Mar 12, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo (27) makes a pass against San Jose Sharks during the second period at the Scottrade Center. Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 NHL season preview: St. Louis Blues

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This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the St. Louis Blues.

What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?

As has been the case since Ken Hitchcock took over in St. Louis, the Blues were a defensive powerhouse this past season. They allowed just 2.29 goals per game, good for 3rd in the NHL. They were also 3rd in shots allowed, with an average of 26.4 per game. That defense also translated into the league’s 2nd best penalty killing unit, effectively shutting down 85.7% of the powerplays they faced.

Leading the Blues on defense was 24 year-old Alex Pietrangelo. He tied or surpassed his career-highs in assists (43), points (51), +/- (+20) and ice-time (25:22). He also finished in the top 5 in Norris Trophy voting for the second time in 3 seasons. You have to think the award for the league’s best defenseman is in his not-so-distant future.

Despite taking a lot of heat for playing below his talent-level in recent seasons, Jay Bouwmeester put together an excellent season for the Blues. His 37 points were the most he’s scored since 2008-09, and his +26 led the team and was a career-high.

Offensively, Alex Steen had a monster season. His 33 goals and 62 points were not only career-highs, but led the Blues as well despite missing 14 games. Perhaps most impressive of all was his torrid start to the season: 20 goals and 31 points in his first 25 games. If he can come even close to sustaining that over a full, healthy season, look out.

Two youngsters also made their mark this past season up front. Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, both in their second full seasons, combined for 46 goals and 99 points while playing 80 and 64 games respectively. Tarasenko also showed himself to be a big-game player with 4 goals in 6 playoff games, and at times looked unstoppable against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.

What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?

Although many thought goaltending was the least of the Blues’ worries, they still felt the need to go out and trade for Ryan Miller. For a time, it seemed like a match made in heaven, as Miller posted a 7-0-1 record in his first 8 starts with St. Louis, allowing 2 goals or less in 7 of those contests. Things quickly went south after that as he went just 5-12-0 the rest of the way, managing less than 3 goals only 3 times in that stretch. The playoffs weren’t any kinder as Miller allowed 3 goals or more in 5 of the 6 games against Chicago and finished with a .897 save percentage in the series.

Another veteran addition who was supposed to bring a little more offensive punch to the lineup was Derek Roy. His 37 points in 75 games represented his lowest point-per-game average since his rookie season in 2003-04 when he scored 19 points in 49 games with the Buffalo Sabres.

After finally finding some consistency in 2012-13, Chris Stewart once again found it difficult to find his place in Ken Hitchcock’s system last season. His ice-time ended up being over 2 minutes less per game than the season before, and that translated to just 15 goals and 26 points. Like Roy, it was his worst offensive season since he was a rookie with Colorado in 2008-09.

Also searching for consistency is Patrik Berglund. At 6’3″, 217 lbs, he has good size and the skill to both score goals and set up his teammates. Why he’s only able to produce at a rate of 32 points in 78 games with over 16 minutes of ice-time per game remains a mystery.

So what did they do to get better?

After almost betting the farm on Ryan Miller last season and having it blow up in their faces, the Blues showed a willingness to admit their mistakes and address the real need on this team, offensive skill.

The Blues play a sound defensive game and are a hard-hitting, big team. The problem was the Blackhawks gave them fits with speed and skill in the playoffs last season. Enter Paul Stastny. He’s quietly been one of the more productive centres in the NHL since coming into the league in 2006-07, amassing 458 career points in 538 games. He also has 18 points in 22 career playoff games including 10 points in 7 games with the Avalanche last season, and is coming off his highest goal output (25) since his rookie year. He’s a legitimate top offensive threat down the middle, allowing David Backes to focus more on what he does best: shutting down the other teams’ top stars.

The Blues also signed KHL star Jori Lehtera to a two-year contract. He adds very good offensive depth at centre and provides the team with solid depth in the event of injuries to Stastny, Berglund or Backes. He scored 118 points in 125 games with Novosibirsk Sibir of the KHL over the past three seasons and was originally drafted 65th overall by the Blues in 2008.

In goal, the Blues seem ok with pinning their Stanley Cup hopes on Brian Elliott and young Jake Allen. While neither has really won anything at the NHL level, they both have shown the ability to steal games and put up very good numbers behind good defenses. Elliott led the NHL with a .940 save percentage and 1.56 goals-against-average with St.Louis in 2011-12 and Allen went 33-16-3 with a .928 save percentage and 2.03 GAA last season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.

Player to watch

In last year’s playoffs, Vladimir Tarasenko showed flashes of why so many were so high on him when he left the KHL to play for the Blues.

He plays a hard game and has an absolutely deadly shot. The potential and the drive is there for him to become one of the premier goal scorers in the NHL sooner rather than later.

I don’t think 35 goals and 65 points is a stretch for the upcoming season, and look for next year’s playoffs to be his coming out party.

St. Louis will once again be a serious contender.

They will make the playoffs if…

The “post-Miller-trade St. Louis Blues” were simply an aberration and they regain the form that made them a Stanley Cup favorite going into last season.

They will miss the playoffs if…

This is too well-rounded a team to miss the playoffs, even if the goaltending is simply average.

What should we expect this season?

The Blues were the sexy pick to win it all last season until they blew a 2-0 series lead against Chicago in round 1.

This season, they have more firepower up front, their defense is arguably just as good as it’s ever been and the goaltending can’t be worse than what it was towards the end of last season.

There’s also the matter of several young players (hopefully) taking steps forward, including Schwartz, Tarasenko, Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk. Also look for Dmitrij Jaskin to surprise some people should he make the team out of training camp.

St. Louis will once again be a serious contender.

Prediction

47-22-13 107 points, 2nd in the Central Division, 3rd in the Western Conference

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