The Blues owe their success in 2011-12 to goaltending, Coach Hitchcock, and their incredible defensive play. Backed by Halak and Elliott, the Blues defense allowed just 1.89 goals per game last season. While it will be almost impossible for the team to beat its records from last year, it is in no way out of the question for the Blues to match, or at least come close, to those numbers. The biggest questions facing the Blues defense are who can stay healthy and who can produce.
Playing in 81 games last season, Alex Pietrangelo was good for 12 goals and 39 assists, as well as a very impressive +16 rating. There has never been a question as to where Petro would fit into the Blues lineup or how he sizes up to the competition in the league. Ever since his entrance into the league, Blues fans have been impressed with Pietrangelo. His play has always been exceptional and places him as one of the top defenseman in the league. If not for a guy named Karlsson, Petro would probably have been a Norris Trophy winner already. When Petro was injured during the playoffs last season, the Blues play was significantly impacted in a very negative way.
Prediction: 42 Points (8G, 34A) +19 plus/minus. I think that Pietrangelo will be able to stay healthy for the entire season and will be a pivotal leader in the Blues playoff run. With the shortened season, I think that Pietrangelo can be an almost a point per game player. With offensive guys like Tarasenko joining the squad, expect to see Petro jumping up and driving the puck into the zone to help out with offense while still maintaining his above par defensive play.
Obtained in the trade that also brought Chris Stewart to the Blues and sent 1st overall pick Erik Johnson to Colorado, Shattenkirk has emerged as the real star of the trade. Shattenkirk was also able to stay healthy last season and put up solid numbers getting 9 goals and 34 assists along with a jaw dropping +20 rating. While he was expected to take more time to progress into the type of leader that he is quickly becoming, Shattenkirk adds a second top tier defenseman to the Blues lineup.
Prediction: 31 Points (6G, 25A) +24 plus/minus. I think that the Blues will get lucky again and Shattenkirk will stay healthy for the stretch as well. Shattenkirk’s youth should aid him in playing so many games in a short amount of time, but he will not be as productive as he was last season. With 48 games, look to Shattenkirk to maintain a more defensive style of play while developing into his star abilities.
Jackman is the senior on the Blues back end and has been taking a bit of heat from Blues fans since the departure of Eric Brewer. While Brewer had the tendency to give pucks up in his own end and seemed to refuse to use his big body for defensive purposes, this is not true of Jackman. I was really happy when the Blues choose to resign Jackman in the offseason and hopefully he will get the ability to retire wearing the note. Many fans remember the Jackman that won the Calder years ago, but his game has changed and it fits Hitchcock’s system incredibly well. While his offensive production has dropped and is almost non-existent, his defensive play led him to a +20 season last year.
Prediction: 7 Points (1G, 6A) +17 plus/minus. Jackman will have another season like he always has, he will be a great stay at home defenseman and put up an impressive plus/minus rating while managing to keep the opposition away from the center lane. Watch for him to keep his body in the games as well with his physical play being focused on keeping some of the younger players safe.
Last season after the Blues coaching change, Kris Russell was obtained from the Columbus Blue Jackets. While the Blues seemed to come out as losers in the trade with Nikita Nikitin really coming into his own as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Kris Russell showed a ton of promise as a member of the St. Louis Blues. His speed on the ice set him apart and he showed flashes of brilliance in the offensive zone, but chronic injuries kept him off the ice for almost half of last season. The Blues cut ties with Colliacovo and Huskins in the offseason due to injury issues, so Russell will need to prove that he can stay healthy in order to earn a place within the organization in the long term. In the 43 games Russell did appear in, he managed just 4 goals and 5 assists with a plus 13 rating. Russell came to the Blues with a negative plus/minus so his defensive abilities were on display when he was playing, but again, the key is keeping him healthy.
Prediction: 7 Points (0G, 7A) +14 plus/minus. I think that Russell will stay healthy this year, but will focus his time on the ice on the defensive side of his game with Hitchcock keeping him planted in his own zone. I don’t see Russell getting as much ice time as many others on the defensive squad so he will really need to stay solid in order to gain favor with Hitchcock.
The real question on defense for the St. Louis Blues is going to be Ian Cole. The rest of the defensive squad, Polak included, are pretty set for what they are. They have roles established and have proven themselves at the NHL level. Last season Cole appeared in 26 games for the Blues and put up 1 goal, 5 assists, and a plus 7 rating. He has the potential to be the next great Blues defenseman and I think the shortened season will benefit him. Cole has been given a lot more time to develop in the AHL than was planned, so hopefully that time with Peoria will lead him to success with the Blues.
Prediction: 14 points (2G, 12A) +9 rating. I think that Cole will have a good season for the Blues, but the pace and intensity will make it harder for him to keep up. I think that he will be able to put up decent numbers, but still will need time to grow into a full fledged NHL player.
The Blues defense was one of the best in the league last season and I think that fans have a lot more of the same to look forward to. Hopefully the core can stay healthy and work together to maintain the strengths they showed last season and only build on that success. A healthy defense will mean a longer playoff run for the Blues and a potential Stanley Cup. Let’s hope the defense has what it takes as we approach the 2013 season, and, as always, LET’S GO BLUES!