The St. Louis Blues open training camp Friday at Scottrade Center perhaps still feeling the sting of a third consecutive first-round playoff exit.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for those losses with the Blues coming off a 51-24-7 season that brought them a Central Division title and 109 points, but also a disappointing first-round playoff loss to Minnesota.
Now it’s time to look ahead to the 2015-16 season and five crucial questions facing the Blues heading into training camp:
1. The team’s biggest move of the offseason was trading fan favorite T.J. Oshie to the Washington Capitals for forward Troy Brouwer, a goalie prospect and a third-round pick. How will this move affect the Blues?
Brouwer (6-foot-3, 213 pounds) is a player more in the mold of Blues forward David Backes than the smaller Oshie. Look for Brouwer to play more of a physical game, banging his way into the corners and in front of the net. Oshie may put up bigger numbers surrounded by more overall offensive skill in Washington, but the Blues are banking on Brouwer to be a more predictable and physical player.
Brouwer, 30, has 132 goals and 255 points in 531 NHL games. The 28-year-old Oshie has 110 goals and 310 points in 443 games.
2. Will Vladimir Tarasenko continue to elevate his game and emerge as one of the game’s top scorers?
Tarasenko, still only 23, had a team-leading 37 goals and 73 points last season and may only be scratching the surface. He got paid for it, too, receiving an eight-year, $60 million contract extension. With 66 goals and 135 points in 177 career games — and 10 playoff goals in only 13 games — the sky is the limit for the Russian-born star. He knows he will be targeted even more by other teams and will need to adjust accordingly.
3. Blues GM Doug Armstrong pursued coach Mike Babcock, who was eventually hired by Toronto, before deciding to bring back coach Ken Hitchcock. Are the fates of Armstrong and Hitchcock linked to how the 2015-16 Blues perform?
That seems highly likely. Blues fans can’t fault Armstrong for trying to make moves to push this team on a deeper playoff run, but many of his moves haven’t paid off. He acquired goalie Ryan Miller two years ago and that failed to result in success. Other trades have brought in Brouwer and defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, who got a big contract extension. Armstrong also committed a four-year, $28 million deal to sign free-agent center Paul Stastny, whose first Blues season was inconsistent as he fought through an injury and moved up and down the lineup before finishing with 16 goals and 46 points. Veteran defenseman Roman Polak was traded for defenseman Carl Gunnarsson and veteran defenseman Barret Jackman was allowed to leave via free agency. The contract extension last season for Patrik Berglund seemed unpopular with many fans. It seems like this may be shaping up as a season where the bar will be set extremely high for everyone — coach and GM included.
4. Who are some younger players with the potential to make an impact either now or in the immediate future?
Let’s start on defense, where Petteri Lindbohm and Robert Bortuzzo will give the Blues plenty of strength and physical play as part of a new-look defense unit. Both played well in short stints last season and will be expected to play well over the long haul. The rookie everyone will be watching is high-scoring forward Robby Fabbri, the 2014 first-round pick whose popularity began reaching pre-Oshie proportions each time he lit things up in juniors, international play or for the Blues’ prospect teams. Still only 18, Fabbri put on a show at training camp last season and reached the final cuts before being sent back to juniors. Injuries to forwards Berglund and Jori Lehtera could create a potential spot for Fabbri, with the Blues able to exercise an option of playing Fabbri in up to nine game before having to make a decision to return him to his junior team. The Blues also invited veteran NHL forwards Scott Gomez and Scottie Upshall to camp as pro tryouts and if one or both show signs of life, could that affect Fabbri’s ability to make the team?
5. What are the biggest needs for this team?
Getting beyond the first round of the playoffs. Playmaking centers have been few and far between in recent Blues seasons. Stastny was brought in hoping to fill that role, and may get a look on the top line this season if the Blues finally follow through on moving Backes to right wing. Lehtera is out after undergoing ankle surgery, but there is plenty of scoring potential on the Blues with Tarasenko, Alexander Steen, Backes, defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo and more. Another need is for young goaltender Jake Allen to prove he can backstop the team to playoff success.
Blues Training Camp Schedule
at Scottrade Center, St. Louis
Friday: camp opens, closed to public
Saturday: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Sunday: 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m.