I do my best to write in-depth articles at pivotal points in the seasons of my favorite sports teams. Season previews, mid-season reviews and the occasional rage-venting rant are my specialty. However, with an even busier week than normal, I was concerned I wasn’t going to be able to put something together previewing the Blues’ playoff run. Then I received an email this afternoon. One of my journalism professors, who happens to like a certain hockey team that wears red, asked his class to write a blog about whatever we would like.
I think I can handle that.
The 2015-2016 St. Louis Blues earned 107 points, third most in the entire NHL and good for second place in the ultra-competitive Central Division. These points didn’t come without challenges. The Blues didn’t have their entire team healthy enough to even practice together until April 12, 2016. Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs should be the first time the Blues have a fully-healthy roster available to play the game.
Since the first puck dropped on October 8, 2015, the Blues went 187 days without having the entire team healthy. The team wasn’t even completely healthy on opening night as Patrik Berglund was still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. Not only did the Blues deal with a large quantity of injuries, but the injuries took valuable players off the ice.
The calculations by ManGamesLost.com say the Blues are the league’s fourth most injured team when quality of the injured player is put into the equation. The three teams above them did not qualify for the playoffs. Here are just some of the injuries the team dealt with this year:
- Steve Ott – 59 games missed to injury
- Jaden Schwartz – 49 games missed
- Patrik Berglund – 40 games missed
- Paul Stastny – 18 games missed
- Alexander Steen – 14 games missed
- Kevin Shattenkirk – 10 games missed
- Jay Bouwmeester – 10 games missed
- Robby Fabbri – 10 games missed
- Alex Pietrangelo – 9 games missed
The team the Blues will play in the first round was ranked as the league’s second least injured team when quality is adjusted. Here are how many games the Blackhawks’ key players missed:
- Patrick Kane – 0 games missed to injury
- Brent Seabrook – 1 game missed
- Artemi Panarin – 2 games missed
- Jonathon Toews – 1 games missed to injury (1 missed to rest in Game 82)
- Artem Anisimov – 5 games missed
The only big-name Blackhawks to deal with significant injuries were 37-year-old Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford, who appeared to deal with a concussion near the end of the season.
Speaking of goalies, even the Blues’ goalies missed significant time. Each one went out for long stretches, leaving the other one between the pipes. They missed 30 games combined.
What does overcoming adversity to win 49 games earn the Blues? For the third time in four years, the Blues will face the defending Stanley Cup Champions in the first round.
I don’t have time to go as in-depth as I normally do in these posts, but let’s look at some bigger picture items that will be in play in this monster of a first round match-up.
The Blues have it. The Blackhawks had to go out and pay for it at the deadline.
The ‘STL line’ of Jaden Schwartz, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jori Lehtera should lead the Blues this spring. Over the past two seasons, this line has gone through stretches where it was the most dangerous in the league. Following them, the Blues have the veteran-laden, defensively-apt line of Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen and David Backes. This line will probably be put up against Chicago’s high-scoring line partly comprised of Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin. Defending these scorers will be plenty of work for this line of veterans, but they also have the ability to chip in offensively as well.
Perhaps the most intriguing line for the Blues is Robby Fabbri, Troy Brouwer and Paul Stastny. Fabbri had a terrific rookie season and Stastny has finally showed his ability to be an elite playmaker. Throw in Brouwer, a gritty veteran who knows what it takes to win in the spring, and you have a dangerous third line.
I’ve already mentioned Chicago’s dangerous scoring line as Artem Anisimov joins Kane and Panarin. It looks like Andrew Ladd, a high-price rental brought back to Chicago at the deadline, will be with Toews and Hossa on their top line.
The defending champs’ third line? That’s where things get interesting. Teuvo Teravainen, a talented 21 year old, centers Brandon Mashinter and Tomas Fleischmann. Now, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw are both talented players that could play much higher than the ‘fouth’ line that they currently seem to be penciled into; however, the combination of Brouwer, Stastny and Fabbri has proven to be a much more dangerous scoring line than Chicago’s lower combinations.
I wouldn’t say it is a huge advantage, but I’m comfortable in saying the Blues have more overall depth heading into this series. It’s almost difficult to type that after looking at the high value prospects Chicago sent away at the trade deadline to bring in guys like Fleischmann and Richard Panik.
