This 2013-14 NHL season preview features the St. Louis Blues.
Ever since Ken Hitchcock took over as head coach, the Blues have compiled a ridiculous 72-32-13 record. That’s a .671 winning percentage, which equates to 55 wins in the regular season. Quite impressive.
The reasons they haven’t been able to parlay that into Stanley Cup contention can pretty much be summed up by the kind of season they had in 2013.
As with any Hitchcock coached team, the Blues have been rock solid defensively.
As with the season before however, they lacked the ability to score the big goal and neither of their goaltenders were able to stay healthy long enough to secure the #1 job.
They’re a hard-hitting, excellent defensive team with good depth, but when it came time for someone to step up and score the big goal, the reality is the Kings had those players and the Blues didn’t. That was the difference in their first round playoff meeting.
What went right in 2012-13
As inconsistent as he’s been throughout his career so far, the Blues saw a completely different Chris Stewart this season from the first day at training camp. He showed up leaner, stronger and faster than he’s ever been and that translated into team highs in goals with 18 and points with 36. He also scored on 18.6% of his shots. What makes his season all the more impressive is his limited ice time: just 15:49 per game.
When the season started, the NHL got their first taste of the talents of Russian rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, as he undressed a Red Wings defenseman and goaltender Jimmy Howard on a great individual effort to score his second goal in his first NHL game. With 9 points in his first 7 games, he was well on his way to contending for, and possibly winning, the Calder trophy before a concussion caused him to miss 10 games and all but ruined what could have been a special debut.
Another player the Blues have been waiting a long time for is Patrik Berglund. Yes, he just finished his 5th season with the club, but the expectations based on his skill level and size have not come close to be met. This past season we saw a Berglund that was more focused and brought a more consistent effort night in and night out. The result was finishing second to Stewart with 17 goals. He led the team with an outstanding shooting percentage of 23%. The big Swede is still just scratching the surface.
As you would expect, the Blues’ defensive zone was an absolute fortress, allowing the second fewest shots per game at 24.2.
What went wrong in 2012-13
Outside of Stewart and Berglund, the Blues didn’t have much punch on the attack. Only one other player scored in double digits, the now departed David Perron who had 10 goals.
After being among the league leaders in virtually every category and an all-star the season before, goaltender Brian Elliott struggled to find that same level of play all season despite facing 24 shots per game. He posted a very mediocre .907 save percentage in 24 games, some 40 points lower than his percentage the year before.
The Blues’ other netminder Jaroslav Halak didn’t fare much better. He battled injuries for long stretches once again and finished with the worst save percentage of his career at .899 despite facing even fewer shots than Elliott at 21 shots per 60 minutes played. The talent is certainly there for Halak to be a top goaltender, but durability has become an issue.
So what did they do to get better?
The Blues signed center Derek Roy to try and bring some speed, playmaking ability and creativity to their top 6. He’s likely a one-season acquisition as the Blues try and go all-in while still having some of their young talent on cap-friendly, entry-level contracts.
They also acquired some bite in bottom 6 in signing Maxim Lapierre. He’ll be able to get under opponents’ skin as well as provide some good depth at center.
Finally, they sent David Perron to Edmonton, acquiring the young Magnus Paajarvi. Paajarvi has very good two-way upside and simply couldn’t find a niche in a crowded Edmonton lineup. His style will fit right in with Hitchcock’s system and he’ll provide some good speed on the wings.
Player to watch
St. Louis has built a solid team in the few seasons by assembling players who are gritty and defensively sound. What they’ve always lacked however is game-breaking offensive skill. Enter Vladimir Taranseko. Don’t let last season’s modest stat line fool you. Tarasenko has elite skill and is older and more experienced than most rookies who come into the NHL out of junior. He’s got 45-goal, 90-point potential and will get every opportunity to develop into the go-to shooter for the Blues.
They will make the playoffs if…
The goaltending can have a rebound season and they continue to play “Hitchcock hockey” to perfection.
They will miss the playoffs if…
They have to turn to the talented but young Jake Allen in goal for an extended period.
If one of Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott emerges as the clear-cut starter over the course of the season, I could see the Blues trying to trade the other for help elsewhere. Both are UFAs at the end of the season. Halak has more upside, but will likely cost more to keep. Still, if one is going to go, my money’s on Elliott.
Rookie most likely to have an impact
The big rookie debuts came last season for the Blues in Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. I don’t expect any first year players to crack this season’s roster barring injury.
What should we expect this season?
The Blues will likely be the only real threat to the Blackhawks in the Central division.
They’re a very disciplined team who loves to suffocate the opposition, and they play a very hard, physical game on the forecheck which wears a lot of teams down.
They’ve improved their team speed, and are built for a long playoff run. Many people expect the Blues to “bore” their way to victories like the Devils of the 90′s, but make no mistake this team is fun to watch. They’re fast, they’re tough and with the additions of Tarasenko, Schwartz, Pietrangelo and Shattenkirk the last few seasons, they have some skill as well.
They were selected by the Hockey News to be the 2013-14 Stanley Cup Champions. Not crazy.
44-27-11, 99 points, 2nd in the Central Division, 5th in the Western Conference