The Blues start their season Wednesday night in Chicago before coming back to Scottrade Center for Thursday’s home opener against Minnesota. Once again the North American media isn’t picking the Blues to appear in the Stanley Cup Finals next spring, but if certain things happen, they could get there. The first order of business is to make the playoffs.
There are some obvious things that need to occur, like Vladimir Tarasenko being himself, Alex Pietrangelo giving thirty strong minutes per game, and Jake Allen playing as well as he has during his career. Last year, the Blues were the number two seed in the Western conference.
To be in that hunt again this season, at least six things need to happen…
1) Health for Jake Allen: Allen was the Blues number one goalie at the outset last year, starting 33 of the first 44 games before being felled by a knee injury on January 8 in Anaheim. He returned on February 22 and got lots of playing time, but then went down again in the season’s final week, leading to Brian Elliott becoming the go-to guy for the playoffs.
Allen has never been anointed as the number one goalie, but now he has the contract of a number one goalie, he has a backup in Carter Hutton, and he has the responsibility of being there for his team. In three years in the NHL, he has a 2.34 GAA and a .915 save percentage. When he’s played, he’s been good. His only drawback has been his durability.
Allen was shaken up in the Blues’ final pre-season game against Chicago on Saturday. If the Blues are to compete for a division championship this season like they did last year, Allen needs to be on the ice.
2) Health for Jaden Schwartz: Like Allen, Schwartz has been a key element of the Blues’ success the last two years. Last year when Schwartz played, the Blues were 24-9, a winning percentage of .727. When he wasn’t in the lineup, the club was 25-15-9, a winning percentage of .602. In 2014-2015, the Blues were 51-24-7. When Schwartz played, they were 50-19-6, a winning percentage of .707. When he didn’t, the team was 1-5-1, a .214 winning percentage. He has a remarkable impact on the team, and his presence is a necessity. When he returns from an elbow injury in about the third week of the season, Schwartz needs to avoid more injuries and be a mainstay at left wing.
3) Advancement for Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson: The Blues’ veteran defensemen…Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Carl Gunnarson…are all in their prime and are what they are going to be. All have skills that can benefit a championship team. But obviously the Blues weren’t good enough to win last year, and improvement from Parayko and Gunnarson will lead to improvement for the team. Parayko has the skill set to be a star. He’s huge, he’s fast, he has a howitzer shot and he’s smart.
Parayko was outstanding for Team North America in the recent World Championships, cementing the idea that he can play against the best competition at the most important times. Last year he led the Blues by a wide margin with a plus/minus number of plus-28. If Parayko takes the next logical step, to Norris Trophy candidate, the Blues will improve. Edmundson improved steadily during the season last year. He’s more of a defensive defenseman than Parayko, but he does occasionally pose a threat in the offensive zone. Edmundson is fundamentally sound and is always in good position. If he ascends this year like he did last year, the Blues will have the deepest defense corps in the league.
4) Consistent effort from Patrik Berglund and David Perron: Berglund was terrific after he came back from shoulder surgery after missing half of last season. He had ten goals and five assists in 42 regular season games, then added 4-5-9 in 20 playoff games. He was big in front of the net, and turned in his usual strong defensive performance. He was a plus-1 in the regular season and then a plus-4 in the post-season. With the departure of David Backes and Troy Brouwer, Berglund is, after Vladimir Tarasenko and with Dmitrij Jaskin, one of the heaviest Blues top-nine forwards at 217 pounds. Consistency from him would benefit the club considerably.
Perron has had an incredibly inconsistent career. He’s been a streaky scorer and his approach was reasonably questioned during his first Blues stint. Ken Hitchcock and Doug Armstrong believe he has matured, and if he can harness his talent at the age of 28 the club will realize a necessary benefit.
5) Harmony for Head Coach Ken Hitchcock and Coach-in-waiting Mike Yeo: This one is pretty self-evident. Hitchcock needs to have the ear of his team. If the message isn’t the same from both coaches and some players veer off and start hearing a differing one, that will be a problem. Sometimes players will naturally gravitate to an assistant’s beliefs when there’s a lame duck head coach.
Hitch and Yeo need to be consistent in the message to the team, and Yeo needs to be consistent in telling players he works for Hitchcock. Through training camp this hasn’t been a problem, but if there is one, it would be devastating.
6) A surprise: Again, with the loss of the 221 pound Backes and the 213 pound Brouwer, the Blues lost a lot of their “heavy.” Having the 217 pound Jaskin develop would be huge. When he was signed, Hitchcock compared him to Marian Hossa. It doesn’t look like he’s going to be Hossa, but Jaskin did score three goals in five pre-season games this year. If given a regular top-nine role, he could become a twenty goal scorer with size.
Another possibility, of course, it Nail Yakupov. The 2012 first overall pick in the draft was acquired from Edmonton on Friday night. He certainly has the skill to be great, but his production hasn’t matched the skill-set yet. The Blues don’t have definite replacements for Backes and Brouwer, so a surprise is almost a necessity. Other names that could come through on this list are Ty Rattie and long-shot Magnus Paajarvi.
Of course, like every year, the Blues need to maintain a level of health. But everything else being equal, if they can get these six items checked, they’ll be in the hunt for the Central Division again this season.