Make or Break Year?
Is it fair to suggest this is a make or break season for the St. Louis Blues?
This isn’t the first time the Blues have entered a season facing expectations but in recent years they’ve struggled meeting them. Here's an opportunity for this current core to prove they can do the job.
It’s time to come to play.
Offensively the Blues should be able to score goals. They may be lacking a true superstar but they have several players with All-Star ability. Head Coach Davis Payne will have the luxury of rolling four lines that can each hold their own
It all comes down to being consistent. You’d obviously like to stay healthy but the challenge for the Blues will be avoiding that 3-4 week stretch where they struggle winning hockey games. Three weeks of bad hockey can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs.
The Oshie factor….
Will this be the year Oshie truly defines who he is as a player? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked this question.
Look, Oshie defining himself is not an issue for me. I look at Oshie as a guy who has a knack for hockey. He’s always around the puck and can impact a game without appearing on the score sheet. As long as he’s playing with Patrik Berglund and Chris Stewart he should be able to put up some points. Will he ever become a dynamic offensive player? I’m not really sure that’s who he is, but considering this is a contract year I do expect him to keep his focus throughout the season. Even little things like turning down live radio appearances is a sign that his main concern this season is on playing hockey.
He can’t change who he is on the ice. He still has to play with the same energy and can’t get away from playing the physical brand of hockey he’s played his entire life. That’s the game that got him to the NHL and he needs to stick with what works. After this season we’ll know if Oshie is a top six forward or one of the most popular third line players in NHL history.
Paralysis by Analysis?
It’s no secret Jaroslav Halak has struggled this pre-season but at the end of the day what exactly does that mean?
As I’ve said a million times, when Halak is on his game he’s as good as any goalie in the league, when he’s off he can look like he’s asleep standing up. The Blues traded for Halak to win games in the regular season and in the playoffs. You can make yourself look really bad by writing him off based of his preseason play. Does he need to correct some things on and off the ice? He absolutely does, but let’s wait for the regular season to begin before we place judgment on his play.
Halak had a strong beginning as well as a strong finish last season. He’ll look to improve on playing well throughout. Part of that will be staying healthy as he suffered a pretty painful hand injury last year. The pain got to the point to where he couldn’t hold on to his stick.
The Blues success this season will be determined by how well they play defensively. This goes for the forwards as well. You want to earn ice time you better be able to handle yourself defensively. The Blues allowed 228 goals against last season and the goal this season will be to get that number under 200.
It’s no secret Vancouver and Boston were the top two teams in the NHL in goals against last year with the Canucks allowing 180 goals.
The Blues have three of their top six D-men entering just their second year in the NHL. Even with the emergence of Alex Pietrangelo, Barret Jackman and Roman Polak will need to stabilize this team defensively. Jackman must get back to playing an intimidating, in your face game that cautioned players when he first came into the league. He's entering the final year of his deal and would love play his way into staying with the only organization he's ever known.
Isn’t That Special?
Not so much last season as the Blues finished 18th overall in killing penalties. Their 81.7% was a decent dip from the year before when the Blues led the league with a 86.8% on the PK.
Some of this had to do with goaltending as Halak carried a less than impressive .878 PK save%.
Brian Elliott wasn’t any better with a .858 PK save%. Elliott actually allowed four shorthanded goals against last season which obviously can’t be repeated.
Elliott by the way is a guy who works hard in practice and looks ot be prepared for when his number is called.
Sobotka a Forgotten Man?
Remember what a surprise Vladimir Sobotka was last season? He really came through for the Blues when they suffered one injury after another. He’s quietly been assigned a fourth line role but I’m interested to see if that will last. Based off of his performance last year you could make the case he deserves a better opportunity. The only problem is where do you put him? A fourth line role isn’t a bad thing when you’re on a good team. I remember writing last season that Scott Nichol was part of the best fourth line in the league with Jamal Mayers and Ben Eager in San Jose. Regardless this is a nice problem for Davis Payne to have.
I’m seeing a more relaxed Davis Payne compared to this time a year ago. He seems more in control and certainly more comfortable as the Head Coach of an NHL team. The Blues hired him because they thought he was the right guy, now it’s up to him to prove them right.
This is as big of a year for Payne as any player on the Blues roster. He remains unproven and is entering the final year of his contract, not to mention the next Owner of this team will certainly be paying close attention.
Personally, for what it’s worth, I think Payne is a quality NHL Head Coach. He’s a smart guy who had a lot thrown at him in his first full year behind an NHL bench. The Blues remain a young team and they need a coach who has their best interests in mind. Can he be a guy who instills confidence in certain players when things don’t go their way? I’m pulling for Payne to get the job done.
He’s told me he has a better sense on how opposing coaches control and implement their matchups. That familiarity of going through a full season in this league should help.
Adding veterans doesn’t mean a thing if they can’t contribute. In the case of Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner, both these players will be put in position to contribute. They were signed for a reason and so far they’ve fit right in.
Langenbrunner tells me last season was a mental grind and he understands he has a lot to prove this season. He admits he’s carrying a chip on his shoulder and is happy to be in a new situation. Don’t forget he turned down multiple years and ended up signing a one-year contract. He tells me he did that to allow him and his family to decide if this is where he wants to be. Hard to think there would be a better opportunity for him elsewhere. Where else would he have the chance to play on what some consider the number one line?
Langenbrunner has spent his entire career playing with elite players. From Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas to Zach Parise and Travis Zajac in New Jersey.
So far the coaching staff believes what he may have lost in terms of speed he can make up with his ability to think the game and see the ice.
Arnott has fit in nicely as well. He came to shape in terrific shape and gets along very well with the younger players on the roster. He tells me he doesn’t feel he has to re-invent his game now playing in a third line role. It will be interesting to see if he’s forced to change that mindset. He can still shoot the puck and Alex Steen tells me he doesn’t need the puck in his wheelhouse to get it off. He may not see the ice time he’s used to getting but it’s important he’s a stabilizing presence both on the ice and in the dressing room. He tells me his eye was bothering him so badly earlier in camp he felt unbalanced and almost like he was concussed. He’s gotten it taken care of and looks like he’s good to go Saturday.
Both players give Payne options as we’ve already seen with Matt D’Agostini moving down to play with Steen and Arnott.
Petro Confident as Ever….
Alex Pietrangelo is ready to continue where he left off last season. We’ve seen some young D-men struggle after their rookie season most recently with Tyler Myers last year in Buffalo. He’s well aware this year will be a stiffer test as his ice time increases as well as his assignments against the best players in the league every single night. He’s no longer the part of the pack and will have to adjust to now being the leader. No longer are Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson here to eat up the blame when things don’t go the Blues way.
Blues fans will still see plenty of Barret Jackman and Roman Polak in key defensive situations.
He’s a confident leader off the ice as he recently took it up on himself to set up and pay for a suite at a recent Cardinals playoff game for his teammates. This guy has found some nice chemistry playing with Carlo Colaiacovo and is primed to only get better.
Lines for the Opener….
McDonald, Backes, Langenbrunner
Oshie, Berglund, Stewart
Steen, Arnott, D’Agostini
Sobotka, Nichol, Reaves
Chris Porter and Evgeny Grachev are not expected to play.
As of this morning the final decision on who will play with Polak hadn’t been announced but it looks like Nikitin will play.
Stewart, Berglund, MacDonald
Steen, Backes, D’Agostini
As I reported on my twitter account @andystrickland Keith Tkachuk will attend the home opener for the Winnipeg Jets.
More to come,