After three straight first round exits, the highly skilled St. Louis Blues have added a dash of grit in their quest to get over the postseason hump.
COACH: Ken Hitchcock
2014-15 RECORD: 51-24-7, 109 points (first in Central, lost to Wild, 4-2, in first round)
VITAL SIGNS: 2.91 goals-for per game(5th); 2.40 goals-against per game (26th); 22.3 power play pct. (4th); 83.7 penalty kill pct. (7th); PDO: 100.6 (9th); Corsi For pct.: 51.8 (11th); Fenwick For pct.: 53.1 (5th); face-off pct.: 53.4 (2nd)
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART:
Alex Steen – David Backes – Vladimir Tarasenko
Jaden Schwartz – Paul Stastny – Troy Brouwer
Dmitrij Jaskin – Jori Lehtera – Patrik Berglund
Steve Ott – Kyle Brodziak – Ryan Reaves
Alex Pietrangelo – Kevin Shattenkirk
Jay Bouwmeester – Carl Gunarsson
Robert Bortuzzo – Petteri Lindbohm
OUTLOOK:Could this be the year the Blues finally get over that big playoff hump that has been making them look like the Central Division’s version of the San Jose Sharks? One of the NHL’s top teams since 2011, the franchise has struggled in the postseason, getting ousted in the first round in three consecutive seasons. Unhappy with the continual pratfalls, GM Doug Armstrong decided against a total overhaul and instead sent a message with a single loud change: shipping forward T.J. Oshie to Washington for gritty, versatile winger and former Stanley Cup champion Troy Brouwer.
The message is clear: Put the puck in the net however possible. Brouwer, who’s notched 46 goals over the past few seasons, is a big (6' 3", 215 pounds) net-front presence willing to follow the puck and cash in on rebounds, a part of the game that the Blues lacked in the playoffs. He and hardworking free-agent forward Kyle Brodziak will complement a highly-skilled offense that includes 30-goal scorers Alex Steen and rising star Vladimir Tarasenko—a dark horse to hit the 50-goal mark this season—and a burgeoning offensive force in Jaden Schwartz. The trick will be keeping the team's formidable firepower from doing its annual spring fizzle. (In their last 18 postseason outings across three six-game exits the Blues have averaged 2.1 goals per game, been held to one goal in four of them and been shut out three times.) To turn up the juice next spring, coach Ken Hitchcock vows his team will ditch its safe approach and play fast and “reckless.”
St. Louis will continue to boast one of the NHL’s best back ends, led by the young established duo of Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, along with minute-eating blueliner Jay Bouwmeester. They’ll keep the crease clear, though the biggest question will be, for who? Brian Elliott was an All-Star in 2014-15, but he lost his starting role to up-and-coming Jake Allen late in the season and in the postseason. Both are capable of playing No. 1 minutes and they allow Hitchcock to ride the hot hand—good news for a team that will be right in the mix for the top seed in the West. But as always, postseason success is the bottom line and Hitchcock, who signed a one-year extension, and captain David Backes will be under pressure to make sure it happens.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Jaden Schwartz
At 23-years-old and entering his fourth NHL season, Schwartz has become a scoring threat on every shift. A 2010 first-round pick, the winger’s offensive stats have climbed every season, and his speed and hockey sense mean he’ll log plenty of minutes. A career 14.5% shooter, he’ll make sure teams can’t zero in on Tarasenko and he should easily crack the 30-goal plateau for the first time.
PREDICTION: 107 points, first in Central