Welcome to Puck Drop Preview 2016-17, where LastWordOnHockey.com 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. Make 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 2016-17 Stanley Cup pick. You can check out all our articles on our Puck Drop Page. Today, the series continues with the 2016-17 St. Louis Blues.
Puck Drop Preview: 2016-17 St. Louis Blues
Injuries and an ever-changing goaltending controversy surrounded the St. Louis Blues during the 2015-16 regular season. The St. Louis Blues were the most affected team in the NHL by injuries by IIT-cfrel; essential pieces of the roster were sidelined for portions of the year. Key players like Kevin Shattenkirk, Alex Pietrangelo, Jaden Schwartz, Paul Stastny and Allen/Elliott all missed significant time. In January, five players were injured over the short span of two games. Luckily, they all were healthy enough to suit up for the postseason in April.
Jake Allen and Brian Elliott battled each other for the starting goalie position from October to April. The-then 25-year-old Allen began the campaign with the number one job, but lost it when he went down with an injury. An identical situation occurred in April, when Allen was hurt right before the regular season concluded. This threw 31-year-old Elliott back into the spotlight for St. Louis and he did not disappoint come playoff time.
The Blues exorcised their playoff demons when they faced off against the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Schwartz became a menace for Chicago defensemen while Elliott stole the show. After giving up a 3-1 lead in the series, the Blues narrowly defeated their longtime rival thanks to Troy Brouwer‘s GWG in the third period of Game 7. It was a moment that will remain embedded in Blues fans minds for years to come.
Against the Central Division champion, the Dallas Stars, St. Louis again took a late series lead but failed to lock it down in Game 6. The series was tied at three games apiece heading back to Dallas for the climactic Game 7. It quickly turned anti-climatic after the Blues pounded Stars goaltender Kari Lehtonen with a trio of first-period goals. St. Louis eventually won the game 6-1, advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001.
They met the San Jose Sharks in the third round, who dominated the Blues in Games 2 and 3. Kyle Brodziak and company returned the favor in Game 4, tying up the series at two. Yet, the Sharks took control of Game 5 late and shifted momentum back to San Jose with a 3-2 lead. The Blues were eliminated after dropping Game 6 by a score of 5-2. Tarasenko was heavily scrutinized for only scoring twice in the series (his goals came in the third period of Game 6).
The optimism that Blues fans found after their impressive playoff run faded rapidly for some when the off-season rolled around. At the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, Elliott was traded to the Calgary Flames for the 35th overall pick. The Newmarket, ON native had spent his last five seasons in St. Louis, amassing 104 wins in 164 starts with a save percentage of .925 and a goals-against-average of 2.01.
Calgary also inked postseason hero Brouwer to a deal worth $18 million over four years on the first day of free agency. He scored 18 goals and 21 assists in his only season in St. Louis, but his 13-point postseason performance cemented his status as a hot commodity among contending teams. Brouwer’s family in Canada influenced the move greatly, which was something the Blues couldn’t match with a dollar sign.
The dagger in St. Louis came in the form of longtime captain David Backes signing with the Boston Bruins for six years and $30 million. Blues GM Doug Armstrong later said he heavily hoped to bring Backes back, but the term (reminder: Backes is 32) bothered him going down the road. Backes was drafted by the Blues in 2003 and played 727 games, registering 206 goals and 254 assists. Foreshadowing of the move emerged when he broke down after the team’s loss in Game 6 against San Jose. You had a feeling he was ready to move on.
Steve Ott also moved on after the Blues failed to re-sign him. The veteran forward agreed to a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings.
Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock announced that he would retire from coaching after the 2016-17 season. The 64-year-old bench boss is devoting the last of his energy to this upcoming campaign and is excited for every minute of it. Mike Yeo (associate coach) and Rick Wilson (assistant coach) were brought onto the coaching staff by Armstrong to replace Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller. Yeo will take over the club’s head coaching duties starting in 2017-18.
