2010-2011 NHL season preview: St. Louis Blues

davidbackes1.jpgLast season: (40-32-10, 90 points, 4th in Central Division, t-9th in Western Conference) A terrible start derailed the Blues’ chances at making the playoffs. The team got in such a hole that despite their furious play in the second half of the season, they weren’t able break into the playoffs the way they did two seasons ago. An unassuming bunch on paper manged to play hard at the end of the year once new coach Davis Payne took over for the deposed Andy Murray. Perhaps that’s a sign of things to come.

Head coach: Payne gets his first chance at a full season with the Blues, who went 23-15-4 after he took over. Factoring that kind of action out over a whole season would make the Blues a playoff team and it’s clear Payne’s attitude and style seems to better fit a now very young team.

Key departures: F Keith Tkachuk (retirement), F Paul Kariya, G Chris Mason, F D.J. King. Tkachuk’s retirement, while a tough loss for the team, clears the decks for more of the young players to get their shot this season. Same applies for Kariya’s departure as he sits out this season to deal with post-concussion syndrome. Mason signed on with the Thrashers in the offseason after the Blues acquired Jaroslav Halak from Montreal.

Key arrivals: G Halak, F Vladimir Sobotka, D Alex Pietrangelo. Halak is the big acquisition of the summer, coming over in a trade with Montreal. He was the Habs’ hero in the playoffs and the Blues are banking on him being the real deal after signing him to a four-year contract. Sobotka was tossed aside from Boston after getting fingered for a costly too many men on the ice penalty in Game 7 against Philadelphia. Pietrangelo will be coming out of junior hockey — potentially for real this time — after getting nine-game tryouts in previous seasons with St. Louis.

Under pressure: On such a young team with a new coach and a new goalie it’s tough to pick out a player or executive under pressure, but in this case the guy meant to shoulder the burden for the Blues is defenseman Erik Johnson.

Johnson is a former No. 1 overall pick of the Blues. After missing a full season from a questionable golf-cart incident two years ago, he came back last season and didn’t do much to impress. Coming back from knee injuries is a tough thing to do, but much is expected of Johnson and if there’s a weakness on this Blues it’s along the blue line. Johnson needs to step up and play like a No. 1 pick and put up the kinds of numbers he’s capable of doing. Another middling season from him should make Blues executives nervous.

GYI0061755551-halak-dilipvashnawat-getty.jpgProtecting the house: In case you missed it, Halak is the man in goal. He had a solid season for the Canadiens and was one of the best goalies in the playoffs, carrying Montreal to the Eastern Conference finals. Ty Conklin is still around to provide relief in the backup role. If there’s something that Halak dealt with on occasion in Montreal that will help him be prepared for St. Louis it’s being expected to bail out your defensemen on occasion because he’ll get his resolve tested in Missouri this year.

Johnson leads the way on defense for the Blues with Eric Brewer, Barret Jackman, and Roman Polak backing him up. Where things go from there defensively is the question. Carlo Colaiacovo is banged up again, Pietrangelo is still trying to win a job and they’re both being pushed by former Notre Dame defenseman Ian Cole. How things factor out there for St. Louis with a host of youth to contend with means the Blues will be a bit mistake prone at times as guys get to learn on the job. Then again, that could apply for a lot of guys in St. Louis.

Top line we’d like to see: Alex Steen-Andy McDonald-David Backes. McDonald is the ‘old man’ of this bunch at 33. Steen had a breakout season last year playing on the third line and Backes is a freakin’ American hero. He’s also a pretty good power forward to boot. Let McDonald do his thing and win faceoffs, let Steen run free to skate and set things up and just let Backes steamroll people into submission and score dirty goals. There’s no way this doesn’t work.

