Every Thursday leading up to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Ryan Porth examines one club that is a true contender to hoist the Stanley Cup come June. The St. Louis Blues are one of 10 Teams that Can Win It All.
For the first time in a long time, the St. Louis Blues entered a season with league-wide expectations of being a Stanley Cup contender. They were a sexy pick come playoff time despite Chicago owning the division all season long. Unfortunately for the Blues, the Los Angeles Kings spoiled what could have been. The Blues were built for a playoff run in 2013 and held a 2-0 first-round series lead against the Kings, but that edge quickly evaporated as they lost four straight and hit the golf links early.
A second straight playoff exit courtesy of Los Angeles didn’t lead to widespread changes in St. Louis, but it did force the team to tweak some things. David Perron was traded to Edmonton in exchange for Magnus Paajarvi, while veteran centres Derek Roy and Maxim Lapierre were signed to boost the team’s depth up the middle. Also, Andy MacDonald retired from the NHL.
The Blues are still searching for their first title. Can they finally raise a Stanley Cup banner in 2013-14? Here are three reasons why they can and can’t:
1. They might be the deepest team in the West
Only one Western Conference team (Los Angeles) may have better depth than the Blues. Still, Ken Hitchcock will start the season with one of the deepest teams he’s ever coached.
The Blues are strong from the net out. Despite suffering a step back from 2011-12, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott are considered among the league’s best goaltending combos. If one goes down to injury, 23-year-old Jake Allen is capable of stepping in.
You won’t find a better defence corps in the NHL. Alex Pietrangelo, still an unsigned restricted free agent, is a legit Norris Trophy contender. Kevin Shattenkirk is a quality puck-mover. Deadline pickups Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold will start with the team on opening night. Barret Jackman and Roman Polak add physicality to the blue line.
The lack of high-end talent at forward could ultimately hurt the Blues, but they do possess depth up front. David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Roy anchor the top three lines. T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen have thrived under Hitchcock. Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz are up-and-comers.
2. Tarasenko could step up and become the go-to guy
Speaking of Tarasenko…
Drafted 16th overall in 2010, Tarasenko burst onto the NHL scene last season with 10 points in his first eight games and was the leader in the clubhouse when it came to Calder Trophy contention. The 21-year-old Russian’s production slowed considerably as he finished with 19 points in 38 games, but he displayed enough talent to whet the appetite of Blues fans for what he has in store in the future.
While the Blues are one of the best in the West, they lack that one scorer they can hang their hat on every night. It’s an offence-by-committee approach that has been successful, but Tarasenko has the capability to take that to the next level. The sooner he realizes his electric potential, the more dangerous the Blues will become offensively.
“A player with the flash he has, every team wants a player like that in their lineup,” Pietrangelo told Sportsnet.ca early last season.
3. Five-on-five prowess could well return
As the number of power plays decreases year by year, the importance of even strength success increases. Last season the Blackhawks and Bruins were two of the NHL’s top-four teams in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio. The Kings led all playoff teams in 2012. Vancouver and Boston were tops in even strength success in 2010-11.
The Blues posted a 1.04 even strength ratio last season, ranked 14th and down from 1.34 (second in the NHL) the season before. They’ve been much worse in the playoffs, posting ratios of 0.87 and 0.78, respectively, the last two springs. They must be better in this area in 2013-14, and there’s no reason to believe they shouldn’t. All the pieces are there on the back end, and the forward corps is full of players who succeed on both ends of the ice.
When Hitchcock has his team on its A-game, the Blues are an incredibly tough squad to generate offence against. With the way they’re built from the net out, they look similar to the Kings of 2012 and Bruins of 2011.
1. Lack of a true No. 1 centre
The following is a listing of top-line centres for the last eight champions: Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Patrice Bergeron, Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Ryan Getzlaf and Eric Staal. Outside of possessing reliable goaltending (which the Blues should have), the most important ingredient for being a top Cup contender is a true No. 1 centre.
Backes is a really good player, someone every team would love to have, but is he a true No. 1 centre? No. Granted, offence isn’t his game. He’s a good two-way player who has indeed reached 31 goals twice in his career. But he had just 28 points in 48 games in 2012-13 and isn’t your prototypical top-line pivot.
The Blues keep the puck out of their own net as well as anyone, but they struggled with offensive consistency a season ago, finishing 17th in the league in goals per game. More consistency out of the likes of Backes, Roy and Berglund would go a long way. That’s no guarantee, however.
2. Question marks in net
Halak, coming off a groin injury, reportedly made it known to the coaching staff that he was unhappy to be sitting behind Elliott in the first round against Los Angeles. The situation was downplayed by Hitchcock, but it raised questions as to whether Halak would be dealt in the offseason. He wasn’t, and the Blues’ depth in net remained intact.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t uncertainties in the St. Louis crease. For starters, Halak’s health is a question mark. Due to his wonky groin, he missed more games last season than he played. And after an All-Star Game appearance in 2011-12, Elliott had a terrible second season with the Blues before a standout April.
As was the case last year, you would assume one of the Blues’ trio of goaltenders (including Allen) will emerge as the go-to guy down the stretch. But what kind of production will they get out of Elliott and Halak? Can they recapture their 2011-12 form, or will they be inconsistent like last season?
3. The L.A. roadblock
St. Louis has been a major factor in the West each of the last two seasons. Viewed as Cup contenders ever since Hitchcock turned the organization around, there’s just been one team in their way in both 2012 and 2013: the Los Angeles Kings.
The Blues were swept in the second round in 2012 but held a 2-0 series lead over the reigning champs this past spring. That lead disappeared, as the Kings fed off home ice and stole an overtime victory in Game 5. Those two playoff series have shown that the Kings flat-out have St. Louis’ number.
This season it doesn’t appear the West has the sheer depth of great teams it has had in years past. One could argue it’s simply Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis and everyone else. But if the Blues can’t dodge L.A. come playoff time, they may come out on the short end again.
Prediction: If Chicago has an extended Stanley Cup hangover, St. Louis will be the first to pounce in the new-look Central Division. Everyone has been cognizant of the Blues’ sky-high potential, but this is the best team they’ve put together in the last decade. They have a legitimate chance to win it all, but Los Angeles will be there to meet them in the conference finals to rain on their potential Cup parade.