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Are The Blues Seriously A Dark Horse Candidate In The Western Conference?

The Central's shaped up to be one of the more interesting divisions this off season.

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David Rogers tackled this one over at Frozen Notes, and I matched his raised eyebrows and raised him an extra one. It's tough for me to look at really obvious praise for the Blues and say "no, I disagree," especially with a reporter so solid and respected as Kevin Allen. It's even harder when the praise is a high as saying that the team stands a solid chance at being the entire Western Conference - not just Central Division's - sleeper hit.

I'm not necessarily saying that I disagree with the Blues' ability to contend this year; last season's best ever 12 game start showed the potential of the team like nothing before... then the injuries began, and never seemed to stop. The Blues've improved since last season, especially with the addition of veteran talent like Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrunner. But a lot of other teams in the Western Conference tweaked their rosters and have improved.

1. They have six returning forwards (David Backes, Chris Stewart, Patrik Berglund, Alexander Steen, Andy McDonald and Matt D'Agostini) who scored 20 or more goals last season. To put that into perspective, the Boston Bruins have four and Vancouver has three.

Nothing there that I can argue with, other than scoring by itself does not mean a team is going to be successful. 

2. That list doesn't include T.J. Oshie, 24, who probably would have been the Blues' leading scorer had he not missed 33 games with injury.

The problem with the Teej, and the reason that Oshie wound up with such a brief contract, is that he needs to prove himself to be able to make it through an entire season without doing something to get himself hurt. It's a crapshoot. If he's healthy, he cracks 20.  If not, he plays 50 games this year and his next deal isn't as solid as it should be.

3. David Perron, 23, is back on course to play this season after missing almost all of last season with a serious concussion. He probably won't start the season, but when he does return, he gives the team another dangerous, high-yield scorer.

I don't consider Perron "on course" for anything but who knows how long recovering from the injury that's left him on the sidelines since November. Who knows when - or sadly, if - he'll come back. That's the nature of the concussion.

4. Jaroslav Halak, 26, is entering the best years of his career. Last season was his first season as a wire-to-wire No. 1 goalie. You can bet he learned something. Would anyone be surprised if his save percentage was .920 this season?

I would be. I peg Halak's SV% to be between .914-.917. He still needs to get the hang of being a number one goalie, and he better get said hang quickly with either Brian Elliot or Ben Bishop as the backup. One's streaky, one's not quite 100% ready for prime time.

5. St. Louis' defense is still a work in progress, but presumably Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk will be more polished this season.

One would think, though I don't know how much more polished Petro can possibly be. But it's that "work in progress" thing - and the fact that defensemen tend to go down like flies. Lose Petro, Shattenkirk, and one of Barret Jackman, Roman Polak, or Carlo Colaiacovo for an extended period of time, and there're problems.

6. Stewart, 23, has the potential to score 40 goals. Maybe it will be this season. He had 28 goals in 62 games last season.

I don't have a crystal ball, but possibly closer to 30-35 seems more on target. Don't ask why - it's just a gut feeling.

7. Berglund, 23, is still learning on the job and starting to explore the depths of his talent. It's not unthinkable that he could net 30 goals this season.

Berglund was a beast at the World Championships, easily the best player in the tournament. Give him some solid set-up guys, and he's gold. The trick there is finding consistent linemates, at least for a decent period of time. If the team's play slows, coach Davis Payne will switch line combinations, no hesitation.

8. The Blues signed Jamie Langenbrunner and Jason Arnott without much fanfare this summer, but both are former captains and Stanley Cup winners. Their experience will help this young team. Arnott netted 17 goals last season.

Experience was something the Blues needed last year, especially after the dealing of Eric Brewer to the Lightning. My question is can Arnott stay healthy, and can Langenbrunner keep his attitude on the up and up? The last thing this team needs is a grumpy old man, especially as susceptible as they are to getting in on some groupthink style funk.

9. General manager Doug Armstrong has done a quality job renovating this roster. Why would he stop now? It seems plausible he will be looking around to add pieces.

Pieces? Yes. Pieces for the NHL? No. Denny Syvret's signing is pretty indicative of where Armstrong will be going - getting quality AHL guys who can fill a hole if need be. The team's for sale, and the payroll is above the floor. 

10. The Blues have players who are hard to play against. Backes had 213 hits last season. It seems as if solid defenseman Barret Jackman has been around forever, but he's only 30. He plays 20 minutes a game and blocks plenty of shots. Roman Polak is another 20-minute defenseman who will dish out some hits.

The Blues certainly aren't an easy team to play against, nor a team anyone looks forward to playing against. That can play to their advantage, certainly - but if they're still beatable, they're not the team that's tough to play against," they're just the "team that's hard to beat - but still beatable."