This was supposed to be their year, the year in which the St. Louis Blues finally hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time. The Blues were cup contenders, and the Hockey News even selected them to win it all at the beginning of the season. The key word in that last sentence though is “were,” as the Blues find themselves in the exact same spot as last year: out of the playoffs after round one, blowing a 2-0 series lead by losing four straight, this time to Chicago.
Last year’s loss to Los Angeles was attributed to growing pains and playoff immaturity of a relatively young team, but in the eyes of many 2013-14 was supposed to be the year the Blues were serious challengers. This was a team that up until April 3rd was absolutely dominant, but then found themselves in a tailspin soon after. The Blues went on a six-game losing streak to end the regular season, and then found themselves being outplayed for the majority of their series with Chicago, including an embarrassing loss in game six.
The question then becomes: what do you do to fix a team that is at or near its peak in terms of talent and performance?
The Blues are clearly an excellent team, as proven by their 111-point season. The difficulty is determining how much you try and change without upsetting the balance of the team–or should there even be a change made at all?
If there is any significant change to try and avoid a third straight first-round exit next year, I highly doubt it will come with tinkering with either the forward or defensive unit. While the Blues may say goodbye to a few veteran UFA forwards that were quite ineffective come playoff time (Steve Ott, Brendan Morrow, Derek Roy), the majority will be back, and with good reason. The core comprising of David Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund, Jaden Schwartz, and T.J. Oshie are all young, extremely talented skaters, who will be the foundation for years to come. If there is any change, it will be to improve the bottom-six, bringing in a few more durable forwards, and giving more ice time to Max Lapierre and Adam Cracknell, who were impressive against Chicago. Meanwhile, there many be no changes to the defense, as only Carlo Colaiacovo is a UFA, while the youth and offensive upside of both Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk complement the veteran presence and sound defensive games of Jay Bouwmeester, Barret Jackman, Jordan Leopold, and Roman Polak.
If there will be a major change, it will be in between the pipes. The trade for Ryan Miller was supposed to put the Blues over-the-top. Yet Miller struggled down the regular season stretch, and was really fighting the puck on his way to posting a 2.70 GAA and .897 SV% against Chicago. Miller has and continues to be criticized for not being “able to win the big one,” so is he the right fit to lead the Blues again next year? Rumours are already flying that Miller is leaving (I’m hearing Anaheim as an option), and that the Blues could go with a tandem of Brian Elliot and Jake Allen. Or will the Blues let Elliot walk, bring in Allen as the backup, and try and keep Miller or sign another veteran UFA to start, such as Jonas Hiller?
Finally, will Ken Hitchcock’s job be safe for next season? Though he has had success in the regular season, how much of the blame for lack of playoff success lies on his shoulders? In three playoff appearances with the Blues, Hitchcock’s record is a less than spectacular 8-13. Is it possible the Blues make a switch at head coach in an effort to find that final piece of the championship puzzle?
Whatever happens to the Blues in the off-season, it will sure be interesting. Will they stay the course and hope this group brings home a Cup in 2015, or do they make changes an effort to solve the aforementioned championship puzzle.
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