It was clear from this point on that the Blues were building around a younger core. Schwartz was awarded with a five-year, $26.75 million contract (an average-annual-value of $5.35 million). Allen, the clear number one goaltender on the roster, was re-upped by the Blues with a four-year, $17.4 million extension (AAV of $4.35 million). Former Nashville Predators back-up netminder Carter Hutton signed a two-year, $2.25 million contract to assume the number two role in between the pipes in St. Louis. Dmitrij Jaskin was extended for two years worth $2 million.
Armstrong brought back forward David Perron on July 1st for two years and $7.5 million. Perron was selected with the 26th overall pick by the Blues in 2007 and was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in 2013. Veteran forwards Scottie Upshall (one year) and Brodziak (two years) signed deals with AAV’s of under a million. Alexander Steen was recently re-signed to a four-year extension for $23 million.
Pietrangelo was named as the 21st captain in Blues history after Backes’ departure. Steen, Stastny, Shattenkirk and Tarasenko were named alternate captains.
Hitchcock has been vocal about his forward groupings all summer long. With the loss of Backes and Brouwer up front, it’s going to be an experimental process to determine the right combinations. “Hitch” would like to start the season with the top line of Steen, Stastny and Tarasenko. This overload of talent sees three top contracts of the Blues playing alongside one another. Stastny has been viewed as a top-line center by media and fans both, but Hitch hasn’t given him first-line minutes throughout his two-season tenure in St. Louis. The 30-year-old forward has 69 assists in 138 games with the Blues. 39 of those came last year in 64 games. Let him loose on the top line like he was intended to be.
If Tarasenko can score 40 goals with Lehtera as his center, the sky’s the limit when you add an offensively-gifted presence in Stastny on his line. Steen is, arguably, the most underrated player in the Blues lineup and perhaps the Central Division. He skates on the top lines of both special teams units and can adjust from wing to center if needed to. Steen had 52 points (17G, 35A) in 67 games last year, but the injury bug is always something to look out for when talking about the Winnipeg native. He recently had offseason surgery on his shoulder, but he should be good to go in October for the start of the regular season.
Forward Vladimir Sobotka (more on him later) made a living in the NHL by being strong on his stick and working the cycle. He doesn’t give up the puck in his own zone and attributes to a healthy breakout with poise. Schwartz plays a similar style and also has the capability of scoring 30 goals if his ice-time numbers increase. He should be closer to one hundred percent after fracturing his ankle in practice last year, but still managed to put up 22 points in 33 games after his return. Perron, at 28 years old, boasts creativity and flair with the puck. Those two traits would give substance to the second line. Perron, Sobotka and Schwartz would establish a quick transition game through three zones and they’d be responsive defensively. It’s a hard-nosed group that is tenacious on loose pucks and is strong along the boards. With Schwartz and Perron being looked to for scoring, Sobotka would balance that with two-way play.
The third line is when it starts to get dicey for the St. Louis Blues from a depth standpoint. After a phenomenal rookie campaign, Robby Fabbri deserves a bigger role. Placing him on a third line that does not contain Stastny like last year can turn problematic. Patrik Berglund proved his worth with a solid playoff outing and he’ll be a crucial component in the top-nine, specifically on the third line. He’s a big body at 6’4″ and uses it in his all-around game. He’s an effective forechecker and needs to find his scoring touch before April if he hopes to remain in St. Louis after the trade deadline. We’ve seen what Lehtera can do with Tarasenko on his wing, now let’s see what he can do without him. His AAV of $4.7 million puzzled many, especially after his lackluster regular season. The Finnish center’s production went down from 2014-15 by ten points and he only scored nine goals. Granted, his defensive game was impactful when matching up with the Blackhawks top line, but he desperately needs a bounce-back year.
Oh, the checking line. Upshall, Brodziak and Ryan Reaves wreaked havoc on the opposition last year, particularly in the postseason. They’re an energy line that is deployed to possess the puck and bang bodies. In the series against Chicago, they were electric, gaining momentum for their club in a physical way. But, don’t sleep on Upshall and Brodziak when it comes to offense. The two veterans chipped in offensively in the playoffs at key moments which made their re-signings inevitable. They signed for less than a million/year each, which exemplified what they’ll do to win a Stanley Cup. The enforcer has lost his way in the National Hockey League (and the game of hockey entirely), but Reaves continues to be productive for the Blues by slowly adapting his game to the modern NHL.
