By: Ethan May
Columbia, MO (October 20, 2014) – The St. Louis Blues are five games into their 2014-2015 season. Here are my thoughts.
To properly discuss the beginning of this season we must start by discussing the off-season moves.
With yet another early exit from the playoffs, the ownership group knew they needed more to reach the next level. Their eyes immediately landed on St. Louis native Paul Statsny, a free agent after spending eight years with the Colorado Avalanche.
Paul’s Hall of Fame father, Peter, played for the Blues from 1993-1995 as his career came to an end. Yan Stastny, Paul’s brother, also played for the Blues from 2007-2010.
It only seemed right that General Manager Doug Armstrong made a move to put another talented Statsny in a Blues sweater. Paul signed a 4 year deal worth $28 million. The 28 year old will make $6.5 million in 2014-15, $7 million in each of the following two seasons, and $7.5 million in 2017-18. The deal also includes a no trade clause.
This deal is unusually large for the St. Louis Blues organization. So large, in fact, that Armstrong went to his team Captain, Backes, and the alternates, Oshie and Steen, to make sure they were okay with a new player coming in that would make more than they do after many years with the team.
Their response? “Whatever it takes to win.”
The Blues successfully landed one of the top free agents on the market and began their mission to improve their depth at center. Last season the roster was full of players who had played center early in their careers but slowly moved to the wing over time. Many of these players such as Oshie, Steen, Ott, and Berglund, are still on the roster and perfectly capable of playing in the center of the ice; however, they can be more effective at the wing and added centers make the team more versatile.
While Tom Stillman, team owner and Chairman, had to break out the pocketbook to bring Statsny to town, the Blues next step to adding depth at center was only a phone call away.
Joakim Lindstrom was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2002 and spent parts of five seasons in the NHL, where he registered 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in 97 career games with the Blue Jackets, Coyotes and Avalanche.
Lindstrom, a Swede, returned to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) where he helped his team to two consecutive championships. Continuing the search for more depth at center, Armstrong called Lindstrom about returning to play in the NHL.
The six foot tall, 30 year old was happy to come play with fellow Swede and friend Alexander Steen.
With the losses of Sobotka to the KHL (contract dispute) and Roy to free agency, the Blues still had room to improve. Steve Ott, capable of playing wing or center on any line, was resigned immediately after Sobtoka’s departure.
But the Blues weren’t done. They didn’t even have to leave the organization to make their next big move.
The St. Louis Blues selected Jori Lehtera with their third-round pick at the 2008 NHL Draft. Lehtera, a center from Finland, showed extreme talent on the ice, but was not drafted earlier as many teams feared he would not be willing to come to the NHL.
The young center played well in the KHL and refused to come to the Blues when asked before the 2013-2014 season. Everything changed when Armstrong spoke to Lehtera at a dining hall during the 2014 Winter Olympics. Lehtera, playing for Finland, admitted to the Blues GM that he had made a mistake by turning down the Blues before the season.
When the season ended for both the Blues and Lehtera he paid money out of his own pocket to leave the KHL and come sign with St. Louis. A 26 year old, play-making forward Lehtera has found immediate chemistry with budding star Vladimir Tarasenko. Lehtera’s size, 6’2″, is helpful when playing with the smaller Tarasenko.
The Blues now found themselves with three new dynamic centers to help out an already talented group. This addition of talent will make the team much more flexible as players can slide from position to position. Head Coach Ken Hitchcock also said that it will make the Blues harder to play against as each center as a different type of playing style. This will especially help David Backes who much pressure on him to preform at center ice against the opponent’s top players without much help.
With the forward depth completed, the Blues now looked at their back end. The defense.
Hitchcock emphasizes the need for a 200 foot, north to south game with effective transitions in and out of the zone. Armstrong was ready to make another move to help Hitchcock play that type of a game.
In a move that surprised many fans, Armstrong sent fan-favorite Roman Polak to Toronto in exchange for defender Carl Gunnarsson.
Gunnarsson, another Swede now wearing a Blue note, played five seasons in Toronto where he was a +15 rating with 71 points. Gunnarsson is another tall defender on the Blues blue line. Hitch expects him to be extremely helpful with the transition game as he skates and moves the puck better than Polak was able to.
Unfortunately for the Blues Gunnarsson had hip surgery in the offseason has missed the beginning of the season.
For added depth Armstrong signed another St. Louis native in Chris Butler. Butler, coming in at 6’1″ and just under 200 pounds, has spent most of his career in Calgary. Butler started the year off in Chicago after a less than spectacular training camp.
While the team made a few other moves, I have covered the important ones I wanted to point out before discussing the beginning of the season.
The Blues opened up the season at home with a tough nonconference game against the New York Rangers. It was a tight affair but New York came out on top after an odd bounce late in the third period.
Calgary came in town for the next game and the Blues handled them pretty easily at home. Elliot only gave up one goal.
The NHL and its less than great scheduling came into play next as the Blues had a five day break before starting their first road trip of the season. Hitchcock took the team to southern California where they went to a vacation spot for some team bonding and a few practices. Afterwards the Blues were in for a tough stretch as they had to play in L.A., Arizona, and Anaheim in only four days.
Jonathon Quick stole the first game of the trip as the Blues threw 43 shots at him and lost in a shootout. Even though the team only earned one point, Elliot did receive credit for a shutout as he passed Glen Hall and moved into second place for all time shutouts in Blues Franchise History. His 17 only trails Jaroslav Halak’s mark of 20.
The Blues then traveled to Arizona where they dismantled the Coyotes 6-1. Jake Allen earned his first start of the season and nearly got the shutout.
