Columbia, MO (April 12, 2015) – What a year of Blues hockey.
After riding a roller-coaster for much of the second half of the season, the St. Louis Blues found a way to finally put their best effort forward when the calendar flipped to April. Even with star players going in and out of the lineup, the Blues won five of their six regular season games in April.
They finished the season second in the Western Conference with 109 points.
The season that started with the highly anticipated signing of St. Louisan Paul Stastny ended with him wearing an ‘A’ as an alternate captain for the very first time as a Blue in the final game of the season. Most of the preseason analysts had Stastny teaming up with Tarasenko this season, but (for the most part) this wasn’t the case.
This wasn’t needed because of Lehtera’s addition and his subsequent blossoming with Tarasenko. The ‘STL line’ was one of the league’s hottest lines the first half of the season. Tarasenko and Lehtera paired with another blossoming star, Schwartz, found instant chemistry.
The productivity of this unexpected line bumped Stastny down to center the third line where he, eventually, found great chemistry with emerging youngster Jaskin as well as Berglund. After a murky start with the Blues, Stastny excelled with the two big wingers around him. I also believe Jaskin’s progression into a prominent NHL player has been accelerated by having the opportunity to play with the talented center. Overall Berglund had a frustrating year, even for his standards. He has turned it on a little bit of late scoring four points in eight April games.
The first half of the year saw Ott, Lapierre, and Reaves line up on the fourth line. This was a formidable group composed of three guys who know the league and can throw the mitts. While they were fun to watch, apparently Hitchcock wanted some more defensive accountability. A few weeks before the trade deadline the Blues sent Lapierre to Pittsburgh for another fourth line center, Marcel Goc. The trade was glossed over by many analysts, but it provided the Blues with another skilled defensive guy who is fantastic on the penalty kill as well as the face-off circle. The defensive capabilities of Goc allowed Ott and Reaves to play a little more aggressively. In the end, bringing in a less physical center actually increased the team’s physicality.
Leading the way, per usual, was the classic threesome of Steen, Backes, and Oshie. These three captains have played a combined 1517 games wearing the Blue Note. Their chemistry is obvious. Hitch often used the trio as a fallback plan; if the team fell into hard times, the “SOB” line would be reunited for a spark.
On the blue line, Pietrangelo got off to a very slow start after a great year last year. His play slowly improved throughout the season; he is currently playing his best hockey of the year with his surgically precise hands making sharp plays. Shattenkirk had a fantastic first half and put himself firmly into the race for the Norris Trophy. Unfortunately an abdominal injury caused him to miss two months of hockey late in the year. A discussion of Blues defenseman would be incomplete without bringing up Lindbohm. The young Fin came up and played physical, solid hockey for the Blues. While he’s not the biggest guy, he was not one to be pushed around and was quick to defend his teammates. He’s the type of guy who’s hard to not like. Bouwmeester also had an eventful year as his ironman streak came to an end after playing 737 consecutive games. He struggled after returning from the injury as he simply had no previous experience with the process of coming back. However, by the end of the season he has gotten his play back to where it normally is. Gunnarsson also had an up and down season. The new Blue seemed to have the most success with Pietrangelo. Jackman had yet another rock solid year. Butler served admirably as a 7th defenseman, but struggled if given the sixth spot comfortably. Cole was great at pushing Butler and viceversa, but neither took command of the sixth spot.
This leads us to the trade deadline. Cole was sent to Pittsburgh so that the Blues could regain some ‘snarl’ and edge that was lost when Polak was sent to Toronto for Gunnarsson. Bortuzzo was the guy who could do this for the Blues; the trade was truly good for all as Cole was finally given the opportunity to play the higher pair minutes that he wasn’t receiving in St. Louis. Bortuzzo has shined while wearing the Blue Note; he quickly adhered himself to his team through actions like dropping the gloves when Jackman took a dangerous hit behind the net. The Blues also went to Phoenix to pick up defenseman Zbynek Michalek. The Czech has been near the top of the league in shot blocking for several years. He brought yet another solid presence to the blue line and has been immensely valuable to the team. The final acquisition at the deadline was veteran Olli Jokinen in a deal that sent Lindstrom to Toronto. Ending the unsuccessful Lindstrom experiment, Army brought in a veteran who can play any forward position and even has the ability to fill in a top six forward slot if he was needed. I see this as a low risk, potentially high reward deal.
