Today is the last day of September. The temperatures here in Northeast Missouri are dropping to the point that I've had to wear a jacket at night. The long, hot Midwestern summer appears to be coming to a merciful end.
With summer (and baseball) finally ending, it's time to shift attention to the greatest sport in the world — hockey. On Saturday, Oct. 9, the St. Louis Blues will kick off the 2010-11 season against the Philadelphia Flyers. With the game, and the season, right around the corner, everyone is doing previews. So I figured I'd jump on the bandwagon. Without wasting any more words, here is the SBNSTL St. Louis Blues preview.
The biggest (some say only) move the Blues made this offseason was the fortify the goal. The organization decided that 34-year-old Chris Mason's best days were behind him. The team tried to negotiate a new deal with Mason as a temporary move until Ben Bishop or Jake Allen showed they were ready to take over. The Blues and Mason were apart by a few hundred thousand and new Blues general manger Doug Armstrong decided to go in another directon.
Enter Jaroslav Halak.
Halak, at 25 the star of the 2010 playoffs with the Montreal Canadians, was acquired in June for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz. Halak has the potential to be the best goalie the Blues have had in 15 years. The potential—he's not there yet.
Last season, Mason wasn't the main problem for the Blues. Sure, his "one soft goal a game" hurt, but he actually put up decent numbers. His GAA was 2.53 and his save percentage was .913 — right on par with his career averages and pretty close to his 2008-09 numbers (2.41, .914), when he helped the Blues make the playoffs.
Halak will be the undisputed No.1 goalie for the first time in his career. Last year he set a career high in games played with 43. He has the talent, and, as he showed in the playoffs, the ability to be an elite goalie. The question is, can he settle in as the unquestioned man? Hockey is littered with young goalies who just flame out — Jim Carey, Jose Theodore, Brent Johnson and others had "it" and then lost "it."
Backing up Halak will be Ty Conklin. Besides being a well-dressed, well-groomed man, Conklin is the perfect NHL backup. Last season he posted a 10-10-2 record with a 2.48 GAA and a .921 save percentage. He's not flashy, he's not a starter, but he's good at his job. When Halak needs a night off, and he will, Conklin should be ready to step in and the Blues shouldn't suffer a terrible dropoff.
If either gets injured, the Blues have Big Ben Bishop in Peoria. The 6-foot-7 goalie has played very well in the preseason — one goal allowed in 120 minutes — and it looks like maybe, just maybe, he might have this whole goaltending thing figured out. As a temporary solution, the Blues could do a lot worse.
The Blues' goaltending will be better than last year, but it is troubling the Blues are putting so much pressure on Halak, a guy who has never been a starter for a full season. He could very easily crack, but he showed in the playoffs that he thrives in big situations. He should improve on his numbers with the Blues' top-ranked penalty killing and without having to split time with Carey Price. He won't be a savior and he won't be a Vezina finalist, but he should be comparable to Mason immediately, and perhaps a little better.
The Blues' defense should be a strong point. The team is going to mix veterans and youth and hopefully, hopefully, and hopefully not suffer. The talent is there; the big question is whether or not the talent develops properly.
Erik Johnson will be playing his first season after his second rookie year. His first rookie year went well, then he tore his ACL in a golf cart accident. Last season, he returned and played well. At times, like during the Olympics, he was simply dominant. This year, Johnson will be an alternate captain and should see penalty kill time to replace the departed Mike Weaver. Johnson's continuing development is crucial for the Blues this season. If he stalls out, or even regresses, the team will do the same.
The other Eric on the Blues defense is Eric Brewer. The Blues' captain — and he's a great leader, so don't suggest otherwise or else the Blues will make mom's basement jokes — is finally healthy after years of back issues. He's had an offseason to work out and is in the last season of his contract. I smell a surprisingly solid year.
Brewer has a lot of haters for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is, he's not very good. Okay, that's only partially true. He's good in small doses. The Blues were forced to play Brewer top-pairing minutes — 25 to 30 a game — and he got exposed. Fewer minutes on the ice usually leads to a more effective Brewer. He's at his best when his name isn't said and he quietly does his job.