The team then had to travel BACK to California where they were set to play a red hot Anaheim Ducks team. You could tell the Blues had played the night before as they put forth a very weak effort. They were shut out for the second time in their first five games.
What have we learned these first five games??
This team can definitely score. It has been a very long time since the Blues have had a team that was dangerous offensively. Recent Blues teams have been great defensively without the ability to consistently score enough to be dangerous in the post season. This team could be different.
I think the difference centers around the three new talented centers that we have discussed so much. Statsny, Lindstrom, and Lehtera have played well, but their addition has allowed other guys to flourish with lesser pressure.
Many years have gone by where the Steen, Backes, Oshie line was the only line that other teams would have to be concerned about. Now these core three are just the beginning as weapons have been added around them. Schwartz is turning into an all-around effective player with each game he plays. Tarasenko’s productivity will most likely improve while working with Lehtera. Statsny is also the type of guy that can improve the production of whatever player is on the ice with him.
The potential is there and it’s exciting.
However, through five games this new group has failed to find a rhythm as scoring has come and gone. The shoulder injury of Statsny sets back the offense as a whole as well. It may be optimistic, but I think it’s just a matter of time until a rhythm is found and this team becomes an offensive powerhouse each game.
Scoring potential may be coming, but how does the defense look?
I think it looks really good. Hitchcock started the season with star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo staying on the top pair; however, Hitch decided it would be a good idea to bring Ian Cole up with Petro. Cole was an early draft pick a few years ago and the organization has been waiting for him to become the effective every day player they expected him to be.
I personally think they should wait for him to preform on the third pairing before giving him an opportunity to get top pair minutes with Pietrangelo. Petro and Bouwmeester were a dominant top defensive pair last season. Why separate them?
Cole has not impressed me whatsoever through five games and I want to see the defensive pairs returned to the way they were last season. Cole does have decent size with plus strength and shooting ability, but his overall play hasn’t been there yet.
Let’s examine the lines. This is from opening night:
Berglund – Backes – Oshie
Steen – Statsny – Tarasenko
Schwartz – Lehtera – Lindstrom
Ott – Lapierre – Reaves
Cole – Pietrangelo
Bouwmeester – Shattenkirk
Leopold – Jackman
Interesting line up from Hitch. He’s not afraid to mix it up at any point and he has already used a wide variety of combinations.
I like the Blues depth. Magnus Paajarvi came into camp this year in much better shape. He will be on the bench with Chris Porter who is one of the hardest workers in the NHL. When Gunnarsson returns the Blues will presumably have veteran Jordan Leopold on the bench with Chris Butler ready in Chicago for an emergency call up.
However, this does lead me to a potential issue for this season. Hitchcock has mentioned how worried he is about the Blues being too soft on the back end with the subtraction of the rough and tumble Polak. Many fans and analysts alike, including myself, want the Blues to be harder to play against on the back end. I think this can be accomplished by bringing up someone the Blues already have in their system, Petteri Lindbohm.
Lindbohm is a big, 6’3″, physical defenseman who likes to get himself involved in the rough play. This attitude made him a team favorite early in preseason play as he would not back down during scuffles. The young defenseman was called up to debut against Anaheim in the second game of a road back to back. I was extremely impressed by his play as he was a great combination of physical and quick with a surprisingly strong shot.
I think he is exactly what the St. Louis Blues need on their defensive line this season. Match him with good ole grinder Barrett Jackman and the third defensive pairing could be something special.
Another part of this team to watch this season is the goal tending.
It is finally Brian Elliott‘s time. The Blues have overlooked him several times now as they searched for their Championship goalie. Each time Elliott took it well and now he is finally being given a shot at the number one job.
Right behind him waiting in the wings is Jake Allen. Many scouts believe Allen is a future star in the NHL and a franchise goalie for the St. Louis Blues. Allen played very well in his time in the AHL and he has earned an opportunity at a starting job.
It will be interesting to see if Elliott is able to take control of the starting spot for the entire season and, if he falters, how much of a leash the front office will give him before giving Allen the job.
What’s my favorite line combination?
Steen – Backes – Oshie
Berglund – Statsny – Lindstrom
Schwartz – Lehtera – Tarasenko
Ott – Lapierre – Reaves
Pietrangelo – Bouwmeester
Shattenkirk – Gunnarsson
Lindbohm – Jackman
Healthy Scratches: Cole, Porter, and Paajarvi.
This combination would keep the old core together at the top. It would give Statsny the opportunity to finally lead Berglund to the year we’ve been waiting for with the help of Lindstrom. It would also give the Blues the most dangerous third line in hockey. Finally, the fourth line would be one of the most chippy in the league with three guys that know how to get under opponents’ skin and throw fists if they need to.
These defensive pairings would put Petro and Bou back together. If they were good enough to play together on Team Canada I think they should stay together here. It would then match two more guys that are talented enough to play on the top line on most teams in Shatty and Gunn. Finally Lindbohm and Jackman would give the Blues something to be physical with and Lindbohm could learn from the longest tenured St. Louis athlete.
The Blues healthy scratches would be a good mix of guys as Cole could be interchanged with Leopold (one would probably have to go somewhere in a trade either way). Porter would be a hard worker to come in if there was an injury and Paajarvi is a talented kid that has potential in the long term in the event of a substantial injury to a starter.
The other thing to keep an eye on is Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie as they work their way towards the NHL. Both guys are talented forwards who will be able to help the franchise for years and years down the road.
The St. Louis Blues may not have the best start to the season, 2-2-1, but I have a feeling that this team is set up for exciting things down the road. If only the hockey Gods will give us the health and good bounces needed to survive the long season, I think we could be in for an exciting April, May, and hopefully June.
How do you feel about the Blues start to the season? What line combination would you use? Let me know!