Over the span of six weeks, we’ll be taking a quick look at each of the 30 NHL clubs — examining their major storylines, pivotal players and the most important questions they need to answer heading into the 2016-17 season.
By the time we’ve hit every team, it will be mid-September. And that, of course, means it will be time for training camps to open. Perfect timing, really.
Today, it’s the St. Louis Blues…
For all the regular season success the St. Louis Blues have had recently, they’d won just one playoff series since 2002, prior to last year. And they had only advanced past the second round twice since 1970.
That changed last season, as Brian Elliott backstopped the Blues on a run through the Blackhawks and Stars, before they fell to the Sharks in the Western Conference Finals. After such an impressive push, Ken Hitchcock was brought back for one final year — but he’ll be working with a slightly different roster this time around.
Elliott is gone now, dealt to the Flames for draft picks. Meanwhile, longtime captain David Backes signed with the Bruins and playoff hero Troy Brouwer is joining Elliott in Calgary.
Is this the playoff team that takes a step back in the West?
It’s not that St. Louis is going to be bad. Not at all. Few clubs can take the roster hits the Blues did, yet still boast a lineup featuring Vladimir Tarasenko, Alexander Steen and a borderline elite blue line. Plus they’re able to plug Jake Allen in between the pipes. For all intents and purposes, he was the heir apparent in goal behind Elliot all along anyway. Now it’s just time for him to step into the role full time.
That said, if you’re looking for one of the eight playoff clubs from 2016 that already has some obstacles to overcome in 2017, well, this might be your team. Again, it’s not so much a knock on Hitchcock’s group, as it is a reminder that Chicago, Nashville, San Jose, Minnesota, Dallas, Los Angeles and Anaheim all either stayed about the same or got better.
A case could be made that the Kings probably lost more than they gained as well, but they also have the advantage of playing in the Pacific, as opposed to the Central — where every mistake is amplified exponentially. And those two Stanley Cup rings they’ve already earned this decade still give them the benefit of the doubt for at least a little while longer.
In the end, St. Louis should be a playoff team, and that’s all that matters for now. But it will be interesting to see how these guys evolve over the next 82 games — both for the purposes of how they look heading into April, and for how smoothly they transition from Hitchcock to eventual successor Mike Yeo behind the bench.
NOTABLE SUMMER LOSS
David Backes (to BOS)
He’s been the captain since 2011, while also leading the Blues in points and hits in that time. So yeah, they’re going to miss Backes.
At 32 years of age, he should still have some good hockey left in him as well, and his leadership — both for St. Louis and Team USA over the years — is an asset that will be missed. But considering the potential cap issues GM Doug Armstrong and the front office could be facing here shortly, there was just no way to match the five-year, $30 million deal Boston threw at him.
Ivan Barbashev (drafted: No. 33 overall in 2014)
There was a stretch there where the Blues shed any fears that taking a high-end prospect from Russia meant potentially losing him to the KHL. So, while other clubs were still wrestling with that possibility, St. Louis was able to snag some top tier talent later than normal in the draft.
Tarasenko, of course, is the most obvious example of this. And, while nobody is expecting Barbashev to be nearly as dynamic as Tarasenko, the former second rounder is very talented, with the ability to make impressive plays from the wing. And considering the pieces the Blues lost this summer, the possibility of Barbashev stepping in and contributing right away would be huge.
BIGGEST CAP HIT
Vladimir Tarasenko ($7.5 million)
Last year, Tarasenko was one of four NHL players to break the 40-goal barrier. The year before, he finished fifth overall with 37 tallies. Oh, and he already has 19 career playoff goals over 33 games.
Take all that, then factor in that he won’t even be 25 years old until midway through the upcoming season. And now you see why he’s the highest paid player on the team.
2017 UFA TO KEEP AN EYE ON
There’s nothing wrong with Kevin Shattenkirk’s game, yet he’s been the talk of persistent trade rumors since as far back as last season’s deadline. Why? Because St. Louis is relatively loaded along the back end, and guys like Steen, Patrik Berglund and Colton Parayko are going to need new deals next summer.
So, rather than risk losing Shattenkirk for nothing in a year, the Blues would probably prefer to get something for him now. Considering he’s a gifted, right-handed, puck-moving defender who provides offense, they should be able to get a pretty decent return too. But then that’s another significant loss from last year’s lineup they’d have to overcome, so they’ve got a tough decision on their hands.
To be fair, Schwartz isn’t exactly a wild card. When he plays, he scores. He totaled 53 goals over the two seasons prior to the 2015-16 campaign, but then missed 49 games due to injury last year. For whatever reason though, he still sort of flies under the radar outside of St. Louis.
Which is just fine as far as the Blues are concerned, since they’ll be leaning on his production to help offset some of the numbers that Backes and Brouwer provided up front.