48 games in 99 days. This is the road that every NHL club is about to take. A game every two days is a daunting schedule, and it’s going to come with its fair share of injuries. To assume that the Blues won’t suffer from injuries in this campaign would be foolish. Depth is going to be the key to winning. Does St. Louis have it? Let’s take a look:
You can expect the Blues to carry 14 forwards (to start the season, at least). There are currently 15 forwards fighting for these spots, so someone is going to have to go. Many expected Jaden Schwartz would be that guy, especially since he could go back to Peoria without the risk of going through waivers. However, Schwartz has impressed in training camp, and appears to have earned himself a spot in the lineup (possibly on a line with Berglund and Stewart). Chris Porter may be the odd-man out now, which could lead to him being claimed by another team during the waiver process. It will be interesting to see what ultimately happens here.
Two players will be on the roster, but not necessarily dressing in all the games. These two players will probably change frequently throughout the season, because of the need for rested bodies in the lineup. Expect Matt D’Agostini and Vladimir Sobotka to spend the most time out of the lineup. It’s not that they are bad players. Both of these guys have showed that they have offensive talent, but do they really fit on the fourth line? The team didn’t play as well without the physical presence of Ryan Reaves and Scott Nichol last season. In addition, Ken Hitchcock loves the leadership that Jamie Langenbrunner brings to the table. These three players have a good shot at making the opening night lineup.
The Blues invited additional forwards to training camp, in the form of Rivermen players: Phil McRae, Evgeny Grachev, and Andrew Murray. If an injury were to occur at the offensive position, these are the players you can expect in the lineup.
The 22-year-old is in his third season for the Peoria Rivermen. The 2011-2012 AHL season saw McRae score 23 goals, but he has struggled this season, scoring only 6 goals in 36 contests. He played 15 games with the Blues in 2011, and had a goal and two assists while accumulating a +/- rating of -10. McRae was a 2nd round pick back in the 2008 NHL Draft, which has everyone expecting perhaps too much of him. He has had his moments though, and if he can regain his old form, he has the potential to impress.
After a great training camp last season, Grachev cracked the Blues’ lineup. He played in 26 games and obtained 4 points (1G, 3A) before being sent down to Peoria. This season with the Rivermen, Grachev has earned 12 points (5G, 7A) in 38 contests. The third-round pick is a well positioned player, who can take up minutes on the penalty kill.
The 31-year-old center has 220 NHL games under his belt. In those games he netted 24 goals. This season for Peoria, Murray has scored 11 points (6G, 5A) in 25 games. He has been one of the Rivermen’s most consistent players. Because of the experience, I would expect Murray to be called up before McRae or Grachev.
The Blues’ lack of defensive depth was exposed in the playoffs last season, after Alex Pietrangelo was injured against the Los Angeles Kings. That same defense comes back this year, minus Carlo Coliacovo and plus Jeff Woywitka and Colin White. The defense will mostly be the same, with the addition of most likely Ian Cole. Woywitka and White will be fighting for the seventh spot.
Taylor Chorney, Cade Fairchild, and Mark Cundari were the Rivermen defensemen that got invited to training camp.
Chorney has 61 games of NHL experience, including two contests with the Blues back in the 2011-2012 season. In 35 contests with Peoria this season, the 25-year-old has tallied 9 points (2G, 7A) and a -16 rating. The plus/minus rating shouldn’t be too concerning though, since the Rivermen have given up a lot of goals this year.
Fairchild has struggled to be consistently in Peoria’s lineup this season, due to injuries. This year he has played in 21 games and has earned two assists. If he can get into a rhythm and return to last season’s form (when he scored 34 points for the Rivermen), he could start to open some eyes. He is still a work in progress though and is not quite NHL ready.
The recently-named AHL All-Star has shown that he has the ability to contribute offensively. In his rookie campaign for the Rivermen, Cundari obtained 30 points (10G, 20A). This season the defensemen has scored 16 points (2G, 14A) in 32 games. Cundari still has a ton to learn about the defensive position. He takes a lot of unnecessary penalties and seems to have trouble finding his man sometimes. The fact that he is just 5’9″ also raises some questions.
I’m certain everyone in the Blues’ organization is hoping that neither Jaroslav Halak nor Brian Elliott get injured this season. For the most part, both goalies were healthy last year. If either goaltender gets injured, the backup goalie for St. Louis will be Jake Allen or Mike McKenna.
The 2012-2013 season has not been kind to Allen. A GAA above 3.00 is never what a netminder wants. Allen technically dressed for the Blues in a game last year during the playoffs, but he just came in to ultimately be pulled seconds later without seeing a shot. Allen has shown that he can be successful at the minor league level, but right now he is struggling. He is still young though. Hopefully he can work on his game in Peoria, because he is by no means an NHL goaltender yet.
McKenna has played well for the Rivermen this campaign. He has obtained an 8-5 record, a 2.56 GAA, and a .920 SV% thus far. The 29-year-old has played in 17 NHL games (mostly for the Tampa Bay Lightning back in 2009). He is a lefty who can actually handle the puck decently. At this point, if Halak or Elliot were injured, I believe you would see McKenna called up instead of Allen.
While the Blues seem to have substantial depth at the offensive position, defense and goaltending are positions that could hurt St. Louis, if too many injuries were to occur. Still, the players they have in place are extremely talented, and as of now, healthy. Let’s hope this can remain true when the season starts to eventually progresses.