St. Louis Blues

St. Louis Blues ’15-16 Outlook

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Do something in the playoffs, maybe?

That’s certainly the Blues’ objective next year, something that’s been made abundantly clear by everyone in the organization — but, quite frankly, that topic has been done to death.

So how about a new angle? Consider what GM Doug Armstrong told Sportsnet in May:

“There’s the Bell Curve of a career. The data is being redefined. Age brackets pre-expansion were older… The slower game allowed longer careers. Now, the maturity of young players, with strength coaches at age 15. It’s tending to a younger man’s game every year.

There’s anomalies to all of this; every player says they are the anomaly… That’s what makes them great. But young players are driving the bus at an earlier age of their career.”

Translation: It’s time to go young, and St. Louis is ready to embrace it.

The trend began this summer when the Blues made 23-year-old Vladimir Tarasenko its highest-paid player with an eight-year, $60 million extension; in explaining the deal, Armstrong called the Russian sniper a “great building block” that could “help lead us now.”

Those were telling words from a franchise often identified by its veteran leaders.

And Tarasenko isn’t the only youngster looking at an increased role.

Gone from last year’s team are Chris Porter, Zbynek Michalek, Marcel Goc, Olli Jokinen and, most notably, two of the most prominent Blues — Barret Jackman and T.J. Oshie. If there’s one thing that linked these guys together, it’s age; Oshie is the youngest of the crew, and he turns 29 in December.

St. Louis has been stockpiling draft prospects for years, and this could be the time for some to break through: Ty Rattie, Robby Fabbri, Jordan Schmaltz and Ivan Barbashev, all top-35 picks, will get their looks to varying degrees, and Dmitri Jaskin — the 22-year-old Czech winger that scored 13 times last year — and Finnish d-man Petteri Lindbohm will try and take stronger holds on roster spots.

In fact, the development of some of these kids could have a profound impact on another Blues veteran — team captain David Backes.

“I think where we play David now depends on (Dmitrij) Jaskin, (Ty) Rattie and (Robby) Fabbri,” head coach Ken Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “How they do in camp and what level of play we think they can arrive at will determine how much we play David on the right wing.

“I can tell you right now, (Backes) is going to play more right wing than he’s played since I got here. Whether he’s a full-time player there or not, we don’t know yet. That depends on those three young kids.”

Blues’ biggest question: Are they good enough down the middle?

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Jonathan Toews. Anze Kopitar. Jeff Carter. Patrice Bergeron. Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Pavel Datsyuk. Henrik Zetterberg.

Teams that win the Stanley Cup almost always have an elite center. As you can see, some of them even have two.

Do the St. Louis Blues?

The answer to that will depend on your definition of elite. If it’s a generous one, then maybe Paul Stastny gets the nod. Otherwise, it’s hard to answer yes.

Next season, the Blues’ top two lines could look something like this:

Alex Steen – Paul Stastny — David Backes
Jaden Schwartz — Jori Lehtera — Vladimir Tarasenko

If one of Dmitrij Jaskin, Ty Rattie or Robby Fabbri can step into a top-six role, coach Ken Hitchcock has said that Backes could be moved to the third line.

Regardless of how the lines shake out, it’s no surprise that the Blues were left wanting more from Stastny, their big free-agency signing from last summer.

“Paul Stastny needs to be a bigger part of our group,” GM Doug Armstrong said. “We need him to be a bigger and better part of our team.”

Stastny had 46 points in 74 games last season. He then managed just one goal, with no assists, in the Blues’ six-game playoff loss to the Wild.

Not enough from a player who was supposed to be a difference-maker in the tough Western Conference.

“I think in every sport if you’re strong up the middle you’re usually a strong team,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, per Yahoo Sports. “The center icemen seem to be the catalyst, usually offensively. They’re the guys who have the puck the most and make maybe the most decisions on the ice based on the number of touches they have in a game.”

Which is why there’s so much excitement in Washington about young Evgeny Kuznetsov.

But we digress.

The Blues are obviously a strong team. Their regular-season record is proof of that. But they haven’t been able to win that elusive Cup, so it’s only natural to pore over their roster in search of why.

Their lack of a truly elite center — and this goes for good teams like the Wild, Predators, Canadiens, Rangers, and Jets — may be as good an answer as any.

Related: Doug Armstrong is under pressure

Poll: Allen or Elliott or neither?

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Ah, the age-old debate in St. Louis.

