We are just one week away from the start of the 2017-18 NHL season for the St. Louis Blues. With that in mind let’s take a look at Our Team. What is in store for this year’s edition?
First of all let’s start with the area that saw the most changes, behind the bench. The Blues have thrown out the old and gone with the new. There is a completely new coaching staff from last year’s opener. Mike Yeo assumed head coaching duties midway through last season and this past summer he brought on Craig Berube, Daniel Tkaczuk, and David Alexander. The addition of Berube and Tkaczuk, joining Daryl Sydor who was previously on the Blues staff, means the Blues have put together the coaching staff from their highly successful former minor league team of the Chicago Wolves. Alexander’s hire as the new goalie coach means Martin Brodeur is bumped back up into the assistant general manager role. Also on the Blues staff is Steve Ott. What this means is that the Blues have ditched the old style coaching of Ken Hitchock, Jim Corsi, Ray Bennett, Steve Thomas, and Rick Wilson, an average of 57 years old, to a coaching staff that is now an average of just 41 years in age. I think the coaching style change goes hand in hand with the team’s philosophy shift of going younger.
That shift to youth was evident down to the roster makeup as well. Everyone has heard of the term addition by subtraction. That was clear when the Blues traded David Perron, Jori Lehtera, and Ryan Reaves this past off-season. Reaves was probably the most impactful player among that trio but his position has been diminished in the league and despite his hard work to become more than just an enforcer the Blues made a smart move by trading him at his highest worth, picking up a first round pick and taking a highly skilled player in Klim Kostin. All three of the departed players are or will be 30 years of age in this upcoming season. So not only did the moves get rid of underperforming or replaceable players but the trades also cleared up roster space for younger players in the Blues system.
And that is what this season is all about for the Blues. They have shifted from the antiquated coaching style of Hitchcock, bringing in a more youthful coaching staff. A coaching staff that ideally knows the team must adapt its playing style to the faster paced style that is spreading through the league. And the Blues have built a roster more in line with that thinking. We heard last summer the Blues wanted to play more up-tempo with Hitchcock. But not only did Hitchcock not believe in that style the team itself did not have the roster makeup for it. This year, on paper, it looks like they are better suited.
The only acquisition for the Blues this past summer was bringing in Brayden Schenn on a trade. Schenn is a top six player, with size in the middle of the ice. He is just 26 years old and has topped 20 goals in three of the last four seasons (and managed 18 goals in the one he did not). He is also known for his power play ability, something which was drastically lacking during the Blues failures last postseason in their series loss to the Nashville Predators. Schenn gives the Blues something they have been in search of for years, more depth at the center ice position. Of course that has already taken a hit with the injuries to Patrick Berglund and Zach Sanford.
Which leads us to the biggest question of any season, health. The Blues have been hit hard this preseason with Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester joining Sanford and Berglund in the medical room and caution already for Robby Fabbri’s knee. There is good news though. None of the injuries appear to be season ending. Sanford’s is the longest at 5-6 months, then Berglund 3 months but Steen, Bouwmeester, and Fabbri all will be reevaluated in about three weeks. The second part of the good news is the aforementioned depth.
The Blues have plenty of young depth to fill in these roster spots. Unlike years past when the Blues were relying on borderline NHL players to play roles and fill out their roster. The Blues now have young, talented players, hungry for playing time and looking to stick on the NHL roster. Among those players looking to make a push for the Blues will be the previously mentioned Klostin as well as fellow forwards Tage Thompson and Wade Meagan and defensemen Vince Dunn and Jake Walman. Even beyond those group of five the Blues have even more depth that could be called on, or traded, later in the season such as Conner Bleackley, MacKenzie MacEachern, Jordan Schmaltz, Robert Thomas, and Jordan Kyrou.
As far as the knowns for the Blues. There is the face of the franchise, Vladimir Tarasenko; entering his age 26 season in the league. After falling one goal short of a second straight 40-goal season is Tarasenko ready to take the next step? Can he go from one of the best snipers in the league to one of the best players in the league? Will the new playing style suit him better than Hitchcock’s bottled up scheme? Will he finally have a centerman to play with that gives him even more opportunities to score?
In net the Blues are going with Jake Allen. Allen was handed the starting position last year and got off to a slow start. Whether it was the pressure of being the number one goalie or just a rough patch, Allen did not look good. But the Blues resurgence in the second-half of the season was a direct result of Allen’s improved play, and only Matt Murray (.937 save percentage) of Pittsburgh was better in net than Allen (.934 save percentage) during last year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. We should assume that Allen will be more like the second-half and postseason player, or even the player from his other 3 1/2 seasons in the league than he was in the three months to start last season.
The final area for the Blues that is a know is the defense. The team returns six of the top seven defensemen for the third straight year with the lone departure being Kevin Shattenkirk. But despite the familiarity of this group I also think this group will be the biggest key to the Blues success. Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, and Joel Edmundson (along with Bouwmeester when he returns) give the Blues some of the best depth at defense in the league. All four players are capable of shutting down an opponents top line. Where the group can improve however is by furthering their games offensively. There is no question that Shattenkirk was one of the top offensive blueliners in the NHL. They will need to pick up the slack. While Pietrangelo has never quite lived up to the billing as the type of player offensively he was drafted to be, it was between him and Drew Doughty as the top defenseman in the 2008 draft, there is room for Pietrangelo to grow. As seen in his performance during the Blues playoff run in 2015-16, when he scored two goals with eight assists, Pietrangelo is capable of being that guy.
Parayko is the player with the most upside among Blues defensemen. With a missile for a shot if he is able to cut down on half of his broken sticks during his shots he should be a double-digit type scorer. He is also just as mobile as Pietrangelo and can quickly move the puck up the ice. It will be up to Pietrangelo and Parayko to make the jump offensively if the Blues are going to take the next step into contention.
Overall I like this year’s team much more than I did last year’s. I think the coaching staff is adaptable and more in tune with the current state of the league and players. And I think the roster makeup is in much better shape to meet that style. Last year I felt the Blues were a team that didn’t know what they were. They had a lame duck head coach, a roster that wasn’t built for what they wanted to do, and an organization without a direction. This year though the Blues put their vision on their youth; both with the coaches and with the players. While they still may not be Cup contenders, the Blues are finally facing in the right direction. Out with the old, in with the youth!