For the month of June, Last Word On Sports will be covering each team in our 30 in 30 series. Once a day, we take a look at an NHL team’s past season, what their off-season looks like, and what they could hope to achieve before the start of their 2015-16 season. Everybody wants to get better and improve upon last season’s success or downfall and NHL’s 30 in 30 gives you that analysis and preview you need to get you by during another long and grueling summer season. 30 days in June, 30 teams to cover. Starting on June 1st we start from the bottom and make our way to the very top.
Today’s team: The St. Louis Blues. Check out our previous 30 in 30 articles here.
NHL’s 30 in 30: St. Louis Blues
Finishing 4th overall, the St. Louis Blues posted a record of 51-24-7 to end up with 109 points, placing them in first in the Central division and five points ahead of the Nashville Predators. Their home record (27-12-2) accumulated for 56 points. Their away record (24-12-5) was slightly less successful but still good enough to keep them on top of their division, accumulating 53 points. The main deal with the Blues team is that it has become tradition to be one of the top teams in the league when it comes to the regular season, but then to follow that up with a flat performance in the playoffs and face an early elimination. Some think the personnel needs to change while others believe Head Coach Ken Hitchcock needs to go, but with Hitchcock signing a one-year extension, the latter won’t be happening for another year.
The 2014-15 Regular Season
Heading into last season, the St. Louis Blues were met with certain expectations. Make the playoffs and go on a prominent run. While they continue to be a regular season success, thanks to high-scoring profiles on their top-line and a defensive core that can take over a game, the Blues had no problem rising within their division and being one o the best teams in the entire conference. Once they reached the post-season, they were able to avoid the Chicago Blackhawks, and the Los Angeles Kings had failed to make the dance. Unfortunately, they ran into a hot goaltender in Devan Dubnyk, who was in the middle of carrying a Minnesota Wild team on a (excuse the pun) “Wild” ride.
The Blues were gifted with many talented, offensive players this season and none thrilled the home crowd more than the trio of Jori Lehtera, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. In his third season with the club, Tarasenko put on a clinic, hitting a career-high in goals (37), assists (36) and points (73). His portrayal of skill, speed and strength was on full display all season long, scoring highlight reel goals with ease. Like Tarasenko, Schwartz also hit career-highs in all three categories, hitting the 20-goal and 60-point plateaus for a second consecutive season. He now has 53 goals in the last two seasons, and his aggressive play on the forecheck combined with a scoring touch has made him an asset to the team. In Lehtera’s first season, there was an inkling he’d make an impact right away and he sure did. The 26-year-old put up 20 points in his first 20 games. While his ice-time dropped and he only put up 24 points in the final 55 games, there’s is still plenty of room for Lehtera to improve upon.
At 31 years of age, captain David Backes has provided the Blues with five seasons of at least 50 points, last year being the second consecutive season of doing so. He mixes a package of high-caliber skill and edgy playing style, making him fun to watch and not-so fun to play against.
Alexander Steen is the perfect example of what versatility means. He can play wing, he can play center. He can play defensive-style hockey if you need to protect a lead, he can score a big goal when you’re down by one. Despite Steen starting more face-offs in the defensive end, Steen followed up his career-high 33 goals from two seasons ago with a career-high 64 points.
After setting a career-high point total last season, T.J. Oshie hit the 50-point plateau but came shy of scoring 20 once again. He is still a good winger to have on the team and plays with a physical edge, but one has to wonder if the return he could net is worth the trade-off.
Meanwhile, Paul Stastny had an up-and-down season, averaging just 17:38, a career-low. Making quite a lump sum of cash, the Blues hope he can regain his 70-point form once again, but that side of Stastny hasn’t been seen since the 2009-10 season.
Kevin Shattenkirk was absolutely dominant last season, putting up 44 points in 56 games, just one point shy of his career-high from last season, where he played all 82 games. Leading the league in powerplay points at that point, Shattenkirk’s season came to a screeching halt when a collision with Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin ended his season, forcing him to undergo abdominal surgery.
Alex Pietrangelo came into last season after finishing 5th in Norris votes, and he faced tougher assignments and more defensive zone starts, while averaging over 25 minutes for a third consecutive year. In the playoffs, that playing time was elevated to nearly 27 minutes, and he contributed two assists in six games.
After coming back from hip surgery, Carl Gunnarsson was inserted into the line-up and given sheltered minutes to start, but his role increased to nearly 20 minutes a game after the All-Star Game. He still finished with a career-low 18:04 ice-time but still manged a 0.84 shots per game and could become a serviceable player next season. Jay Bouwmeester may have hit the wrong side of 30, as the blue-liner followed up a 37-point season with a big drop-off of 13 in 72. He also averaged 22:40 of ice-time, his lowest since his rookie campaign. A bounce-back season is in order, as the 31-year-old still has four more years left with the Blues.
