NHL

Central Division singing the Blues

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This is the time of year when pundits and fans alike make grandiose, off-the-wall predictions about teams, something of which I am a big fan. Here at the THN office, we've just completed our 2009-10 Yearbook prognostications. I lobbied for some teams I believe have a good chance to jump up and bite others this year and I lobbed a few grenades at teams I feel are pretenders to the post-season party. One squad I see having a good chance to surprise again this year is the St. Louis Blues, who finished an eyebrow-raising sixth in the Western Conference last season but are still considered by many to have been the beneficiary of a weak second-half schedule and plain old good luck. But in February, March and April last season, St. Louis managed to earn 68 percent of its possible points — winning 20 of 34 outright and earning a loser point in six others. Nine of those wins came against eventual playoff teams, so it wasn't just about weak opponents and blind luck; the Blues were playing some pretty damn good hockey. And I think that'll continue. The Blues are for real — a Central Division dark horse even. Now many of you are laughing at or filled with rage because of that last line. Some may be thinking the new way to spell idiot is G-R-I-G-G. Some, I'm sure, are even readying a written comment expressing that sentiment. But think about it a little. Chicago has questions in goal, a newly signed star winger who's going to miss the first six weeks of the season and is capped out. Detroit is another year older, is also capped out, has played about a million games over the past two seasons, has lost depth at forward and has questions of its own in net. The Blues, on the other hand, are a young, up-and-coming squad. And with more luck in the health department, will be better this year. Just look at their personnel. In goal, Chris Mason is capable of carrying the load. In 57 games last season, the 33-year-old was 27-21-7, sported a nifty 2.41 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and registered six shutouts. Along the way, Mason showed mental fortitude by out-dueling Manny Legace for the No. 1 job and started the Blues' final 37 games of the season, including all four postseason contests versus Vancouver. If Mason falters, newly signed Ty Conklin has proven himself a better-than-average No. 2 netminder. Conklin has played 73 games the past two seasons for Pittsburgh and Detroit earning a 43-19-7 record with eight shutouts, a 2.51 GAA and .916 SP. The Blues are set in net, more so than the Wings and Hawks. On defense, things are looking up, too. Of the top-six Blues-liners heading into this season, Eric Brewer played just 28 games last year due to injury and Erik Johnson exactly zero. Alex Pietrangelo has a good shot at bringing his offensive, puck-moving skills to St. Louis after an eight-game audition last year, while Roman Polak, Barret Jackman and Mike Weaver play steadily, if unspectacularly. Throw a healthy Carlo Colaiacovo into the group and a nice mix of offense and defense stirs to the fore. But it's at forward where the Blues really shine. Brad Boyes, David Backes, Patrik Berglund, David Perron and T.J. Oshie have all proven to be emerging offensive talents — and Boyes, at 27, is the old man of the bunch. With veterans Paul Kariya (just 11 games played last season), Keith Tkachuk and Andy McDonald providing leadership and added scoring punch, the Blues have a formidable top-eight forward group. And when muckers/penalty-killers Jay McClement, Alex Steen, Yan Stastny and B.J. Crombeen are included to fill out the lines, St. Louis has depth most teams can only wish for. Now, I'm not saying everything is all roses in the shadow of the Gateway Arch. Mason has his detractors and non-believers and the pressure is squarely on him this season to prove he's a true No. 1, something he failed to do in Nashville. On the blueline, there's no real minute-muncher who can play in every situation. But don't forget, folks, Erik Johnson was the first overall pick in 2006, ahead of Jordan Staal, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom and Phil Kessel. He projected then into a top-flight rearguard and had five goals and 33 points as a Blues rookie after one NCAA season; there are legit expectations that he'll become that true No. 1 guy. At forward, the Blues are superstar-less and awful plus-minus ratings last season from Boyes, Tkachuk and McDonald are worrisome. Boyes somehow managed a minus-20, tied for fourth worst in the league, despite 33 goals and a career-high 72 points; McDonald was minus-13, in just 46 games. But the Blues made up for their plus-minus problems with great special teams last season (the league's eighth-best power play and No. 3 penalty kill). Assuming that trend continues, a little more defensive responsibility is taken by some vets, regression among developing players is minimal and division foes have their problems, I can't help but picture the words "St. Louis" at or near the top of the Central standings all year. Would I bet my house on St. Louis finishing the season as a top-three seed in the West? No. But would I drop $25 on it in Vegas? You betcha. John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his Tuesday blog and the Wednesday Top 10. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. THN has provided the most comprehensive coverage of the world of hockey for more than 60 years.
Tagged: Bruins, Blackhawks, Penguins, Blues, Capitals, Predators, Eric Brewer, Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya, Mike Weaver, Ty Conklin, Andy McDonald, Manny Legace, Barret Jackman, Carlo Colaiacovo, Brad Boyes, Yan Stastny, Jay McClement, Phil Kessel, Jordan Staal, David Backes, Roman Polak, Erik Johnson, Jonathan Toews, Nicklas Backstrom, Patrik Berglund, David Perron, B.J. Crombeen, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo

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