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2010-11 St. Louis Blues Season Preview: Growing Up Fast

Sep 20, 2010 – 12:42 PM
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Bruce Ciskie

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In the spring of 2009, the St. Louis Blues were one of the hottest teams in the NHL when they qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, only to be swept in the first round by the Vancouver Canucks.

That playoff appearance led to high expectations entering last year. They were left unfulfilled, as the Blues missed the playoffs. They finished five points out of a playoff spot in the West, only after a second-half surge that followed a coaching change. Former AHL bench boss Davis Payne took over for the fired Andy Murray, and the Blues seemed to improve under his leadership.

Now Payne is on board for a full season, and his young players will get a chance to prove they're ready for prime time.

"I think we're more relaxed with Payne," third-year forward T.J. Oshie told FanHouse. "He's a younger guy, maybe a bit of a players' coach. He lets us play our own game."

Oshie is one of the younger players the Blues are going to count on moving forward. Veteran Keith Tkachuk retired at the end of last season, while Paul Kariya wasn't re-signed and will miss the season with post-concussion symptoms.

That leaves a leadership void on the team.

"They were the guys, when things weren't going right," Oshie said. "Also when things were going well, they helped us keep an even keel. They really helped us through the ups and downs. Now our captain, Eric Brewer, and Barret Jackman, and other guys will be looked at."

Oshie shouldn't count himself out there, either. He might not have a booming voice in the room, but Oshie's play does plenty of talking.



The Blues need more of that this season out of all their players.

"We have to be strong and physical," Oshie said. "Our 12 forwards and six 'D' have to finish checks."

Oshie, David Backes, Alex Steen, and David Perron lead the charge of under-30 forwards the Blues will count on, with center Andy McDonald, 33, coming off a season in which he led the Blues in goals (24) and points (57).

"It's exciting," Oshie says. "You're given more responsibility. A lot of guys will have the chance to step up into roles. I'm up for the challenge."

On defense, the Blues have more youth. Brewer is 31 and Jackman turns 30 late in the season, but Erik Johnson is 22, Roman Polak only 24, and newcomer Alex Pietrangelo -- a highly-touted former first-round pick -- is only 20 years old.

2010-11 NHL Previews

FanHouse is getting ready to step back on the ice, previewing one team a day leading up to the season's opening night. Read them all.
It's not that much different than the way the Chicago Blackhawks built a Stanley Cup winner, something that isn't lost on Oshie, a former college teammate of Jonathan Toews' at North Dakota.

"I played in college with Jonathan, so I know what he brings to the table," Oshie said, "both as a leader and as a captain. He's a young guy who can make a difference. It shows what can happen with the right motivation."

Team president John Davidson scrapped the idea of signing veteran free agents this summer. It's not that Kariya and Tkachuk were bad signings, but neither did all that was expected of them, and all Davidson would be doing is keeping a promising young player out of his team's lineup by bringing a player in from somewhere else.

Oshie says that decision might pay off quickly. He likes the progress this group has made, and he's optimistic this could be a big year for the Blues.

"We've come a long way. The organization has made the right moves."

After winning 23 of 42 games under Payne's leadership, the Blues might indeed be ready to make a move, even in the rough-and-tumble Western Conference.

BIG MOVE IN GOAL

The one place where Davidson did initiate a change was in goal. The Blues posted a solid save percentage of .912 as a team last year, but veteran Chris Mason was allowed to leave as a free agent -- signing with Atlanta. In his place goes former Montreal netminder and cult hero Jaroslav Halak.

Halak was the man behind the No. 8 seed's run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. He had a .923 save percentage and picked up all nine of Montreal's wins in the playoffs, only to have the team decide to trade him to the Blues during the offseason.

Now, Halak gets his chance as a No. 1 goalie. No more Carey Price looking over his shoulder. Of course, he does have a solid backup in Ty Conklin, who won 10 games and posted an impressive .921 save percentage -- to go along with four shutouts -- last season in 26 appearances. Unless Halak falters badly, Conklin should get a similar number of games this year.

POWER OUTAGE

Despite having a lot of talented offensive players, the Blues ranked just 20th in the NHL in power play percentage a year ago. Their penalty kill was tops in the league, but Payne now has to get more out of the man advantage.

Steen (seven goals), Johnson, McDonald, and Patrik Berglund (six each) were the top scorers on the power play. Look for Pietrangelo to play a big role here if he makes the team. Johnson's big shot up top should open up opportunities for all the forwards down low.

With all this ability on the power play, it's hard to imagine the Blues won't get better, and at least crack the top 12 or better in the NHL. They trended upward in the second half of the season under Payne, so it's not too much to ask for them to keep moving in the right direction.

Since the Blues were so very close to being a playoff team last year, it's something that could make a huge difference in their chances of qualifying come April.
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