The Blues allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the National Hockey League (197) last season. St. Louis’ three units of defensemen attack you in different ways and are strategically sound. They’re also well-coached and disciplined, yet two of their main blueliners are heading into their second seasons in the NHL.
Jay Bouwmeester and Pietrangelo are well-advertised. The duo is technical, dominant and accountable. Chemistry is unparalleled between them as they’ve played together in both NHL and international play while representing Canada. Their styles are complementary of each other. Bouwmeester is stay-at-home and determined to get the puck moving north while Pietrangelo is stronger offensively and factors in off the rush. Bouwmeester’s 19 points last season were indicative of a slumping year point-wise, but that has to change if he wants to stay in the fold in the future. He’s 32 years old and locked under contract until after the 2018-19 season, not a good mix.
One of the downfalls for the Blues in the postseason was their absence of scoring from the back-end. Bouwmeester had four assists in twenty playoff games and Pietrangelo had two goals and eight assists. Perhaps the new schemes implemented from Wilson, a former NHL defenseman, can instill confidence in the tandem offensively. Pietrangelo is one of the smartest on the back-end in the league, so he’ll have no problem adjusting to a new manner of defending.
The second defensive pairing of Carl Gunnarsson and Colton Parayko is similar to the first line in terms of playing styles. Gunnarsson likes to utilize his skating ability to alleviate pressure in the defensive zone. Parayko is an all-around dynamic talent with room to grow in his second NHL season. Together, they can pinch up at the line in the offensive zone to increase scoring opportunities for their forwards.
Their puck movement is exceptional as well. When they get it on their sticks, their heads are up and alert while surveying the ice in front of them. These two operate by activating the weak side when controlling the puck in their own zone and out-letting it to their forwards up the play. Shots from the point are varied when it comes to Gunnarsson and Parayko. Gunnarsson looks for the deflection or even a slap-pass on a backdoor play and Parayko owns one of the hardest shots in the NHL. When #55 winds up, you better pray it doesn’t hit you.
Joel Edmundson and Shattenkirk was an intriguing pairing that was conjured up towards the end of the regular season. Edmundson, 23, bounced in and out of the lineup in the postseason after making mistakes. Shattenkirk’s name was submerged in trade rumors around the draft and onward. Both defenders are facing adversity in their own ways, which can inspire them to play the best hockey of their careers so far in 2017-18. Shattenkirk found himself turned inside out and beaten to the puck by forwards and Edmundson lacked composure in high-pressure scenarios.
Going into this season, both of these issues will rear their heads at some point. As mentioned earlier, it falls on the coaching staff to educate and teach them to be polish all facets of the game. Shattenkirk went from a +19 to a -14 rating while duplicating his 44-point total from 2014-15. Edmundson had a plus/minus rating of zero while suiting up for 67 games last season. Their corsi ratings were over 53 percent at even-strength, which is admirable. With added minutes, Edmundson hopes to appear more on the scoresheet after scoring only one goal in his rookie campaign.
26-year-old Allen will be relied on to man the pipes for the majority of the 2016-17 season. He posted a record of 26-15-3 with a GAA of 2.35 and a save percentage of .920 while splitting time with Elliott. Now without the “1A, 1B” system in St. Louis, Allen should play 60+ games if he stays healthy. He has the potential to develop into an elite goaltender in the Western Conference. Allen’s lateral movement post-to-post is what separates him from the rest of the younger netminders at this level. He’s quick down low and isn’t afraid to challenge shooters at the outside of his crease. Sure, his aggressiveness has burned him from time to time, but striking a balance in that department will come from increased experience. He’s the guy in St. Louis and fans are ready to see if he’s got what it takes.
