Over the course of an 82 game season, there are many ingredients which must blend together to make the perfect meal. In other words, your team needs the right amount of skill, grit, physical and mental strength, health, luck and the least amount of games officiated by Dan Marouelli and Bill McCreary to even stand a chance at Lord Stanley’s holy grail.
It is no longer acceptable to claim how many years in a row your team has reached the playoffs. We live in a “what have you done for me lately” world.
With that said, here are five keys which must happen for the Blues to be a top eight team in the Western Conference this season:
1-LIGHT THE LAMP
The Blues finished tied for 15th in the league with 225 goals scored last season. Out of the 16 playoff teams, only three scored fewer goals than the Blues. And all three of those teams were from the Eastern Conference. That is a substantial statistic.
For you Andy Murray haters out there, yes the Blues did increase their shots on goal per game, goals per game and power play percentage under the direction of Davis Payne. But was that solely due to the new strategy of Payne or was it merely a coaching change which led to more energetic play over the last half of the season? Either way, a team which does not contain highly skilled forwards will have to find a way to provide offense come October.
A look back at last season’s numbers bring about some interesting questions. Can David Backes be counted on for more than just 17 goals? Will Alexander Steen be able to repeat his career-best 24 goal season? Can Brad Boyes put last year’s miserable 14 goal total behind him? Is T.J. Oshie able to show he can finish consistently at this level of play? Should David Perron be considered more than just a 20 goal scorer?
And so many other questions to ponder…which brings us back to the point of this first of five keys.
The offense MUST produce for this team to find its way into the top eight of the West.
With very little depth among the forwards, a number of the top six will need to shine to take pressure off the defense and goaltending. On top of that, the third line will have to chip in with timely goals much more than last season. My bald, overweight, acne-scarred roommate scored more than Brad Winchester. Management has been true to its word when they said high-priced free agents would not be an option.
There’s a reason Dave Scatchard was signed instead of Alexei Ponikarovsky. Now it’s a matter of going with who you have. Blues fans must hope that lamp gets lit more than Lindsay Lohan.
The Blues made major headlines this offseason by acquiring playoff sensation Jaroslav Halak from Montreal for Lars Eller and a prospect. This transaction immediately made the good folks in Montreal seek counseling as to how they could possibly trade the main reason their team almost made the Stanley Cup finals. But the even better folks in St. Louis were jumping for joy, claiming they now finally have themselves a true franchise goaltender.
Will Halak bring back sweet memories of Mike Liut? Or will he conjure up nightmares of Roman Turek?
Let’s evaluate Halak’s recent resume. Last season in 45 games played he was 26-13-5 with a 2.40 GAA, five shutouts and a .924 save percentage. The year before he was 18-14-1 with a 2.86 GAA, one shutout and a .915%. Very good numbers for an average team in a high-pressure environment.
So will Halak be able to carry over what he accomplished in last season’s playoff run? Will he provide steady, consistent goaltending in the Blues crease?
Too many times last season it seemed as if a borderline goal allowed by Chris Mason deflated the team. And if key number one (see above for you short term memory victims–”light the lamp”) does not happen with any regularity, then Halak will be counted on to help save more than just pucks. This was undoubtedly a good move by the Blues front office. They did need to solidify their last line of defense.
Now Halak needs to prove he is a worthy cause for sending those crazy Canadien fans into prescriptions for antidepressants.
3-TIGHTER ZONE COVERAGE
This is another way of saying the team was way too sloppy in their own zone. Whether it was not being able to break out cleanly with a first pass, turning the puck over at their own blue line or having too wide of gaps between their forwards and defensemen, the Blues at times looked unsure, uncomfortable and nervous in their own zone. They panicked more than a JetBlue flight attendant.
This might help explain the absurd amount of third period collapses last season. Far too many times St. Louis forwards lost their man in defensive zone coverage. This added stress to an already fragile group of defensemen.
Erik Johnson was back in the lineup after missing a season due to a freak knee injury (don’t worry, this key is coming up soon). With that said, he still was second among the Blues defensemen in ice time.
Barret Jackman, who ranked first in ice time and shifts per game among Blues d-men was his gritty self. But too many times, whether it be mental or physical fatigue, Jackman made costly mistakes. Eric Brewer was also victimized too frequently. And the normally supportive Blues fans were not afraid to show how they felt about their captain. As if it’s his fault he was traded for Chris Pronger. Roman Polak showed he can be an extremely valuable and physical top four defenseman as well. Carlo Colaiacovo will also return to this group.
But this season, the Blues will certainly introduce more youth to their blueline corp.
Alex Pietrangelo, the teams first round pick in the 2008 draft, will not only be on the roster opening night, but is certainly expected to stay for the entire season. The team has brought him along methodically and are hoping the wait was worth it. Will Pietrangelo, along with Johnson, provide stability and more offense from the back end? Can Johnson establish himself as a premier puck-moving defenseman? Can this group find the consistency shift to shift and provide smart decisions throughout the season? This will be a true test in order for the Blues to return to the top eight.
What a mess last season. Blues fans cringed when the team had the extra man. They doubled over in pain from their toasted raviolis when the Bluenotes had a two-man advantage.
How could a team with very little personnel change go from a dangerous power play unit two seasons ago to a weakling last season?
The Blues ranked 20th in the league last year with 52 power play goals. That’s 20 fewer than two seasons ago!
Can you imagine what 20 more goals would have meant for the team last season? Yep, playoffs. That’s how important the power play is. Especially with the way the game has changed and is now being called by our lovely officials.
The power play did improve by almost two percent when Payne took over. Blues fans are undoubtedly hoping that increase will continue this upcoming season. Boyes will need to play a big role for this to happen. But it’s certainly not all on him.
This squad of mostly young forwards will have to execute when given the opportunity. Scouting reports are so advanced it’s almost as if you have to constantly change the look of your power play.
The Blues learned last season relying on the Boyes one-timer simply won’t work. Unlike the ever-popular Mike Keenan philosophy, this group will spend a great deal of time practicing the PP. It’s all about creativity, execution and finish. An effective power play can simply win games.
In other words, just stay healthy. This team is thin to begin with. Offensively and defensively.
The Blues can not afford key injuries. No doubt injuries are going to happen over the course of an 82 game season. But the hope is this squad can find a way to avoid any major setbacks. They are off to a good start.
As of August, nobody has blown out their knee while in a golf cart. But there is still time. I’m not sure of a sports town that has endured as many freak injuries as St. Louis. From the late Doug Wickenheiser to Vince Coleman.
Health is unfortunately an element which can not always be controlled. But if the Blues are to return to the postseason, they must keep their man-games lost to injury to a minimum.
So there you have it. Five keys. Yep, there are plenty more which can be added to the list. But I get paid by the word and my penny-pinching boss has already warned me.
October is right around the corner. Which key will be focused on first?