Speaking of hated defenseman, Barret Jackman is back for another year. Jackman is actually quite good at his job. NHL Hot Stove rated him as the fourth-best penalty-killing d-man in the league. His detractors seem caught up in his offensive game, or lack thereof. He's not good with the puck, that's a fact. His passing is sometimes bad, he will turn the puck over, and you're not going to get much point-wise from Jackman. On the other hand, he's a shutdown d-man who can play a ton of minutes, draw penalties and just play well. The craziest thing about Jackman: He turns 30 in March. He's in the prime of his career and should continue to be a key part of the Blues defense.
Jackman's partner for much of last season was Roman Polak. The Czech may be the most underrated defender in the league. The stats crowd loves him and so should everyone else. The Blues' penalty killing was the best in the league last season and Polak was a huge reason. He's fast and the strongest player on the team. He's also the most fit and is only 24. When the Blues' kid d-men get mentioned, Polak often gets overlooked, but he's still super young. If he can add some offense to his game — he did set career highs in everything last year —the sky is the limit. He seriously could be a Norris Trophy-winning caliber defender.
The fifth defender for the Blues will be Carlo Colaiacovo. The most offensive-centric of the Blues d-men (I think of EJ as an all-around guy, despite his offensive numbers being so great), Cola is a solid third-pairing guy. His defense isn't the level of Jackman or Polak, but it's not bad. Offensively, he can play on the power play and put up some points. He had 32 points last year and, if he stays healthy, could easily put up more this year. The problem with Cola has long been his injury history. He's already out with a hip flexor. He's a solid player who, I'd suspect, has something to prove after not getting a decent offer on the free agent market this summer.
The sixth and seventh defensive spots are currently up for grabs. Ian Cole, Nathan Oystrick, Alex Pietrangelo, Nikita Nikitin and Tyson Strachan are all fighting for the final two spots. Cole, Petro and Nikitin are the young guys trying to crack the roster, while Oystrick and Strachan are good depth guys. Strachan played in the AHL last season with Peoria and was pretty good. He would be a perfect seventh guy since he's good enough to play and give guys a rest. I don't think his upside merits an every game role — think how the Blues used Darryl Sydor and Matt Walker. He has paid his dues, however, and I think he's probably got a roster spot.
Oystrick is 28, but has only played 56 NHL games. He was signed to be AHL depth, and that's probably the role he will have. Think of him as the 8th guy — if someone gets injured, he will probably slide into the seventh spot.
The other three — Cole, Petro and Nikitin — are all prospects. Petro was the fourth overall pick, Cole was a first found pick. Nikitin is older, but is just coming over from Russia. The Blues seem high on the kid (he's 24), but language seems to be his primary barrier. He can't speak a word of English. Coming to the NHL will be hard enough; trying to play while learning the language may be asking the kid a little too much. I think he starts in the AHL so he can get acclimated to North America.
Pietrangelo should have been in Peoria for the last two years, but was too young. At 20, he's finally old enough to go, but he might not. He's had two cups of coffee with the Blues and has been OK. He's made mistakes, but he was also a teenager. His upside is off the charts — he's been rated as the No. 1 prospect in the league. If he's ready, he will get every chance at the NHL level. He can skate, score and play defense. He was a monster for Canada in the World Juniors and looked like a man against boys. Once he catches up to the NHL level, look out. He just might not be there yet.
Cole spent three years at Notre Dame and ended last season in Peoria. He's 21 and also has a lot of upside. He's talented and is supposed to be an offensive-minded player. Really, the battle for the sixth spot, in my mind at least, will boil down to Petro vs. Cole. One of them will likely be paired up with Cola, so it's really a matter of who is better defensively. Frankly, either one is a win, because it gets one of the Blues' youngsters into the NHL mix. With Brewer in the last year of his deal and Jackman's expiring soon, the Blues need the youth to get acclimated so the old guys can go out to pasture — at least that's the plan.
The defense will lean young — only Brewer is in his 30s. But it will have some experience. If the younger guys (and Colaiacovo) grow and get better, the Blues could have a defensive corp that is the envy of the league. In fact, things could go so well that the Blues are able to deal from the surplus and get some offensive help.
Come back next week for a long look at the forwards.