In last year’s Western Conference Final, we learned that Allen’s puck handling skills were critical to the Blues defensive success. After being inserted into the lineup in Game 4 against the Sharks, the Blues were quicker out of their own zone and took more chances in the neutral zone knowing Allen could start the breakout himself. When the puck is cleared in behind his net, Allen is able to send the puck to his defensemen along the boards or even down the ice to a streaking forward. One thing he needs to fine-tune is his ability to see around screens. Most goals he allowed in the Sharks series were pucks shot from the point with traffic in front of him. While some onus falls on Blues defenders, Allen needs to be better in this area.
Durability also comes into question when discussing a goaltender shouldering a load of that capacity. The Fredericton, New Brunswick native was injured two different times last season with a lower-body-injury. If this situation occurs again next year, the Blues will turn to Hutton.
Hutton, 30, has played in 76 NHL games and has recorded 33 wins with a GAA of 2.56. He has served as Pekka Rinne‘s backup in Nashville for the past three seasons. The Thunder Bay, ON native was undrafted in 2010 and bounced around from several AHL teams before making his NHL debut in 2013 with the Blackhawks. He played 40 games in the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season after Rinne was injured for a majority of the season and played very well (20-11-4). If Allen goes down for an extended period of time, Hutton is qualified enough to man the reins.
Players to Watch
The 29-year-old Czech has expressed interest in returning to the Blues from the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he’s spent the last two seasons playing for Avansgard Omsk. A disagreement over $300,000 is what drove him to leave the NHL, although he had one year left on his contract with St. Louis. Whether he will actually return or not remains to be seen, much to the chagrin of Blues fans. It’s a complicated (and tiring) process that involves Omsk refusing to let him opt out of the last year on his contract. Armstrong has been adamant about Sobotka returning to St. Louis, but the situation is up in the air as of right now.
If he does return, however, he’ll be paired with Schwartz on his wing (according to Hitch). In 381 career NHL games, Sobotka has 123 points (35G, 88A). He collected 72 points (28G, 44A) in 97 KHL games. He last played in the NHL in 2013-14 where he scored nine goals and 24 assists in 61 games, his best statistical campaign. Sobotka can also contribute on the already-stacked penalty kill of St. Louis. The Blues were third in the league with a penalty-killing efficiency percentage of 85.1. He represented the Czech Republic at the World Cup of Hockey.
There’s a dark cloud over Shattenkirk’s remaining tenure with the Blues, there’s no question about it. The defenseman hoped to be dealt during the 2016 NHL Entry Draft in late June, but details revolving around a deal to the Oilers fell through during the late stages of the talks. He’s in the last year of his contract with St. Louis; this brings up quite the list of storylines as the season progresses. Should the Blues dish him at the deadline to bring in a scoring forward to put the Blues over the proverbial hump? Are the Blues deep enough to get rid of a top-four d-man that plays quarterback on the power play?
Shattenkirk is only 27 years old, so the value for him is there among the other 29 teams in the league. The Boston Bruins made a play for him at the trade deadline last year. The Philadelphia Flyers kicked his camp’s tires during the same period. The Greenwich, CT native was prepared to be traded to an Eastern Conference team and I think those two will remain in the pack until a move (or lack of one) is made. The Blues lost Backes and Brouwer for nothing due to their expiring contracts, but will Armstrong throw a curveball and re-sign Shattenkirk only to trade him to a team later? Whatever the future result may be, all that matters now is that Shattenkirk will wear an “A” on his chest. He’s a pivotal member of the Blues leadership core and intends to be as long as he’s in St. Louis.
Players on the Rise
Backes and Brouwer’s absences open up room for the 20-year-old to elevate his role in St. Louis. His 37 points in 72 regular season games last season were overshadowed by a spectacular postseason performance. Fabbri tallied four goals and 11 assists in 20 playoff contests; he was second in scoring on the Blues over that span. The Mississauga native’s arsenal contains quick dekes, soft hands and a meticulous wrist shot. He’s listed at 180 pounds, but the kid can hit, too. He’s a speed demon on the ice; his short strides make him difficult to defend in the neutral zone. For two years now, the Blues have been raving about Fabbri’s work ethic, even before he cracked the big-league roster.