Elliott had an all around solid season. He became the franchise leader in shutouts this season with 21 as a Blue. Allen had a surprisingly good season when you look at the final numbers. The season changing moment happened when Elliott went down November 25th against the Senators. Blues fans were excited to see what Allen could do with the starting spot all his; however, he slightly faltered and the front office was concerned about the lack of an experienced NHL goalie behind him. In walks in Martin Brodeur, the NHL legend, who was looking for one last opportunity before hanging up the skates for good. He played in seven games wearing the Blue Note, starting five, and winning three. Marty provided the perfect stop-gap so that Elliott could take his time while returning to ensure he was completely healthy. Ells returned, Brodeur retired to the Blues’ front office, and Elliott took control until a few weeks ago; when he stumbled Allen jumped in and seized the opportunity leading the team to where they are today. Overall, the goaltending wasn’t anything spectacular this regular season, but it was definitely solid enough to support a good team.
Season Statistic Leaders
Goals: Tarasenko (37), Schwartz (28), Backes (26).
Assists: Pietrangelo (39), Steen (40), Oshie (36).
Points: Tarasenko (73), Schwartz (63), Steen (62).
Plus/Minus: Tarasenko (27), Shattenkirk (19), Lehtera (19).
Penalty Minutes: Reaves (116), Backes (104), Ott (86).
Games: Pietrangelo* (81), Reaves (81), Backes (80), Jackman** (80).
Time On Ice: Pietrangelo* (2058), Bouwmeester*** (1615), Backes (1491).
*Healthy Scratch the final game of the season to rest for playoffs.
**Healthy Scratched twice for playoffs.
***This total even with missing eleven games.
Ethan’s 2014-2015 Team Awards
BEST FORWARD: I’m tempted to give this award to Stastny who was largely unappreciated this season as he slowly heated up and made a difference from the third line. In the end it’s hard to give the award to anyone but Tarasenko who led the team in goals, points, and plus/minus. It was truly a break out year for the Russian. He drew attention league wide with his highlight reel goals and lightning-like shots. Most impressive to me is his plus/minus statistics; they’re quite impressive even when he has been criticized for lazy back checking. Statistics simply won’t allow me to pick anyone else for the Blues best forward in 2014-2015. It will be fun to see what’s up ahead for this star in the making.
BEST DEFENSEMAN: The blue line, and arguably the franchise, centers around the elite ability of Alex Pietrangelo; however, I can’t give this award to anybody but Kevin Shattenkirk. Shatty definitely could have won a Norris had he avoided the injury in Washington. The Blues sported the best powerplay in the league with him running it from the point, but saw it drop off a bit in his absence. The Blues did a great job at earning points without him, but it’s still clear he was the best defenseman wearing the Blue Note this season.
BEST GOALIE: It was certainly an interesting year between the pipes for the Blues. The team went from leaning on Elliott, to handing Allen the job when Ells went down, to signing a legend to fill a back up spot, to having three solid goalies to pick from, to switching starters the week before the playoffs. Who was the common theme throughout this whole equation? Jake Allen. Twenty-four year old Allen has done nothing but win in his competitive career and fans are starting to see why the front office decided to keep him around instead of Ben Bishop. Allen played in 37 games this season while earning 22 wins and posting a .913 save percentage along with a 2.28 goals allowed average and five shutouts. Looking beyond this postseason, it will be interesting to see what Allen can do if he’s finally given the starting spot for good.
