Finally, the wait is over and tonight the St. Louis Blues open the regular season with a tilt on home ice against the Nashville Predators. Jaroslav Halak will start in nets for the Blues who may be without newcomer Brenden Morrow due to work visa issues. If Morrow isn’t available, Coach Ken Hitchcock has said Magnus Paajarvi will take his place in the lineup.
After a disappointing exit in the first round of last season’s playoffs at the hands of the Los Angeles Kings, this year’s Blues squad retains a familiar look, though some deft dealing by GM Doug Armstrong injected new blood and altered the main mix a bit.
Gone is enigmatic winger, David Perron, traded to the Edmonton Oilers for another former 1st round pick in Paajarvi. In addition to Morrow, free agents Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre have been added and should immediately make an impact in the starting lineup. Thanks to shrewd negotiations, the Blues have locked up one of the best defenses in the NHL and will have Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester in for a full season this year. Alex Pietrangelo recently ended a brief holdout and signed a massive $45.5 million deal, anchoring the blue-line for the next seven years.
Some fans, myself included, are still wondering if the Blues can overcome one of their biggest shortcomings from last year’s abbreviated season: goal scoring. The additions (and subtractions- gone are veterans Andy McDonald, Scott Nichol and Jamie Langenbrunner) haven’t given the Blues any more tangible firepower than they had before. Lapierre brings grit and character to an already exciting 4th line. Roy will be leaned upon heavily to get probable linemate Chris Stewart into 30-goal scoring form, but primarily the Blues are depending on some of their core players to step up and put the biscuit in the basket more consistently.
David Backes, perhaps relieved of some pressure to do too many things every night by the changes made to some of the forward lines, needs to rediscover his scoring touch, the one that saw him pump in and average of over 25 goals a season from 2008 to 2012.
Vladimir Tarasenko, fully recovered from his early season injury last year, stronger, and with some NHL experience under his belt will be counted on to blossom into the shifty, Datsyuk-esque goal scorer the Blues think he can become. The rookie had 4 goals and 6 points in his first 4 games last season and was on track to be at least a top contender, if not THE top contender, for the Calder Trophy, given to the league’s top rookie. His injury certainly slowed him down, but we should see Vladi given more chances to play in more situations this season (power-play, overtime?) and he could score goals in bunches.
Patrik Berglund, signed to one of Armstrong’s “bridge deals,” has a lot to prove to the club if he wants to stick around long term. Only 25 years old, Bergie should be coming into the prime years of his career and it would be great to see him continue putting up 20+ goals (he was close at 17 in last year’s shortened season) or more, and play with more of a presence. At 6’4″ and 219lbs, Bergie fits the mold of today’s forwards, but he needs to skate better at both ends of the ice to really make an impact.
Jaden Schwartz is perhaps the most highly improved, highly anticipated player this year after being described by Hitch as the “best player in camp” on more than one occasion. Schwartz played at an extremely high level throughout last season and against the Kings in the playoffs, so much so that expectations for the youngster are elevated as will be, we hope, his energy. He’ll get chances to play on the top scoring lines and should be a major factor in the scoring.
Special teams will (obviously) play a major role in the success of the Blues again this year. Their power-play started off red-hot last season but was derailed by some injuries and never fully got back on track. The Blues will again be one of the stronger defensive teams in the NHL and Hitch’s system relies on stout team play in that regard, so we should see the penalty-killing units dominating.
Much has been said about changes the league has made to goalie equipment (smaller pads) and the nets themselves (being considerably shallower) and we’ll see over the course of the season if it effects the scoring, but St. Louis once again has a 3-headed goaltending beast between the pipes. Halak appears to be in the best shape of his career, having stayed in town to train all throughout the off-season. Brian Elliott is capable of catching fire and rookie Jake Allen, while starting the season in AHL Chicago, has proven to be a force in goal as well, despite being only 23 years old. With both Jaro and Ells in the final years of their contracts it could be a very entertaining battle to see who can carry the Blues over the next few seasons.
This season’s Blues are about as deep as you can get up front, with guys like Vladimir Sobotka, Ryan Reaves and Adam Cracknell all willing to go into the tough areas to fight for pucks. There are a number of forwards in AHL Chicago who are eager to get their shot at the big-time, should opportunity arise. Dmitrij Jaskin and Chris Porter chomping at the bit to be in the NHL again.
Predicted by some media outlets as Cup contenders, the Blues will certainly be exciting to watch this year, and to have hockey back in October again has me grinning ear-to-ear and on the edge of my seat. Here’s to a great season and LET’S GO BLUES!
LONG LIVE THE NOTE!