To refresh your memory, the Blues’ goaltending soap opera was alive and well in 2014-15. Veteran Brian Elliott went into the season as the No. 1. Yada, yada, yada, by late March, less than a month to go until the postseason, he still was.

And then Blues coach Ken Hitchcock changed his mind and gave the starting job to young Jake Allen.

It did not go well for Allen in the playoffs. The youngster finished the six-game loss to the Wild with a .904 save percentage, leaving Hitchcock to defend his decision during yet another lengthy offseason for the club.

“I get the fact there were three goals that went in that were ugly,” the coach said. “That’s the growth of a young player.”

Hitchcock continued, “We got two guys who are more than capable of carrying the load here. I think goaltending is going to be our strength moving forward. We’ve got a young guy emerging and a veteran guy who’s on top of his game right now and playing the best of his career.”

Both Elliott, 30, and Allen, 25, are signed for two more seasons.

Which begs our poll question:

P.S. — We considered giving the option of “Just ride the hot hand — whoever’s playing the best at the time,” but that’s too easy.

Related: After Miller (and many others) failed, Blues turn to Elliott and Allen

Under Pressure: Doug Armstrong

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In five seasons as general manager of the St. Louis Blues, Doug Armstrong has seen his team win a grand total of one playoff series. That lone victory came in 2012, over San Jose, before getting swept by the Kings. Since then, the Blues have been eliminated three straight times in the first round.

Not that Armstrong’s been a total failure at the job — far from it. The Blues have been an excellent regular-season team. In 2011-12, Armstrong was named the NHL’s GM of the year. And such is his stellar reputation that he’ll be Team Canada’s architect for the 2016 World Cup.

But after yet another postseason disappointment in St. Louis, Armstrong recognized that changes needed to be made.

“We entered a window four years ago, and the window doesn’t stay open forever,” he said in April.

Hence, the decisions to trade T.J. Oshie and let Barret Jackman go to free agency. Next season, the Blues will rely more on their younger players like 23-year-olds Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz.

“We’re trying to meld two generations into one,” Armstrong told Sportsnet radio in July, “but we’re also asking that younger generation to no longer to sit in the back seat and to jump up and grab the wheel.”

So, expect to see those younger players in more key situations next season, whereas before it would’ve been up to the David Backes era to close out one-goal games with a minute left.

You can guarantee that Armstrong discussed as much with Ken Hitchcock before bringing the head coach back for another season. Hitchcock, of course, is also under immense pressure to get the job done, just as he was going into last season.

But listening to the Sportsnet interview, it wasn’t hard to feel Armstrong’s mounting frustration at having so much regular-season success, with so little playoff glory.

“That’s one of the things I like about the European football or soccer. They put a lot of pride in their regular-season championship as they do in their playoff championship,” he said.

“But that’s not the world we live in here in North America. You can be the L.A. Kings and finish seventh and finish eighth and win Cups and thought of as a great team, or you can be the Blues with the best record in hockey over the last four years and lose in the first round and people quite honestly think you’re bums.”

“In our society, championships are what we’re judged on and that’s what we have to try and win.”

Related: ‘Let’s live to fight another day’

Looking to make the leap: Robby Fabbri

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It feels like change is in the air for the St. Louis Blues, but that doesn’t have to be a (completely) bad thing.

During a fork-in-the-road phase for the Blues, a few young players have a chance to kick in the door, and Robby Fabbri may just lead that charge.

A few weeks ago, head coach Ken Hitchcock went far enough to say that the progress of Fabbri, Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin may just influence the course of the future for captain David Backes.

Lofty stuff? Sure, but the 19-year-old told NHL.com that a roster spot is exactly what he’s aiming for.

“I like to set my goals high,” Fabbri said. “Getting there as soon as possible is one of my goals. I’ve been here working hard with [Blues strength and conditioning coach] Nelson [Ayotte] and the trainers to make sure I’m ready and to make that possible. Obviously I’d like to (make the team), but it’s a big step.

The 21st pick of the 2014 draft actually made a lot of noise in 2014-15, even generating some preseason buzz.

Nothing about his past season gives much pause about his ability to generate offense, undoubtedly something the Blues seek. He scored 51 points in 30 OHL games for the Guelph Storm and managed four points in three games with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

He’s young, obviously, and most players take more than a year to jump to the NHL. Things could change quickly if Fabbri has a strong training camp.