SURPRISE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: I’d like to give Jaskin an honorable mention here. The kid is impressive and has great skill with his size. It’s nice that he knows how to put those aspects together. I think he can truly become something great if he learns from the work ethic and type of game that his captain plays. In the end, Petteri Lindbohm earns my award for surprise of the year. I lobbied for him to get more playing time from the beginning of the season in an attempt to give the defense the edge that they would eventually gain with Bortuzzo’s acquisition. When defensemen went down and Butler/Cole faltered, Lindbohm was called up and quickly earned respect and admiration from his teammates and coaches. For the most part he stayed in the lineup until the usual starters returned and it simply didn’t make sense to leave him up. Look for this guy to get lots of playing time next season and maybe even become a mainstay on the blue line of the future. We knew he would be a solid guy this season, but we didn’t know he would demand as much time as he did.
BEST ACQUISITION: I believe Army did a fantastic job at filling holes with productive players without paying too high of a price. Goc cemented the defensive side of the team’s game, Bortuzzo brought back a big body to the blue line, and Jokinen is a great piece in case of emergency. In the end, I believe Zbynek Michalek was the best acquisition. The shot-blocking machine stepped up the moment he arrived and was healthy again. When the team was still trying to find itself, he was taking responsibility and speaking up for his new team. On and off the ice, Michalek has fit in perfectly in St. Louis. In his fourteen games wearing the Blue Note, Michalek scored as many goals (2) as he did in his 53 games in Arizona this season. More importantly, the defenseman was a +3 in those games and opponents did NOT score a powerplay goal while he was on the ice. He also blocked 26 shots and registered 11 hits. He was a machine and should be valuable throughout the playoffs.
MOST MEMORABLE MOMENT: It was an exciting year filled with seven hat tricks and many highlight reel goals. Two “most memorable” moments come to mind. The first is the improbable comeback the Blues mounted against the New York Islanders in New York on December 6th. Down 3-0 after the first period, the Blues came out of the locker room and put up three consecutive goals of their own to tie it 3-3. Islanders star John Tavares made it 4-3 Islanders at the end of the second period. Instead of allowing the late goal to be a backbreaker, the Blues came out in the third and scored three more unanswered goals to beat the Islanders, and former-Blues goalie Halak, 6-4. Brodeur earned the win after coming in for Allen in the second period and stopping 14 of 15 shots the rest of the game. Speaking of the future Hall of Famer, the second most memorable moment was thanks to him. On December 29th, Marty stopped all 16 shots he faced when the Blues played the division rival Avalanche in St. Louis. The entire team played a fantastic game, but Brodeur was clutch when tested. I was lucky enough to attend the game and I’ll never forget the chills I felt when the crowd chanted “Marty Marty Marty” as the living legend earned his 125th, and final, shutout in the National Hockey League.
TEAM MVP: Backes had another solid year. Steen and Tarasenko were both fantastic with Tarasenko besting his season best (36 G) and Steen putting up 62 points. Lehtera also had a great first season as a Blue, scoring 42 points. However, none of these guys that get all the headlines will receive my MVP award. Jaden Schwartz was the Most Valuable Player for the St. Louis Blues in 2014-2015. Among all the stats I could point out, I think this one says the most: the Blues were 50-19-6 with Jaden Schwartz in the lineup. In the seven games he missed the Blues went 1-5-1. While everyone was busy watching Tarasenko’s highlight goals and his growing goal total, Schwartz was blossoming into nothing short of an upcoming elite player. Schwartz was second to only Tarasenko in points with 63. He only had 16 penalty minutes along with two hat tricks. His first was in Arizona in October and the second came late in the season in Dallas. He also put up some highlight goals of his own, including four game winners. The guy plays on the penalty kill and recently even started seeing some time on the point in the powerplay. The Blues are simply a different team without the little guy in the lineup.
Can these playoffs be different?
Simply? Yes. All year long we’ve discussed the Blues’ new found team depth. As Jackman said in a recent interview, past teams had a solid starting lineup with 18 great skaters, but this edition of the St. Louis Blues has nearly 25 guys that can be counted on in any game. Porter can fill in to give a physical, high energy spark; Jokinen can play any forward position from the top line to the bottom; Bortuzzo and Gunnarsson are both outstanding NHL defensemen who, it appears, may have to share starts in the playoffs; Lindbohm can always be called up for added defensive depth; Butler has played over 30 games this season and can be plugged in; I could continue, but you get the idea. Depth will be a key reason if the Blues go deeper this season.
