-16 season he scored 36 goals in 36 AHL games and scored another eight in his first taste of NHL action that season in 39 games. He came back last season and scored 10 goals and eight assists in 44 games with the Bruins. So there is some ability there. The Panthers probably are not going to make the playoffs this season, even after their recent surge, but it never hurts to add a young player with some potential for a small price. That is exactly what they did here.

Who won the trade? It was pretty clear Vatrano was not going to work out in Boston any longer so they were able to get something back in return, but there is a good chance that Vatrano will contribute more to the Panthers than whoever they would have selected with that third-round pick, and he is still young enough to potentially be a player for them going forward. Maybe a slight edge to the Panthers?

[Related: Bruins acquire Nick Holden from New York Rangers]

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Senators seem to be in no-win situation with Erik Karlsson

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Imagine being an Ottawa Senators fan right now.

Now that you have done that for a second and hopefully resisted the urge to set yourself on fire, try to picture the situation that your favorite team is currently facing.

Less than one year removed from being a double overtime Game 7 loss away from being in the Stanley Cup Final, your team is now one of the worst in the NHL and doesn’t seem to have a terribly bright short-term future in front of it.

Your team does have one of the NHL’s best players in Erik Karlsson, a generational talent on defense that can impact the game in a way few defenders ever have.

That is good.

But now your team is in a situation where it probably won’t be able to keep him.

That is … less than good.

It is no secret that Karlsson, whose contract expires after the 2018-19 season, is going to want to become one of the highest paid players in the NHL (as he should be) and is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the Senators are going to be able or willing to handle that demand. And even if they could, Karlsson has to actually want to re-sign there.

Are the Senators going to be able to build a competitive team around him? Is he going to want to commit to the team they might be able to build or are building?

Big questions that leave the team in the situation it is facing right now where it has to decide whether or not to trade him at some point before the end of next season.

There is already growing speculation that it could happen before Monday’s trade deadline.

TSN’s Bob McKenzie wrote on Wednesday that the Senators are at least open to the idea of trading Karlsson this season before the deadline, and that a potential deal could also include the Senators trying to package Bobby Ryan with him in an effort to dump the remainder of Ryan’s contract. That would not only severely limit the number of teams that could actually complete a trade, but it would also probably reduce the return they get for Karlsson.

At this point it’s all just talk and speculation, but it’s still a sad reality to consider for Senators fans.

Think about the message that sort of trade would send to your fans.

It would basically be: Hey, we can’t really keep the best player we have and maybe the best player you will ever see play for our team in your lifetime. Oh, and one more thing, we also took a slightly lesser return for him so we could dump another contract we can’t afford. Sorry about that.

It just stinks to even consider.

Having said that, if the Senators are going to do it, if they are going to trade Erik freaking Karlsson, this might sadly be the best possible time to do it.

Normally I am one billion percent opposed to trading players like Karlsson.

You can’t win without them. They are nearly impossible to acquire. You can rarely, if ever, get fair value for them back in return. It is worth paying them top dollar under the salary cap, even if it means you have to trim somewhere else around the edges to keep them. One truly great player is worth more than two pretty good players.

But if you think your chances of keeping the player are slim — whether because you can’t afford them or because they don’t want to re-sign with you — can you really risk losing a player like that for nothing?

If the Senators wait until the offseason or at some point into next season the return likely diminishes because the team getting him is only guaranteed to have him for one season (or less). Any team that trades for him now gets two potential Stanley Cup runs with him. His value is probably never going to be higher than it is right now.

If the Senators actually go through with it would be the type of move we don’t normally see at trade deadline time. The biggest impact players that have been traded over the past years (Marian Hossa, Ilya Kovalchuk, etc.) have been players that were already in the final year of their contracts. This is a player that is not only one of the best in the world, but still has term remaining.

In the end, it all just seems to be a no-win situation for the Senators.

Keeping him and hoping that he re-signs is a huge risk because losing him for nothing would be a devastating.

