ST. LOUIS — Another season means another year of optimism for St. Lois Blues fans. After falling short a season ago, the Blues reloaded in the offseason and believe they’re equipped to make a run at a Stanley Cup.
"This is the deepest team we’ve had since I’ve been here," said Head Coach Ken Hitchcock.
Losing Vladimir Sobotka to the KHL in Russia was certainly a shocking blow for fans. There were rumblings of him considering Russia throughout the summer but the news still caught a number of people off guard once he signed his deal. Sobotka has provided the Blues with a Swiss Army Knife of versatility over the last few seasons and they will miss him.
The Blues didn’t hesitate to turn the page though. Sobotka’s name has barely been mentioned since he left and the organization believes they have the personnel to replace him. It contributed to the Blues re-signing Steve Ott, who was arguably the Blues’ most effective player in their first round playoff series against Chicago.
Once July rolled around and the Blues signed local boy Paul Stastny, you could feel the playoff disappointment start to fade away. The Blues haven’t had a playmaking center with his ability since Pierre Turgeon. Here’s a guy who will have an immediate impact on the team offensively and gives Hitchcock options he didn’t have a season ago.
Depth has been a word thrown around the last few years, but the Blues are even deeper this season.
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There is legitimate competition at every position entering training camp, especially at forward where eight players will be competing for three roster spots.
Peter Mueller is the first name that comes to mind. If there ever was a forward to keep an eye on in camp, this is the guy. A former eighth-overall draft pick in 2006, he was a prominent member of the exclusive club once dubbed the "Minnesota 88’s." The group was led by former first overall pick Erik Johnson and also included Kyle Okposo and Jamie McBain, among others. All come from Minnesota and all were born in 1988.
Mueller’s career was once derailed by concussions which forced him to miss the entire 2010-2011 season. He’s now been healthy for two straight seasons, including last year where he led a very competitive Swiss-A league in goals. He also finished third overall in scoring and led his team to the finals.
The Blues saw Mueller represent USA at the recent World Championships and quickly contacted him. Both GM Doug Armstrong and Hitchcock spent time with him on the phone before he sign.
Mueller wasn’t brought in to play in the minors, but he still going to have to earn a spot. He signed a two-way contract which guarantees him $350,000 even if he doesn’t play a single NHL game. He’s played almost exclusively on the wing throughout his career and will compete for a spot on the right side on one of the top three lines.
TWO BY TWO
Hitchcock already has his lines set up in pairs. The rest will sort itself out as we move along.
With no hesitation, Hitchcock said "the center position" is the most interesting position for him entering camp. That might surprise a few people considering who they have up the middle.
For now David Backes is paired with T.J. Oshie, Stastny with Alex Steen, and newcomer Jori Lehtera with former KHL teammate Vladimir Tarasenko, who some around the organization believe could score 40 goals this season. Once can assume Maxim Lapierre will center the fourth line flanked by Ryan Reaves.
Jaden Schwartz, who has yet to sign a contract, could join the Backes line once he arrives in camp. I don’t expect his situation to carry on much longer. Both sides have agreed on the length of the contract but agreeing on a salary has been a challenge.
Assuming Tarasenko sticks with Lehtera, there are a number of players competing for a right wing spot with Stastny. The list includes Mueller, Magnus Paajarvi, newcomer Joakim Lindstrom, and former second rounder Dmitrij Jaskin.
Considering Tarasenko is probably the Blues’ most natural and dangerous offensive player, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play with the most natural and gifted playmaking center in Stastny.
Patrik Berglund seems almost forgotten entering camp. There’s more than a decent chance you see him line up at left wing this season. He signed a three-year extension with the Blues in the summer and could be a sleeper offensively if he finds comfort playing a position at which he has very little experience. You can’t deny his combination of size and skill, and I’m really interested to see what he can do on the wing. It wouldn’t shock me at all to see him settle in and have success.
That leaves guys like Chris Porter, former Stanley Cup Champion Colin Fraser, and twitter celebrity Paul Bissonnette fighting to earn a spot.
Fraser won a Cup with Los Angeles and has a reputation of being a great teammate, understanding his role, and having the ability to agitate opposing players.
As for Biz Nasty (Bissonnette), there doesn’t appear to be room for him now but things can change in a hurry. It’s not like Doug Armstrong to bring in a guy just so he can skate. He obviously wants to take a look at him, and the idea of adding character to the existing culture would be welcome.
Ty Rattie is a player that deserves mention. He scored 31 goals in his rookie AHL season a year ago. He has a great scoring touch and his all-around game has improved. He will have an impact with the Blues down the road and should see more call-up duty this season.
Things are a little clearer on defense, but that doesn’t mean it lacks competition. The Blues have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL over the last several years and that trend should continue this year.
Alex Pietrangelo will pair up with Jay Bouwmeester and once again be one of the top tandems in the league. Kevin Shattenkirk will have a new partner in Carl Gunnarsson who gives the Blues another puck moving D-man, but also a guy who can play special teams. He played nearly 3:00 a game last season on the penalty kill with Toronto. He also led the Leafs with 176 blocked shots playing on basically one leg.
Gunnarsson is coming off of hip surgery but is expected to be ready by the first regular season game.
THE BUTLER DID IT
Just like Mueller up front, Chris Butler is the player that could surprise on the back end. Butler, another St. Louis native who, like Stastny, grew up playing with the St. Louis AAA Blues, finished second overall last season with 211 blocked shots. He also played over 20 minutes a night with a struggling Calgary club.
Butler’s biggest asset is that he can skate and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t lock down one of the seven spots on defense. Who lands on the outside looking in is hard to say. Jordan Leopold and Ian Cole will need a good camp while veteran Barret Jackman is entering the final year of his contract.
Few goalies in the NHL have quietly enjoyed more success than Elliott over the last there years. The 29 year old is looking to make this season his most memorable. Elliott has the chance of a lifetime to carry the load on a team that is expected contend in the heavy Western Conference.
Elliott’s career numbers include a stingy 1.86 GAA and .927 save percentage with 16 shutouts as a member of the Blues. Some might be shocked to learn Elliott has the best GAA of any goalie in the league over the last three years. His 16 shutouts rank second in the NHL over that same span, just one fewer than the Kings’ Jonathan Quick. Of the NHL goalies with at least 10 shutouts in the last three seasons, none have played fewer games than Elliott.
Allen has made 15 career starts in the NHL. He’s coming off a season where he was named the top goalie in the American Hockey League following a 33-16-3 record. The Blues drafted him 34th overall in 2008 and believe he’s on pace to becoming a legitimate number one goaltender in the NHL. That day could come sooner than later. Make no mistake, it’s Elliott’s job but Allen will certainly have a say.
NO BLUE LEFT BEHIND
Hitchcock says he’s going to change some things this season. One will be including more players to play in all situations. Last year Hitchcock admittedly relied on Backes, Steen, and Oshie maybe too much. This may have contributed to certain guys wearing down late in the season. Hitchcock tells me a whopping 70 percent of Backes’s shifts started in the defensive zone. They’d like to reduce that by at least 20 percent. This number includes shifts Backes played in penalty kill situations. Look for players like Ott, Stastny, and Lehtera to help remove some of the burden.
MONEY AIN’T A THANG
Armstrong has been adamant both publicly and privately that he will keep the best players on his roster regardless on contract. If it means placing one-way contracts in the minors, then so be it. Armstrong has done this before and won’t hesitate to do it again if need be.