He’s a dedicated player who has won at almost every level, but enhancing his play is always the main concern. More importantly, he makes the players around him better. His linemates, Stastny and Brouwer, couldn’t stop praising Fabbri last year after how easy he made the game for them. He back-checks, blocks shots and scores goals. What more could you want from a rookie? With his name now circled in opponent’s locker rooms for 82 games, you may see a decrease in production in his sophomore season. Or, with the right pieces beside him, he can rise up the Blues ranks faster than expected.
Like Fabbri, Parayko was a breath of fresh air among all the injuries the Blues suffered over the course of the regular season. Standing at 6’6″, the St. Albert native set the league aflame after making the team out of training camp. The plan was for him to get more reps in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves, but that quickly changed when Blues brass watched him take the ice. His mobility is almost supernatural for a man at his stature as is his acceleration. There were countless times when Parayko was racing to a puck and the opposition’s forward had head start, but he still ended up with it. His long stick allows him to pokecheck attackers off the puck from a far distance.
As alluded to earlier, his slap shot is out of this world. The flex he gets on his shot and how quickly he gets it off is rare, even in this new breed of top, young defensemen. He had nine goals and 24 assists in 79 games during his opening year in the NHL and was mentioned in the Calder Trophy conversation. When Aaron Ekblad went down with an injury at the World Cup, Parayko was slotted in on the top pairing for Team North America with Morgan Rielly. This allowed for expanded exposure of his play on a national stage, which was met with a plethora of positivity. Parayko finished off the World Cup with three assists in three games with a +3 rating.
Player on the Decline
Jaskin has been given opportunities to succeed for the Blues, but he has failed to do so on a consistent basis throughout his young career so far. He’s a power forward, built to fit St. Louis’ offensive style by being physically dominant off and on the puck. In 139 NHL games, he’s registered only 18 goals and 15 assists. He’s not been playing top-six minutes, but Jaskin has skated with talented roster players in hopes of sparking his game. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, including a terrific individual effort against the Red Wings this year.
The Russian-born Czech forward was inserted into the roster for Game 5 against the Stars and immediately made an impact, scoring the game-winning goal. It all comes down to simplicity, which the Blues hope Jaskin can resort back to like when he first broke into the league. If he tries to do too much and turns over the puck in 50/50 battles, he’ll remain in the pressbox. But if Jaskin buys directly into Hitch’s game plan (which stresses possession and zone time as a group), then he can find his way back into the lineup on a regular basis.
2016-17 Season Prediction
This year’s St. Louis Blues are young and unpredictable. Still, it can be argued that they took a step back short-term to prevent problems long-term. The loss of veteran pieces will hurt them out of the gate because leadership can’t be replaced in the locker room. The Blues have to shape their own identity this year. There will be ups and downs at various points in the season, but can they right the ship when it matters most? A forward core led by Tarasenko, Stastny, Steen, Schwartz and Fabbri will pot timely goals, but the supporting cast must pull their weight to turn those goals into wins.
On defense, new captain Pietrangelo will have to orchestrate his defense along with Bouwmeester, Shattenkirk and Parayko to form one cohesive unit of blueliners. St. Louis prides themselves on their defense and they rely on it to get them through the year. Allen must turn into “the guy.” There can’t be any hiccups this season in net or the whole team will fall into shambles. The Blues were spoiled when they had two above-average goaltenders contending for playing time, but now they only have one. When adversity strikes, Hitch has to contain the locker room or perhaps Yeo will be assuming the head coaching duties sooner than we thought.
This team doesn’t have enough offensive weapons to make a deep run in the Western Conference. Brouwer and Backes’ combined 15 playoff goals aren’t going to magically reappear in April. Armstrong has to make a move at the deadline to add another top-end scorer, whether that means moving Shattenkirk or not. The Blues have average scoring depth among three lines, but what happens when Tarasenko’s line gets shut down like it was last postseason against San Jose? The Pittsburgh Penguins had Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel to turn to in times of need when they won their latest Stanley Cup championship. The Blackhawks had Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp when they won three titles in six seasons.
Vladimir Tarasenko may be one of the most prolific snipers in the game today, but not even he can bring the Blues their first Stanley Cup in franchise history by himself.