Finally hockey is coming back. Many people mock the NHL for having a short offseason, but for die-hard hockey fans the summer months are agonizingly long. Last week around these parts, I/we previewed the St. Louis Blues' defenseman and goalies. You can find that right here. This week, it's time to look at the forwards. Let's get into it.
The forwards are probably the weakest position on the Blues. Last season, the Blues were offensively challenged — they scored 218 goals, good enough for 17th in the league. To get back to the playoffs, the Blues will have to score more.
For a few seasons now, it's seemed like the Blues are one line off. The first line would make a great second line, the second a great third, the third a great fourth, and the fourth a great AHL line. The Blues just lack an impact No. 1 line player.
For now, although lines change daily, the top line is David Perron, David Backes and Brad Boyes. On paper, this is a solid first line. Boyes is a former 30-to-40 goal scorer. Two seasons ago, Backes potted 30 goals. Last year, Perron scored 20. The problem is, Boyes scored 14 goals and Backes had 17 goals last season. That's only 31 goals combined from two thirds of the top line. This is, uh, not good. Of any line the Blues can put together, this line is the one where the team is crossing their fingers and hoping. Potentially, all three could score 30 goals.
Perron is an exciting playmaker and goal-scorer, Backes is a bruising power forward, and Boyes can be deadly when he's on. If all goes according to plan (and hope), this could be the best top line the Blues have had in a few years. The problem is, it could just as easily go the other way. Backes and Boyes could prove that their good years were flukes.
The second line, if everyone is healthy, looks like it may be Andy McDonald, Patrik Berglund and Alex Steen. Again, the Blues are hoping for a lot of good things to happen with this trio. McDonald quietly had a solid season season for the Blues. He netted 24 goals and 33 assists — both team highs. If he can stay healthy like he did last year, McDonald is a consistent solid player. Since he was acquired, the Blues have tried to make him a first-line center, but he's three years removed from his last 70-point season; if he can score 50-70 this year on the second line, the Blues will be a better team.
Steen was a breakout player for the team last year; from the third-line abyss Steen scored a career-high 24 goals and earned himself a fancy new contract. Again, the Blues are left hoping he doesn't regress. In fact, they really have to hope the 24 goals were just a start. Steen has shown that he can pot 15 goals, but 25? Who knows. He's a solid two-way player, but this will really be the first year Steen is put in a role specifically to score, and he will be expected to deliver.
The third piece of the line is the enigma known as Patrik Berglund. His rookie year, Berglund looked like the future of the Blues, netting 21 goals and 26 assists. At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Berglund was a force, the big center the Blues needed. Last year he looked the opposite of that. He played small, he played poorly, he was a ghost. He scored 13 goals and 13 assists. He was, somehow, worse than that. He was scratched for games, shoved onto the fourth line, and sat in the press box for being late to practice. Not good times.
At only 22 years-old, it's a little early to say this is a make-or-break year, but I'll say it anyway: This is a huge year for Berglund. If he plays at the same level, or somehow gets worse, I don't think he will have much of a future in St. Louis. More than any player on the Blues, Berglund needs a breakout season.
B.J. Crombeen is the only thing keeping the Blues from having the perfect third line. Right now, the third unit is T.J. Oshie, Jay McClement and Crombeen. I love this line.
Oshie is can score 20-25 goals, but he also plays great defense. He will provide a scoring punch for this line — if Steen could score 24 on the third line, Oshie can do the same. There's really not much else to be said about him; if he improves his scoring by a few points, takes fewer penalties, and plays some better defense, he will have a good year. I think the idea of Oshie as a first-line scorer is far-fetched, but I like him on the third line.
As the unofficial President of the Jay McClement fan club, I'm probably a little biased. He's one of the best defense forwards in the league. He should warrant serious consideration for the Selke trophy for best defensive forward. Yes, Jay could stand to score a little more. He only had 11 goals last season, and could stand to bump that to 15. But the defense he plays — he was the No. 1 forward on the No. 1 penalty killing unit last season — is invaluable.
Crombeen seems to have earned a reputation like McClement as a defensive stopper, and a lot seems to be based on the company he keeps. B.J. is a solid player, but he's not on the level of Steen, Oshie or Jay. He's a solid player who can, at times, play undisciplined hockey, a grinder who can score a few goals, get a few (or 17) fighting majors. He won't hurt you too much. He's one of the few players who just needs to keep doing what he did last year – with maybe a few more goals.
The fourth line — oh, the fourth line. Right now the extra line looks like it will be some combination of Cam Janssen, Brad Winchester, Matt D'Agostini, and the injured Vladimir Sobotka. Sobotka has been hurt though all of training camp and, quite frankly, Blues fans know little about him. He is supposed to be a big hitter who can play defense, but so far he gets an incomplete. Plus, coming off a shoulder injury, it will be interesting to see what — if anything — he contributes this season. On paper, he's probably the most talented of the fourth-liners, but we will really have to wait and see.
Speaking of wait and see, Matt D'Agostini was with the Blues after the trade deadline, and I honestly could not pick him out of a police linuep. The Blues traded the talented Aaron Palushaj for D'Agostini and promptly put the Italian in the press box. He's supposed to be a firey-type player — scrappy. He's not the most talented, but gets involved in the play. Hockey's futures seems to think he's a semi-talented player who can contribute. We just haven't seen it yet.
One player I have seen enough of, is Brad Winchester. He's terrible. I won't sugarcoat it: Winchester isn't an NHL player. At 6-foot-5, the Blues seem to think his size makes him valuable. He scored 13 goals two years ago, and it seems like the Blues think he's a less-talented Backes — a lower-line power forward. He's not. He scored three goals last year and has 21 goals in 247 NHL games. Carlo Colaiacovo, a defenseman, has 22 goals in 241 NHL games. The 13 goal season, from all indications, was an outlier for the 30-year-old Winchester. He's tall, but doesn't use his size. He has dropped the gloves, but he can't really fight. He spent a grand total of 2:49 on the ice killing penalties. For some reason, he was brought back this year.
The last player is the hometown boy, Janssen. He's an enforcer/energy guy and he's good at his job. At home, he gets the crowd going. The problem is, Janssen is limited. He can't score — or at least he hasn't in the NHL. All he's good for is five minutes on the ice hitting folks. That works sometimes, but others it can leave the team shorthanded. If Janssen could learn to kill penalties or do something else to increase his value, it would help out. As it stands now, Janssen should probably only draw for home games against teams that have a fighter. Other wise, he's a waste of a roster spot.
Well, that's it. That should wrap up the forwards. There's a lot of question marks out there. The Blues are really hoping several guys take some big steps. If they do, the Blues could be back in the playoffs. If not, another year ending early.