A key to being a consistently competitive team is to have stability in goal and with Brian Elliott and Jake Allen guarding the pipes, it seems like they have an above-average duo behind a great defensive core, which is fine for now. Elliott posted 26 wins, his highest total since joining the Blues, but has yet to reach his .940 save percentage that he totaled in the 2011-12 season. At worst, Elliott is an average goaltender, but he is signed to a reasonable contract for now. Allen, 24, put together a 24-win season and posted a .913 save percentage. If he is the goaltender of the future for the Blues, Allen should receive more starts but keeping Elliott around as a back-up plan is perfectly reasonable after Allen looked rattled at times during the season and moreso in the last legs of the postseason.
General Manager Doug Armstrong decided to shore up on defense at the trade deadline, acquiring Zbynek Michalek from the Coyotes for Maxim Letunov, and Robert Bortuzzo and a 2016 7th-round pick from Pittsburgh for Ian Cole. Armstrong then added some veteran depth at offense, bringing in Olli Jokinen from Toronto, who had previously been traded to the Leafs from Nashville. Possibly the most heart-warming story of the 2014-15 season, Armstrong sent Jordan Leopold to Columbus for a 2016 5th-round, re-uniting the defenseman with his daughter, Jordyn, who had written a letter to the Blue Jackets staff, pleading with them to bring her father home.
The Off-Season and Free Agents
Heading into the off-season, the Blues have a total of nine free agents to decide on. Of the nine free agents, three of them are restricted to the team, including forward Vladimir Tarasenko, defensemen Robert Bortuzzo, and goaltender Jake Allen. Forwards Olli Jokinen, Marcel Goc and Chris Porter along with defensemen Zbynek Michalek, Barret Jackman and Chris Butler are the upcoming unrestricted free agents. In terms of non-roster players, Armstrong will have to decide on four restricted free agents and six unrestricted free agents.
With $57 million committed to 10 forwards, 5 defensemen and 1 goaltender, Armstrong has some decisions to make. Allen is an RFA, and he’ll likely return with the team at a cheap rate, possibly taking over the reigns within the next two seasons, or sooner if Elliott’s play begins to slip up.
On offense, the team has some offensive firepower but a change of scenery may be in order after the team’s consistent playoff struggles. Names like Patrik Berglund and Oshie have been bounced around in rumors lately, and would provide some cap relief to go after a bigger contract like Phil Kessel or Patrick Sharp. There is also a surplus of prospects in the pipeline that could provide an inexpensive option coming in on an entry-level deal, like Robby Fabbri, who impressed at last year’s training camp, or Ivan Barbashev. One name that could be a good fit and is currently a RFA, is recently acquired Magnus Paajarvi, drafted by the Oilers at 10th overall in the 2009 draft.
Bortuzzo provided some stability on the blue-line and could play a more permanent role on the Blues back-end next season, and he’s a RFA as well and could be seeking a cheap raise. There’s also prospect Petteri Lindbohm, who played 23 games with the Blues and never looked out of place. On a cheap contract, he can open up some room and take a place left behind by the three unrestricted free agents, should any or all of them test the free agent market and leave. Jackman is already parting ways, so a spot could be opened for the 21-year old.
The 2015 Draft
Armstrong walked into the 2015 draft with no first-round selection and opened up his run at the table by selecting left-handed defenseman Vince Dunn.
An excerpt from LWOS’ own Ben Kerr:
Vince Dunn is a very good puck-moving defenceman as he combines that skating ability with the puckhandling skills to skate the puck out of dangerous areas, and lead the rush. Dunn has the ability to stickhandle while still moving at top speed that is rare amongst defencemen, especially at his age. He also has very good vision and passing skills, making strong breakout passes, and quarterbacking the play on the powerplay. Dunn has a very good wrist shot, with a lightning quick release. His slapshot and one-timer are powerful and accurate. Dunn is everything you could want in an offensive defenceman.
Their next pick came in the fourth-round with he 94th overall pick, acquired in the David Perron deal. Armstrong took right-handed center Adam Musil, from the WHL.
Another excerpt from Ben Kerr:
The son of Frantisek Musil, and brother of Oilers prospect David Musil, Adam breaks with family tradition and is a centre instead of a defenceman. He has excellent size, and plays a strong two-way game. The Rebels used him as a checking line centre this year and he took key minutes against top opposition. His best asset is his ability to control the puck down low on the cycle, he has very good stickhandling and puck protection skills, and the ability to grind plays out along the wall. Musil can also finish in close to goal with soft hands, or further out with a hard shot. The big concern here is his skating ability. He must get a lot faster to carve out a good NHL career.
The remainder of selections were Glenn Gawdin – F (116th), Niko Mikkola – D (127th), Luke Opilka – G (146th), Liam Dunda – F (176th).