Tuesday October 11th, 2011

The promising young Blues have been a vexing club for years and coach Davis Payne could pay for it. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

By Stu Hackel

It's commonly accepted that the draft is the best way to start building a hockey club that will be good for a while. If you develop a core group of talented youngsters together, they can form the bonds and chemistry that make them want to play for each other. Maybe you augment that core with some veterans to help guide the kids and things will take off from there. It also helps if your team has floundered for a while so you can collect lots of draft picks.

That's the theory, anyway.

In the recent times, especially since the lockout,  the theory has worked for the Penguins and Blackhawks, who both won the Stanley Cup. They're hardly alone in trying it. The Capitals, Islanders, Oilers, Senators, Rangers and Avalanche have also taken the draft route with varying degrees of success of late and are at different stages of progress.

Right in that group are the St. Louis Blues.

They've earned plaudits all around for collecting young talent while preaching patience as the players grew. They've also made as many missteps as steps forward, and after ending a post-lockout playoff drought in 2010, they were considered ready to take a big leap forward last season. But the plagues of injuries and inconsistency rendered them unable to sneak into the Western Conference top eight.

So now the Blues are in reset mode with promise anew. Some bold trades late last season added new ingredients and they made a few more tweaks over the summer. In his season preview, my colleague Adrian Dater included all the needed caveats while proclaiming "There's no shortage of optimism that THIS could be the year the famed Note gets its act together." Dater also points out that coach Payne Davis could likely take the fall if this team underperforms again.

The Blues' new act looked much like the old one in its season-opening loss at home to Nashville. With the exception of T.J. Oshie, the undersized dynamo who always seemed to be on the puck, St. Louis looked sluggish. The Predators can do that to most teams, of course.

But when St. Louis continued to look disorganized in the first period against Calgary on Monday afternoon, one could, through the TV screen, sense the nervousness pervading Scottrade Center. The Blues squandered an early power play. Their defensemen backed in too deep. The gap between their forwards and their d-men was too large. The Flames had all sorts of room to work through the neutral zone and take the play to the doorstep of goalie Jaroslav Halak. The Blues had trouble staying onside. At one point, they had two defensemen trapped behind Calgary's net, and they looked as out of sync as they did often last season. A step behind. Just not crisp enough.

A ricochet off the stick of Andy McDonald went through his own netminder's legs in the first period and St. Louis trailed before the stanza was half over. But the Flames were less than perfect as well and the Blues were able to convert an odd man rush into the tying goal when Alexander Steen potted the rebound of a hard Jason Arnott shot (video).

Arnott was one of the team's summer tweaks along with Jamie Langenbrunner, a pair of Stanley Cup veterans who GM Doug Armstrong knew from his years in Dallas and figured might be the stabilizing element that his young club needs to avoid the ups and downs that have characterized its last few seasons. "We needed some people in the mix who could help us achieve a much better balance," Armstrong said. Some of that balance was meant for the dressing room and observers noted that the Blues' collective mood was pretty even keel following their disappointing opening night loss to Nashville, perhaps a change from the past.

Early in the second period against Calgary, it was Langenbrunner's turn to set up a goal. After getting the puck smartly from McDonald, he circled a checker and moved toward the net, then -- rather than shoot -- made a marvelous pass against the grain through traffic back to the point to Kevin Shattenkirk, who was all alone at the right point.

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He ripped a shot past Calgary goalie Henrik Karlsson to give St. Louis the lead.  "'Langs' made a great, great pass there," Shattenkirk said (quoted by Jeremy Rutherford in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch). "I gave him a shout, (but) it's obviously a high-risk pass, so you don't know if it's coming. But he made a great play and I was fortunate to find the back of the net."

And with that, the Blues seemed to find their mojo. With just over seven minutes to play in the second period, the Blues took control with a dominant shift by the McDonald-David Backes-Chris Stewart line, holding the puck inside the Flames zone for a minute and a half, throwing it around and making Calgary look like an overmatched beer league team that was eventually forced into an icing call. Had it not been for a couple of excellent saves by Karlsson (like this one), it would have been 3-1.

It became 3-1 shortly anyway, when Alex Pietrangelo fired another dart from the blue line. Stewart -- acquired last February with Shattenkirk  in a trade with Colorado -- provided an effective screen to give St. Louis a two-goal lead (video). St. Louis did not fold when Jarome Iginla, who looked rusty most of the game after having missed most of training camp with back woes, knocked a power play goal past Halak. In fact, that was pretty much Calgary's last bright moment.

The Blues' backcheck clogged up the defensive zone expertly, limiting the Flames to just two shots in the third period, as many as St. Louis had goals. Stewart answered Iginla's tally early in the third period, scoring off the rush and showing his exceptional hands on the finish (video), and Arnott closed out the scoring with his second of the season, coming off the bench on a change to fire a wrister from the slot off a pass from McDonald, whose great forecheck forced a turnover deep in the Flames end (video).

It's notable that the game's stars were a mostly mix of the Blues' own draftees, some that were selected by the Avs and snagged in trades by Armstrong, and the two veteran UFAs, Arnott and Langenbrunner, who were signed over the summer. That's the formula. It's also worth pointing out that the young blueliners Shattenkirk and Pietrangelo --  who were both elite players as juniors and on their respective countries' World Junior Championship teams and top scorers among rookie defensemen last season -- each tallied their first of the season.

"Our job is to be an offensive threat on the back end," said the 22-year-old Shattenkirk (quoted by Norm Sanders in The Belleville News-Democrat). "We both really stepped up today and made ourselves available to get out there and get open for good plays."

"We've got our forwards working their tails off coming back into their own end," added Pietrangelo, who is a year younger. "We're trying to block as many shots as possible."

Yes, it was only one game, but it was a game they needed to win. The Blues now embark on a four-game road trip down to Dallas, then out west to skate against the Ducks, Kings and Sharks. It's sure better to hit the road coming off that win than to be 0-2. But even if they had gone 2-0, Blues fans won't forget that the team got off to a strong start last season only to stall in November.

Still, it was an encouraging Monday afternoon in St. Louis for a team that wants to make good on its promise.

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