The next reason is the way that the Blues have come into the playoffs. Last year the team was on the gas pedal all season long, pushing and pushing for the Presidents Trophy and home ice throughout the playoffs. By time April arrived the team was out of gas and they crawled into the postseason. This year is different. After ups and downs the second half of the season, the Blues put it together at the end of March and started playing their best hockey of the year. Outstanding efforts the last two weeks of the season led the Blues to winning five of their last six and clinching the titan that is the Central Division.
The next reason is the budding of Jake Allen. Elliott is a solid NHL goalie who has earned the time he has gotten in the league; however, he’s proven to be more of a game-manager than a game-stealer. We also saw him falter in past playoff situations. With the apparent nomination of Allen as playoff starter, the Blues finally have a guy who can steal a game. He was fantastic in both games against Chicago the final week of the season. The only question is if his lack of experience will hurt him in the playoffs. When critics bring this up I always think of Cam Ward and his fantastic goaltending that led the Carolina Hurricanes to winning the Stanley Cup in 2006. Like Allen, Ward was a rookie goalie with no playoff experience coming in (Allen technically has one minute of ice time in his playoff career). In his Conn Smythe winning effort, Ward won 15 of the Hurricanes’ 16 playoff wins while posting a .920 save percentage, a goals allowed average just over 2, along with two shutouts. Some may credit the Canes defense for these accomplishments, but the Blues are just as defensively capable as anyone.
Finally, the Blues can make this postseason different because of their new-found offensive skill. The Steen – Backes – Oshie line is no longer being leaned on to score a majority of the team’s goals. Each line has their own special ability to score. Especially valuable will be Tarasenko’s quick-strike ability, something the Blues have really lacked past years. I think this is special because the Blues can grind games out until their opponents are exhausted, play a fast paced skilled game with the STL line, or even play a more relaxed, possession game. All of these different possible playing styles will make it difficult for opponents to lineup against the Blues.
What needs to happen? Obviously the Blues need to make sure they put forth full effort and force other teams to play their style of game (whatever that is that evening). Obviously health and goaltending is always a crucial factor. In the end, the Blues are going to have to shake off the ghosts of the past and remember all the new weapons they have this season.
I don’t like to make predictions; I’m too superstitious and anything can happen this time of year. The only prediction I will make is that a summer coaching change is a definite possibility. I would guess Hitchcock is let go if the Blues are eliminated in the first or second round. If the Blues do in fact make the Finals, win or lose I think Hitchcock will retire. There has been much discussion lately of his future plans and the questions that go along with them. My point is, the Blues need to keep their eyes on any first-class head coaches that become free agents this year. Dan Bylsma is already free and could be an option. Other rumors around the league say Babcock’s time may be coming to an end in Detroit. His agreement to a job in St. Louis may be a stretch, but it must be kept in mind. A shocking coaching change may be brewing in L.A. where reports have surfaced about the team’s relationship with Darryl Sutter. I would hope Armstrong and Stillman are keeping their eyes on these events as it’s clear Hitchcock may not have too many years left in him. With all of the team’s core, except possibly Tarasenko (UFA), returning next season, you would think the Blues’ head coaching job would be a well sought after one.
It’s that time of year. Anything can happen. Never forget that no matter how good or bad things look. I truly believe the Blues have their best chance at finally parading down Market Street with Lord Stanley’s Cup. I can only dream of the day. Let’s make it happen. LET’S GO BLUES!
Want to read my past updates for the 2014-2015 season?
Early season reactions: https://maymaysmind.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/st-louis-blues-early-season-reactions/
Trade Deadline update: https://maymaysmind.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/blues-season-check-in-are-trade-winds-blowing/
Mid-Season Check-Up: https://maymaysmind.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/blues-mid-season-check-up/
Thanks to hockey-reference and ESPN for the statistics.