The St. Louis Blues‘ 2017 off-season began way back on Feb. 27, when GM Doug Armstrong dealt point-producing defenceman Kevin Shattenkirk to Washington.
A playoff team selling off a chunk of its core signaled a new approach in St. Louis: Yes, we want the Cup now, but we’re keeping one eye on the future!
The Blues made more racket on draft night, trading pricey defensive centre Jori Lehtera to Philly for the younger, more dynamic Brayden Schenn, then parting with loveable tough guy Ryan Reaves in order to scoop hotly tipped Russian prospect Klim Kostin in the first round.
In order to lock up top-pair D-man Colton Parayko in contract negotiations, the Blues essentially stood pat on July 1, and the loss of David Perron (via expansion), Patrik Berglund (shoulder surgery) and Nail Yakupov (unqualified) raises questions about their wing depth come puck-drop.
The greatest shift will be behind the bench. Mike Yeo takes over his first training camp after a bizarre transitional experiment that ended early with the mid-season dismissal of long-serving Ken Hitchcock. (Yeo guided the club to an impressive 22-8-2 record once he took sole control.)
Craig Berube, Steve Ott, Darryl Sydor, David Alexander, Daniel Tkaczuk, and Barret Jackman all join an overhauled coaching staff that saw five hockey men lose their jobs.
The new faces inherit an old mission: Stop being the oldest active NHL franchise to never have lifted the Stanley Cup.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
A fun game to play is, “Who will be this season’s Leon Draisaitl? Or David Pastrnak?” A young forward in his second or third season is bound to put it all together make the leap from good to great.
You could do worse than bet on Robby Fabbri.
The 21-year-old blew out his left ACL in February and was shut down after scoring 11 goals and 29 points in 51 games. Yeo plans to test Fabbri, a dangerous playmaker off the left flank, at centre. If he can stay healthy, the Mississauga, Ont., native could cruise past the 20-goal and 50-point marks and emerge as the heir apparent to Paul Stastny, who’s 31 years old entering a critical contract year and may face competition this season for the 1C spot.
Fabbri is the youngest Blue guaranteed to be on the opening-night roster. Just in case he needed extra motivation, Fabbri is entering the final year on his entry-level deal and his performance this season should directly impact his slice of St. Louis’s salary-cap pie going forward.
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
The legion of Blues aged 30 and over — Stastny, Alexander Steen, Vladimir Sobotka, Kyle Brodziak, Chris Thorburn, Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson — stiff-arm Father Time, continue contributing to a tough Central Division outfit, and allow the next wave of St. Louis hockey — Kostin, Jordan Kyrou, Tage Thompson, Jordan Schmaltz — more time to develop in the minors.
Yeo and his staff implement a quick-strike offence and generate more than 2016-17’s 28.4 shots per game (26th overall) while maintaining top-10 special teams (sans Shattenkirk) and a nasty, defence-first edge.
The club maintains pace with Nashville, Chicago and Minnesota in what should be an airtight Central race until Berglund returns in December to deliver a boost, heads into the playoffs healthy and, after years of being taken for granted, plays spoiler.
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Will the real Jake Allen please stand up?
Let’s be honest. Yeo’s new staff could implement a speedier transition game, the Blues could enjoy the fruits of three 20-goal scorers, Tarasenko could squeak into the Hart conversation, Parayko could earn every penny of his $5.5 million cap hit, but if Allen can’t stop the puck, it will all be for naught.
Allen, 27, buckled under the pressure of his first season as the undisputed No. 1 goalie in Missouri — to the point where he sat at home during a road trip to gather his composure and sought the counsel of Martin Brodeur. It would be difficult to argue that the defence in front of Allen improved in 2017, with the departure of Shattenkirk and a reliable but heavy-mileage Bouwmeester now 33 years and 1,071 NHL games old.
But the Allen we saw in the post-season (1.96 goals-against average, .935 save percentage) looked like a man reformed. If Jake the Snake refuses to shed the thick skin he sported in April, we’re not only talking playoffs but Cup contender.