Minnesota Wild: Central Division Preview; St. Louis Blues

The Minnesota Wild did well to earn a 2-2-1 record against a very tough St. Louis Blues club.  With the Blues being decimated in free-agency, the chance exists to tilt the record in favor of the Wild and climb ahead of them in the standings this season.

The St. Louis Blues have had some great teams in the last couple of seasons, and matched up very well with the Minnesota Wild.  Two seasons ago the Wild shocked the heavily favored Blues in the first round of the playoffs, and last season the two matched up well in the regular season with the Wild walking away with a 2-2-1 record.  The Wild and the Blues may not be rivals, but the two teams sure have played some close, tough, and chippy games over the last couple of seasons.

The Blues looked to be cursed in the playoffs with three straight first round departures from 2012-13 to 2014-15.  Then last season they turned that talk off with a great run to the Western Conference Finals losing to the Sharks in six games.  In the regular season the Blues finished 49-24-9 good enough for second in the Central Division.  That might seem like a step back considering they won the division the season previously, but the better playoff performance sealed the season as a step forward.

The Blues had a rough go of it in free-agency this offseason.  They were fairly constrained by salary cap room and were unable to make any major splashes.  They brought in aging winger David Peron, and back-up netminder Carter Hutton from the Nashville Predators.  So, really not much of an improvement at all.

May 15, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center David Backes (42) looks on in the game against the San Jose Sharks during the first period in game one of the Western Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

May 15, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues center David Backes (42) looks on in the game against the San Jose Sharks during the first period in game one of the Western Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The loss column for this Blues team was much more extensive.  In free-agency they lost agitator Steve Ott, two-way forward Troy Brouwer, and their captain power forward David Backes.  That’s a big chunk of the nucleus of the great Blues teams of recent years, and really looks to threaten their bottom line on the scoresheet.  And if that wasn’t enough the Blues traded solid netminder Brian Elliot to the Flames in exchange for a 2016 second round pick, and a conditional third round pick in 2018.  Sure they have Jake Allen ready to step in for Elliot, but the security of the two excellent goaltenders is gone making the team that much weaker.

And if all those personnel losses weren’t enough the Blues made a curious move with their coaching staff.  After Head Coach Ken Hitchcock announced this upcoming season would be his last, the organization brought in former Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo to be an associate coach and Hitch’s heir apparent.  The dynamic of having a coach in waiting will be interesting to watch play out as the Blues start a transition to life under Yeo.  It could cause some confusion in the locker room and really offers an unneeded uncertainty for a team that will have a bunch due to the departures of a lot of their key players.

May 23, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues goalie Jake Allen (34) allows a goal scored by San Jose Sharks center Joe Pavelski (not pictured) in game five of the Western Conference Final of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center. Mandatory Credit: Billy Hurst-USA TODAY Sports

The remaining players for the Blues will still be a strong group.  Jake Allen is a talented young goaltender and could respond well to the increase in playing time to give the Blues some solid performances.  The defense of the Blues will be solid with newly named captain Alex Pietrangelo leading a group that includes Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Carl Gunnarsson.

Forward wise Paul Stastny will be the veteran leadership that leads one of the best goal scorers in the league Vladmir Tarasenko.  In the division there might not be a better pure goal scorer than Tarasenko.  His 40 goals last season were scored with a finesse and speed that the NHL has not seen in years.  He gives the Blues a chance to win night in and night out.

May 3, 2016; St. Louis, MO, USA; Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) blocks the shot of St. Louis Blues right wing Vladimir Tarasenko (91) during the third period in game three of the second round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Scottrade Center. The St. Louis Blues defeat the Dallas Stars 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest issue for the Blues next season will be dealing with the losses mentioned earlier.  Those were some big pieces and the club will feel the effects on the scoresheet as well as in the leadership department.  The team’s identity will need to be rebuilt and that won’t be easy for a team who is still looking to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals.  There are players on the roster that can pick up these roles, but it might not be enough to get over the sheer change in dynamics.

The key for the Wild against this team will be to first and foremost shut Tarasenko down.  They will be looking for him to score the bulk of their goals again, so the Wild need to simply push him around and play physically when he’s on the ice.  The defense of the Wild will have the speed to keep up with him, they’ll just need to add the physicality to their game.  Also if they can keep him at bay, the rest of the forward lineup seems to be lacking in scoring punch.

Countering their defense might be a bigger task though as the Wild will have a hard time getting through the strong blueliners of the Blues.  The best way for them to do that is to make sure continuously role four lines at them to get them tired and in their zone as much as possible.  This may be a good group of defenders, but it is an old group that the Wild will need to try to tire out with aggressive offensive play and fresh legs at all times.

The Wild will most likely be able to take a game or two more from the Blues this season.  The Wild got better and the Blues got worse in the offseason, so logically it’s not much of a jump to think that the Wild will get a win or two more.  The Wild won’t be able to sweep them, but it looks as if they might be able to tilt the advantage to their side this season.

The Blues are due for a fall down the standings this season.  They’re still a playoff team, but the possibility of them winning the division or making it back to the conference finals looks to be low.  Still with a scorer like Tarasenko and great defense, the Blues might be able to hang around enough to surprise a few people.  The Wild may be better matched against them this season, but they’d be mistaken if they took them for granted.  And we all know the Wild would never do that.

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