Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2015-16, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season and offers our insight and analysis. Makes sure to stick around until the end of the series, where we’ll offer our full predictions for the standings in each division, and eventually our collective LWOS 2015-16 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today we continue with the St. Louis Blues.
PUCK DROP PREVIEW: 2015-2016 St. Louis Blues
With head coach Ken Hitchcock at the helm since November of 2011, the St. Louis Blues have always been a consistent regular season team. The buy-in of the coaching staff’s schemes from the roster paired with depth scoring have proven to be a winning formula for a club hoping to capture its first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Despite being ousted in the first round for the previous two years, the Blues were the buzz of the Central Division when they added a key offensive weapon in St. Louis native Paul Stastny. The then-28-year-old immediately became the highest-paid player on the Blues roster, signing a four year/$28 million deal on the first day of free agency in 2014.
Stastny was brought in to address the focal reason as to why the Blues had lacked playoff success in the past: timely scoring. Although the 2nd round pick in the 2005 NHL Draft taken by Colorado had monumental shoes to fill from fans and management alike, it was a different forward bearing “the Note” that blossomed into an NHL sensation.
Vladimir Tarasenko built off the momentum from his first full professional season in St. Louis (43 points in 64 games) in a way that surprised the entire league, but not necessarily the Blues faithful. Dazzling one-handed dekes and an explosive wrist shot attributed to the man they call “Vladi” becoming one of the top goal-scorers in the NHL. His team-leading 37 goals ranked 5th in the NHL and his 73 points were good enough for 10th in that regard.
With Tarasenko spear-heading the way providing a scoring touch that had alluded the Blues since the Brett Hull era, St. Louis captured the Central Division title for the first time since Hitchcock’s opening season with team in 2012. The all-familiar goaltending controversy was again apparent with rookie Jake Allen beating out veteran Brian Elliott for the number one spot going into the playoffs.
Against the Minnesota Wild in the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Tarasenko knotted seven points, including six goals. The rest of the team (excluding Kevin Shattenkirk, who lead the Blues with eight points) failed to follow suit, resulting in another early exit after six games.
General Manager Doug Armstrong chose not to re-sign longtime Blue Barret Jackman, who spent 13 seasons in the “Gateway City.” Rumors constantly swirled around captain David Backes’ name as fans were calling for a shakeup with the current core group of players.
Fan favorite T.J. Oshie was eventually the one to be dealt to the Washington Capitals for Troy Brouwer and goaltending prospect Pheonix Copley as well as a third-round pick in next year’s draft. Zbynek Michalek, Chris Porter, Marcel Goc and Olli Jokinen were all let go into free agency while Lehtera and Allen were signed to multi-year contract extensions.
Tarasenko passed Stastny as the highest-paid player on the team when he signed an eight year, $60 million contract on July 7th. Lehtera underwent successful ankle surgery on August 4th but started skating this week. Patrik Berglund, however, had surgery after aggravating a right shoulder injury in late August and will be re-evaluted in late December.
2015-16 OPENING DAY LINEUP
Alexander Steen – Paul Stastny – Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz – David Backes – Robby Fabbri
Dmitrij Jaskin – Kyle Brodziak– Troy Brouwer
Steve Ott– Scottie Upshall/Scott Gomez– Ryan Reaves
Jay Bouwmeester – Alex Pietrangelo
Carl Gunnarsson– Kevin Shattenkirk
Petteri Lindbohm – Robert Bortuzzo
PLAYER TO WATCH
Fabbri has caused quite the commotion in the St. Louis Blues organization since he was selected 21st overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. Before suffering a high-ankle sprain, he represented Canada in the 2015 World Juniors well with six points in five games. The Blues are certainly anticipating that Fabbri can replicate his success with the Guelph Storm in the Ontario Hockey League; he was deemed the OHL MVP of the Playoffs in 2014.
The Mississauga, ON native is a spectacular skater who isn’t afraid to battle along the boards in the dirty areas, despite being only 5’10”. Sound familiar, Blues fans?
