Central Division 2014-15 Preview: St. Louis Blues
COACH: Ken Hitchcock
2013-14 RECORD: 52-23-7, 111 points (second in Central; lost to Blackhawks, 4-2, in first round)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.92 goals per game (7th); 2.29 goals-against per game (3rd); 19.8 power play pct. (7th); 85.7 penalty kill pct. (2nd); shootout record: 9-3 (3rd)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
Jaden Schwartz — David Backes — T.J. Oshie
Alexander Steen — Paul Stastny — Joakim Lindstrom
Patrik Berglund — Jori Lehtera — Vladimir Tarasenko
Steve Ott — Maxim Lapierre — Dimirtij Jaskin
OUTLOOK: Despite being regular-season studs, the Blues have continually turned into duds during the playoffs. Much of their misfortune has to do with playing in a stacked division and conference, so St. Louis tweaked its roster with that challenge in mind. Gone is goalie Ryan Miller, who didn't turn out to be the upgrade the team needed to get over the postseason hump, so long-time tandem goalie Brian Elliott becomes the No. 1 behind one of the best defenses in the NHL. The Blues also added sorely needed center depth by signing Paul Stastny—who teamed with winger T.J. Oshie on Team USA during the Sochi Olympics — and bringing their 2008 draft pick Jori Lehtera over from the KHL. Look for talented winger Vladimir Tarasenko to continue to impress, but it could take Jaden Schwartz time to round into form after missing much of camp due to contract issues. Overall the Blues are younger, craftier and more experienced. If they're motivated by, and have truly learned from, their three successive playoff disappointments, they'll be ready to compete with Chicago and Los Angeles for postseason supremacy.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Brian Elliott
For the first time in his career, Elliott gets the chance to be the undisputed No.1 for St. Louis. During the past three seasons, coach Ken Hitchcock has had the luxury of playing the hot hand with Elliott, Jaroslav Halak and/or Ryan Miller, but it's Elliott's net now—at least to start. The Blues' front-office brass is showing plenty of confidence in rookie Jake Allen, the AHL's goalie of the year last season, as the back-up, meaning they expect the youngster to push for playing time. As the incumbent, Elliott must show that he's capable of night-in, night-out consistency, or risk losing the job. If that happens, the Blues will have to assess Allen's performance and if he's ready to handle the pressure of the team's playoff expectations.
PREDICTION: 102 points; second in Central