If you’ve been paying attention to Gone Puck Wild lately, and shame on you if you haven’t, then you know school has begun as Wild fans brush up on their knowledge of the new teams within Minnesota’s division. This week, that new team just so happens to be the St. Louis Blues. Going through Sunday, we’ll break down the Blues’ major additions and subtractions, strengths and weaknesses, prospect pool, 2013 draft class and team outlook.
Due to the fact I’m currently in the process of moving, St. Louis Blues Week’s “Strength and Weaknesses” segment will be combined into one article today. There are flaws and strong points that can be found in every team, but the Ken Hitchcock-era “Notes” seem to almost be a well-oiled machine. “Almost” being the key word.
Not unlike Nashville, defense seems to be the biggest strength in St. Louis. Last season, it appeared the Blues were preparing for the long haul as they snatched up top-4 defenders like squirrels collecting nuts. St. Louis already had a pretty promising duo in Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Throw in Jay Bouwmeester, Jordan Leopold and long-time Blues defender Barret Jackman, and you might possibly have the best defensive corps in the league.
Speaking of “best”, when healthy, the Blues’ goaltending tandem of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot are the best in the West, if not the league. But they’re not alone. Sitting just behind them is future franchise-goalie-in-waiting Jake Allen. With Halak sitting out 32 of 48 games, Elliot and Allen carried the load. Allen, a 22-year old rookie, would notch a 9-4-0 record, 2.46 goals against average, .905 save percentage and one shutout in 15 games.
Both Halak and Elliot are in the final year of their respective deals, so it will be interesting to see which direction the franchise goes, as Allen is clearly ready for an NHL workload. If that is the case, either one could be dangled as bait for a legitimate goal scorer at the deadline.
Why a legitimate goal scorer? Because that’s something the Blues are sorely lacking. The closest thing to it would be Minneapolis, Minnesota native David Backes. St. Louis’ No. 1 center, Backes has scored 132 goals and 168 assists for 300 points and a plus-40 rating in 494 career NHL games.
In his 7-year career, the big 6’3″ 221-pound pivot has scored at least 20 goals in a season three times, and has reached the 30 goal mark twice. However, as his size might indicate, he’s not a sniper so much as a legitimate NHL power forward. The Blues need a sniper, and may be hoping the recently acquired Magnus Paajarvi can fill that role.
The likeliest candidate is Russian wunderkind Vladimir Tarasenko, a kid no NHL goalie could stop until after his first two career shots on net. Drafted 16th overall in 2010, Tarasenko burst onto the scene last season with eight goals, three on the man advantage, and 11 assists for 19 points and a plus-1 rating in 38 games. Along with fellow top prospect Jaden Schwartz, if there’s any youngster that can kick-start offensive production in the Gateway to the West, it’s Vlad. So long as it’s not against Minnesota, I can’t wait to see it happen.
So let’s recap–the defense is strong, the goaltending is great and the forward corps is currently solid, if somewhat unspectacular. While the franchise does lack in the goal scoring department, the potential is there for Paajarvi, Tarasenko and Schwartz to develop into legitimate game-changing forwards. If the defense and goaltending plays as advertised, there’s no reason why St. Louis can’t be successful in the new-look Central Division.