Trading him is a gut punch to your fans because you only get players like him every so often and you’re probably not going to get fair value back.

Waiting to trade him next season probably only lessons the return based on how much time the team trading for him is guaranteed to have with him.

But what other choice do the Senators have? There is nothing to suggest this season is a fluke for the Senators (if anything, the previous season was the fluke) and that better days are ahead. There is nothing to suggest they are going to make significant investments to build a better team around Karlsson in the next year to convince him to stay.

If these are the final days of Karlsson as a member of the Senators, it is a frustrating way to go out.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

 

Canadiens’ Shea Weber to undergo foot surgery, miss rest of season

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The Montreal Canadiens won’t be participating in the playoffs, so on Thursday it was announced that Shea Weber is set to undergo surgery to repair a tear in a tendon in his left foot, ending his season.

˝Following the diagnosis of Shea Weber’s injury, it was our belief that after a comprehensive rehabilitation protocol under the guidance of our medical team, Shea would be able to return to play this season,” said the team’s orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Paul Martineau in a statement. “Unfortunately, after extensive efforts to heal Shea’s injury, progress has not been made as expected. After further exams, and a consultation on Wednesday in Green Bay, Wisconsin with specialist Dr. Robert Anderson, and with Shea’s approval, it has been determined that he should undergo surgery and will be out for the reminder of the season.

“Our medical group will work with Shea to ensure he is pursuing the best course of treatment moving forward, and we expect him to make a full recovery and be ready for the start of training camp next season. The length of his recovery will be determined following surgery, which will be performed by Dr. Anderson.”

The 32-year-old Weber has not played a game since the Dec. 16 outdoor game in Ottawa. Last week, Canadiens head coach Claude Julien said the defenseman’s foot still wasn’t comfortable in his skate and was going get it evaluated to determine a path to recovery. Surgery is now the only way back.

Weber only played 26 games this season, scoring six goals and recording 16 points. It’s the most time he’s missed since 2007-08 when he suffered a pair of leg injuries while with the Nashville Predators. The Habs’ season is long gone, so there’s no reason to put the blue liner, who still has six more seasons left on his contract, at risk.

Now when do the Chicago Blackhawks do the same with Corey Crawford?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Panthers to honor, support victims of Florida school shooting

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The Florida Panthers are planning to help and honor the victims and their families of last week’s shooting that claimed the lives of 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL.

The Panthers will hold a moment of silence for the victims prior to puck drop at BB&T Center, just minutes from where the tragedy took place.

The organization is also partnering with OneBlood and JetBlue as they host a blood drive outside of the arena from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. and through the second intermission. The blood collected from the drive will help replenish nearby blood banks. Donations will also be taken from through the second intermission.

Meanwhile, the Florida Panthers Foundation (FPF) will collect donations from fans during the blood drive and during the game. Both the FPF and the NHL will match every donation dollar-for-dollar and donate the money raised to the Stoneman Douglas Victims fund through the Broward Education Foundation (BEF).

Proceeds from the game’s 50/50 raffle will also be donated, with the NHL and the FPF contributing $50,000 to the raffle.

The Panthers will also be selling a limited number of MSD patches for $10. All of the proceeds from the patch sales will go to the BEF.

Finally, all proceeds from Fanatics Game Used Auction items will also benefit the BEF.

Those not able to attend Thursday’s game can also donate through the Stoneman Douglas Victims’ Fund on GoFundMe. A text-to-donate option is also available by texting PARKLAND to 20222, which will donate $10 to the fund.

Several Panthers spoke after their morning skate on Thursday, including Roberto Luongo and Derek MacKenzie, who live in Parkland.

“What happened last week, when it hits close to home like that, it’s hard. You just want to help as much as you can,” Luongo told the assembled media on Thursday.

MacKenzie added: “As a member of the Parkland community, I’m very proud of how everyone has come together.”

#ParklandStrong

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Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck