NHL 2014-15 preview: St. Louis Blues

(Jeff Roberson/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

St. Louis is our fourth-ranked team.

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St. Louis Blues

Division: Central
2013-14 finish: 52-23-7, 111 points, 4th overall; eliminated by Blackhawks in six games in opening round
Leading scorer: Alexander Steen (62 points)
General manager: Doug Armstrong
Head coach: Ken Hitchcock
Captain: David Backes
Opening night starter: Brian Elliott
Key acquisitions: Paul Stastny, Carl Gunnarsson, Jori Lehtera, Chris Butler, Joakim Lindstrom, Nate Prosser, Peter Mueller, Kirk Muller (assistant coach), Jim Corsi (goaltending coach), Keith Tkachuk (scouting staff)
Key departures: Ryan Miller, Vladimir Sobotka, Roman Polak, Derek Roy, Brenden Morrow, Adam Cracknell, Carlo Colaiacovo

Off-season grade: B+. Mere fine-tuning, which is really all the Blues needed to accomplish this summer, simply wasn’t enough for Doug Armstrong. The best free agent on the open market—at any position—was front-line centre Paul Stastny, and the Blues locked him up for four years, making an already stellar hockey club that much better. Instead of agreeing to a new deal, RFA Vladimir Sobotka sought out a fat KHL contract. This is a huge loss for the Blues, as the Czech centre has been criminally underrated for years—despite his frequent injuries. He was the best faceoff man in the entire league last year (in terms of percentage) and great in his own zone. While Sobotka’s absence will hurt, bringing in Finnish forward Jori Lehtera should ease the pain. Lehtera, although lacking Sobotka’s defensive acumen, is a promising talent with proven chemistry alongside Vladimir Tarasenko—the two played on a line together for Novosibirsk Sibir in the KHL. St. Louis’s blue line is as good as any in hockey, but the Blues made a minor tweak, acquiring some skill in Carl Gunnarsson in exchange for size in Roman Polak. Also, adding Kirk Muller and Jim Corsi to the coaching staff should prove to be smart.

Greatest strengths: Not many teams in the league possess depth like the Blues. They already had stalwart centre David Backes leading the way, but adding Stastny allows them to deploy two legit No. 1 lines. When you can spread talent like T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Tarasenko, Alex Steen, Jaden Schwartz, Patrik Berglund and others across two or three lines, the Blues should be the envy of the league. Add the fact Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo make up the best D pairing in the league and that the entire roster has embraced Ken Hitchcock’s defensive system, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

Greatest weaknesses: Goaltending hasn’t been an issue for the Blues since 2010-11, but it’s the biggest question mark heading into the upcoming season because they simply don’t have an established starter anymore. Jaroslav Halak is gone, and even though Ryan Miller underperformed when they acquired him from the Buffalo Sabres in February, his departure to Vancouver is a big loss. Now they’ll have to rely on the tandem of Brian Elliott and Jake Allen. Elliott, 29, has averaged just 39 appearances per season over the last six years. And 24-year-old Allen has started only 13 games in his career and didn’t see any regular-season NHL action last year. Those numbers might worry Blues fans, but bringing in Jim Corsi as the new goalie coach is bound to help. Corsi was a big aide for Vezina Trophy-winning netminders Dominik Hasek and Miller in Buffalo.

Biggest storyline to watch: Is this the year the Blues put it all together? They’ve been a sneaky Stanley Cup pick the last three seasons but ended up losing to either the defending or eventual Cup champs (Kings twice, Blackhawks once). One reason they fell short against the Blackhawks was that a number of key players were dealing with injuries. However, even if they get bitten by the injury bug again, that can’t be an excuse this season. They’ve got the depth to persevere.

2014-15 prediction: Although he’ll enter the season as the backup, Jake Allen, he of just 13 career starts, will eventually leapfrog Elliott, finish the season with 20-plus wins, a save percentage north of .915 and will start Game 1 of the opening round.

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