Oh captain, my captain: It’s Brewer. We’re betting you weren’t too aware of that because, let’s face it, the Blues stay under the radar pretty well and Brewer isn’t a guy you immediately think of when listing off Blues players. There was some debate during the offseason wondering if Brewer should continue to be the captain, but Payne stuck by him. That’s likely a good move to make with such a young locker room. There’s no need to throw things out of whack like that in such a situation and, let’s face it, Brewer isn’t a guy we hear bad things about. He’s got the experience to be a good enough leader in St. Louis and until someone amongst the newer bunch of Blues emerges as a leader on the ice and the locker room (ahem, Backes) status quo will do for now.

camjanssen3.jpgStreet fighting man: The Blues love to drop the gloves. Even with D.J. King now in Washington, the Blues top three fighters from last season are still around. Cam Janssen. Janssen is the ring leader here for pugnaciousness with 19 fights last season. Not far behind him is sneaky fighter B.J. Crombeen with 18. Chances are if you’ve got a problem with something the Blues are doing on the ice, you’ll have your choice of guys to address it with. If you’re looking for more of a small-time fighter, Jesse Winchester will be happy to oblige you as he had 10 fights last season. If you’re matching up with St. Louis, you’d best be putting on the foil.

Best-case scenario: The Blues get the consistently good goaltending they’re praying for out of Halak. The Blues roll out two lines of scoring that all connect on the potential they’ve got to fill the net. Former 40-goal scorer Brad Boyes finds his touch once again while Backes and David Perron make jumps in their own goal production. Steen continues to improve his game built on his 24-goal success last season while Swedish centerman Patrik Berglund emerges into the playmaker they’re hoping he’ll become. T.J. Oshie and Jay McClement become a dynamic pairing of two-way forwards.The defense plays more than capable and the Blues roll back into the playoffs to potentially scare the living daylights out of a top-three seed.

Worst-case scenario: The offense sputters brutally once again and Halak plays inconsistently in goal, causing this season to resemble last season in lots of eerie ways. The defense plays as inconsistent and spotty as they look like they could on paper, meanwhile youngsters Berglund and Perron don’t evolve into better scorers leading to the Blues missing out on the playoffs once again, giving way to an equally inconsistent and hard-nosed team.

Keeping it real: The Blues have a nice setup. All four of their lines should be solid and while there’s not too much there to work with depth-wise, the team is very, very young. Payne’s most important job this season is to make sure the effort level from the team is consistent night in and night out and that the team plays hard at all times. Halak is an upgrade over Chris Mason in goal and the issues the Blues will have on defense could be remedied by having young guys like Pietrangelo or Cole jump into the lineup and seize the opportunity as both will eventually become good defensemen in the future.

There are a lot of question marks with the team because there are so many unknown factors, but this team could fly under the radar in the West thanks in part to being in the same division with the Red Wings and Blackhawks.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, the Blues are a 2. They’re not a terrible team by any means so they’re not worthy of being a 1, but they’re not consistent enough and worthy of a 3. That’s quibbling at its very worst. Suffice to say, a lot of things would need to go very right for St. Louis to get a shot in the West to make the finals and a lot of things would need to go very wrong for the contenders to fall down in front of them. St. Louis will give the fans some hope and perhaps a playoff spot to go with it, but that’s about all.

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    Sabres agree with Dylan Cozens on 7-year, $49.7M extension

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    BUFFALO, N.Y. — The Buffalo Sabres agreed to terms with forward Dylan Cozens on a seven-year extension worth $49.7 million.

    The team announced the contract. Cozens will count $7.1 million against the salary cap through the 2029-30 season.

    Cozens, who turns 22, is the latest core player the Sabres have extended over the past six months. Buffalo signed All-Star forward Tage Thompson for $50 million over seven seasons in August and defenseman Mattias Samuelsson to a seven-year, $30 million deal in October.

    Rasmus Dahlin, the top pick in 2020 who’s a Norris Trophy candidate and filled in for Thompson at NHL All-Star weekend, figures to be next for a big contract. He’s signed through next season and can begin talking about an extension this summer.

    Cozens, who was set to be a restricted free agent, has already set career highs with 17 goals, 26 assists and 43 points – with 30 games left in the season. The seventh pick in 2019, Cozens has 34 goals and 60 assists in 169 regular-season NHL games, all with Buffalo.

    The Sabres, led by Dahlin, Thompson, Cozens and 2021 No. 1 pick Owen Power, are contending to make the playoffs. The organization’s 11-year playoff drought dating to 2011 is by far the longest in the league.

    Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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    ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

    Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

    These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

    In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

    “Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

    Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

    “He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

    Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

    “I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

    Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

    “I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

    Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

    “I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

    Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

    The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

    One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

    “It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

    Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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    SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

    Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

    “Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

    The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

    Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

    Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

    Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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    The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

    The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

    General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

    The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

    Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

    Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

    “I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

    Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

    “Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

    After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.