Rebuilding on the fly is never easy, but that’s essentially what the St. Louis Blues will be looking to do during the 2016-17 NHL season. Former captain David Backes bolted for a better contract offer from the Boston Bruins, and Troy Brouwer also sought a more long-term deal and ended up in Calgary.
Those two veterans were the team’s fourth and sixth leading scorers respectively, and they both provided the sort of intangibles that have defined St. Louis hockey for the better part of the last decade. Backes was the personification of the sort of player the Blues wanted to build around — a tough, two-way forward who plays with an edge.
The NHL is a constantly shifting landscape, though, and that brand of hockey is slowly falling by the wayside. That’s why we don’t think the organization will end up missing Backes and Brouwer all that much in the long run.
The Blues are in one of — if not the — toughest division in the sport, however, and pundits such as Eric Engels of Sportsnet.ca are wondering whether or not this will be a playoff team this season.
As Engels notes in his recent column, there are numerous question marks facing the Blues moving forward. Outside of losing two key veterans, this will be head coach Ken Hitchcock’s last season behind the bench.
How will that impact things inside of the locker room? How will players respond to a bench boss who is essentially taking one last lap around the league for good measure?
Moreover, how will the loss of Kirk Muller effect overall player mood? He was the yin to Hitchcock’s yang and helped balance the room.
Then there is Jake Allen trying to run with the undisputed No. 1 goalie gig for the first time in his career, while there’s still a chance that Kevin Shattenkirk could be traded sometime this year.
Other squads in the Central are dealing with some issues as well, but none are facing quite the battle that the Blues are. The Dallas Stars improved this offseason by adding Dan Hamhuis and Jiri Hudler on great contracts. Somehow the Nashville Predators turned the declining Shea Weber into P.K. Subban. Look for the Minnesota Wild to thrive under Bruce Boudreau, while the Colorado Avalanche could surprise some people with Patrick Roy no longer around to coach them into the ground.
Oh, and then there are these guys to contend with.
The Blues had the third-best record during 2015-16 and made it to the Conference Final for the first time since 2001. They managed to slay their dragon in the Blackhawks during the playoffs, and they’ve made the postseason five consecutive times. Despite the changes going on in St. Louis and the quality of teams around them, there’s reason to believe that this team will be just fine.
They can’t rest on their laurels and count down the days until the Winnipeg Jets come to town, but the Blues will still be one of the better teams in the NHL.
Losing veteran players can be difficult, but these departures don’t lead to ruin unless there’s no one in the pipeline who is ready to contribute. Just like the ‘Hawks have managed to do time and time again, the Blues will be able to push younger players into larger roles that they are ready for.
More importantly, these are forwards who are quicker and more talented than Backes or Brouwer, which could turn out to be one of those “blessings in disguise” deals.
Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the league’s premier offensive players and could challenge for the Art Ross if he stays healthy. After stumbling down the stretch during the playoffs, it seems safe to assume that he’s fired up for 2016-17. The Blues are going through a bit of an identity shift — with Backes leaving and Hitchcock coaching with one foot out the door — but the 24-year-old will be a part of any solutions the Blues come up with.
We know what he’s going to bring to the table, but we should also see breakout performances from Robby Fabbri and an explosive season from Jaden Schwartz. Though he just signed a new deal, Schwartz has been lost in the shuffle this offseason because he only played 33 games last year, but he’s going to thrive in a top-six role for the Blues.
St. Louis also has Ty Rattie waiting in the wings, and he’s coming off of his third consecutive 40-plus point season at the AHL level. Toss in some increased responsibility for Paul Stastny, the addition of David Perron and the possible return of Vladimir Sobotka, and the Blues should be able to crack the 100-point barrier while making the playoffs once again this season.
It’s true that they are facing some questions, but the Blues have the answers needed to thrive.