He’s a possession player who has the potential to be a game-changer in the National Hockey League if he plays to his strengths. Fabbri can score in a variety of ways: he can finesse by defenders and goaltenders or simply pick a corner from the slot with his accurate shot. The 19-year-old’s vision on the ice allows him to create offensive chances effortlessly, but his competitiveness and work ethic already has the coaching staff raving about #15 in blue and yellow.
ON THE RISE
Perhaps overshadowed by Tarasenko’s break-out 2014-2015 season was the play of Kevin Shattenkirk. The 26-year-old blueliner was only able to suit up for 56 games in the 2014-2015 season thanks to an abdominal injury, but still added 44 points (8G, 36A). Shortly after returning to the Blues, he picked up right where he left off in the postseason by adding a team-leading eight assists in six games.
Shattenkirk solidified himself as a two-way threat on the defensive side of things by improving his Fenwick numbers to a career-high at even strength in the regular season (55.8%) and his Corsi numbers at even strength in the postseason (59.5%). He plays in virtually any situation, whether it be at five-on-five or special teams. Without him in the lineup, the Blues lose one of their best puck-moving and responsible defenseman throughout all three zones.
If the Blues are able to have Shattenkirk return to his pre-injury form (or his current form, for that matter) at both ends of the ice come October, it’s going to be nothing but a nightmare for the opposition.
ON THE DECLINE
Rattie was an absolute stud during his tenure with the Portland Winterhawks which led to the St. Louis Blues selecting him in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft. In his last two seasons in the WHL, Rattie racked up 231 points (105G, 126A). His transition to the professional level been a slow one as the Blues haven’t called his number too much over the past few years.
In fact, he’s played in a mere 13 NHL games, registering only two assists. Although, this is not necessarily an accurate representation of Rattie’s talent level. The development process of his skill set is still ongoing as he’s just 22 years old. But when he’s been inserted into the Blues lineup, it’s normally on the third and fourth lines. In order to maximize the strength and speed of the Calgary native, he needs to be paired with offensive talent. With Tarasenko and Backes dominating minutes among St. Louis wingers, there is just not a spot in the top-six for Ty Rattie on this team.
So while Rattie’s individual play isn’t “on the decline,” his role with the Blues is for now.
There has been a sense of familiarity when predicting the St. Louis Blues season over the past few years. Any knowledgable hockey fan will tell you that this team is too talented, too well-coached and too balanced to not succeed during the regular season. But what about after that?
What happens when they qualify for the postseason, possibly even win the division?
As past years will tell us, inevitable disappointment in St. Louis. For reasons unknown, the transition from the grueling 82-game campaign and the playoffs has created a sense of chaos for the Blues organization. Whether it be information overload from the coaching staff or choking under the pressure, this year’s Blues NEED to recognize that their window of capturing a Stanley Cup with this current group of players is closing.
Leaders like Steen and Backes are now in their early 30’s, signifying that they still have a few years left to cement their legacy as Blues players. Right now, they will be remembered as terrific regular season point-producers that failed and underperformed for consecutive years.
There’s one problem with that, though.
The fans are getting restless and majority owner Tom Stillman is, too. You’d be delusional to think he won’t pull the trigger if the Blues fall into a lull early into the year. Still, it’s not only the captains who are on the hot seat for the Blues; Armstrong and Hitchcock will be nearing the end of their respective tenures if change is not seen in the postseason. Time is indeed ticking, and the clock has never been so close to zero with this roster and management.
First round exit after first round exit, die-hard Blues fans (myself included) have remained optimistic surrounding their hockey team, claiming that it was some fluke or perhaps injuries had plagued their playoff run(s).
Of course, there will be positive moments throughout the season that will instill faith that there is a sign of change in the aura of Blues hockey. It can come in the form of a clutch Tarasenko performance or even a huge win over a divisional opponent. But if they clinch a berth in the playoffs and fall once again in the opening series, the hockey world will be far from stunned.
After all, it’s what they’ve grown accustomed to know.