The Blues are deep and talented. The Blackhawks have an impressive top 3, but not much below that.
At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester played together for the world’s greatest hockey team: Team Canada. The two and all of their vowels will play with each other this spring, too. Kevin Shattenkirk, likely due to be paid nearly $6 million per year when his contract expires at the end of next season, is a talented offensive weapon on the second pair. Shattenkirk would be a top pair defenseman on most teams.
This year Shattenkirk has spent quite a bit of time with a talented rookie, Joel Edmundson. When you think of this young defenseman, think about former-Blue Barret Jackman with several inches and 30 pounds of muscle added. He’s big, he’s tough and he isn’t going to back down when the game gets nasty. In fact, Edmundson seems to thrive in that atmosphere. (See highlights from the Blues’ game in Anaheim this season.) The offensively-able Shattenkirk can venture deeper into the defensive zone when he knows he has a dependable stay at home defenseman flanking him.
Filling out the defensive pair is reliable defenseman Carl Gunnarsson, who has had a strong season, and rookie sensation Colton Parayko. Standing in at 6’6″ and 266 pounds, Parayko made a name for himself at the preseason camp when he showed off his almost unfair combination of abilities. The 22 year old has a booming shot from the blue line that fits his massive frame, but he can also skate with players much smaller than him and even features the nimble hands of a goal-scorer.
Duncan Keith, a defenseman who can boast a Norris Trophy and Conn Smythe Award, will return from suspension in Game 2. It appears as though he will be paired with Brent Seabrook, a core player who has been around for Chicago’s run of success. Niklas Hjalmarsson, another experienced core player, rounds out the top 3 defensemen.
Under them? Not so good. Guys like Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival will be asked to step up. However, Chicago has survived with a top heavy defense before. Last season they rode Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and the now-departed Oduya throughout the playoffs. It was almost as if the team didn’t have a third pairing. Will they be able to do that again or will Keith and Seabrook finally break down from the heavy minutes?
The Blues have a clear advantage when it comes to defensive depth, but Coach Quenneville may play Keith and Seabrook 35 minutes per game and get away with it. Hopefully this is where the Blues’ aforementioned depth can come into play. If Keith and Seabrook are tasked with shutting down Tarasenko’s line, hopefully Fabbri’s line can burn the other Chicago defensemen.
The Blues have two guys who have each had terrific stretches this season. The Blackhawks have a proven championship-winning goaltender who is returning from injury.
I don’t see a need to go much deeper than that into this topic. Brian Elliott and Jake Allen both had strong seasons when healthy. Elliott played like a Vezina winner for parts of the season. In the other lockerroom, Corey Crawford is returning from what appeared to be a concussion, but all reports indicate he is healthy and sharp heading into the playoffs.
Personally, I’m excited to see what Elliott can do now that he is being given the opportunity. It is nice to have Allen, too, in case the season of the injury continues in St. Louis. However, it is hard to not give Chicago’s proven experience the edge in this category. Would you rather have two good goalies out to prove themselves on the big stage or one goalie who may or may not be healthy, but who has definitely succeeded when it mattered?
The kids are more than alright.
Artemi Panarin led the league in points, goals and assists among rookies. Playing with Kane will do that for you. Colton Parayko led all rookies in plus/minus (+28, 16 points higher than the next rookie). Robby Fabbri finished seventh in goals among rookies with 18. Joel Edmundson finished fourth in penalty minutes among rookies with 63.
In St. Louis, much has been made about how the rookies can help the Blues in the playoffs. I would say the Blues can’t depend on the rookies with the high pressure involved in the playoffs, but any contributions the team does receive from them will be huge. We will see whether or not they’ll be enough to put the Blues over the edge.
The Blues are often referred to as ‘the Cubs of hockey.’ Well the Cubs are World Series favorites this year. There’s no way they can break their championship drought before the Blues break theirs. This can’t happen.
There’s no reason the Blues can’t make this season different. Take a look at other American sports. The Kansas City Royals won the World Series last year. The Golden State Warriors took home the NBA Championship last year and are on the road to becoming a dynasty. The Carolina Panthers won 15 games and a trip to the Super Bowl last year. These franchises aren’t your typical perennial powerhouses. If they can do it, so can the little ole Blues.
As only a true Blues fan can say, this year can be the year.
Like Hitch said at the end of his 29 second interview today: Let’s play.