The 50th anniversary season of the St. Louis Blues will also be an intriguing year of transition on a variety of fronts.
This is Ken Hitchcock’s last season as head coach and his replacement, former Minnesota Wild coach Mike Yeo, is already on the Blues coaching staff and takes over next season.
The loss of several key veteran leaders creates a void the Blues hope to fill with new captain Alex Pietrangelo and several other core veteran players. Jake Allen no longer is part of a Blues goaltending tandem with Brian Elliott traded to Calgary.
The Blues, who reached the Western Conference Final last season, open the 2016-17 season Wednesday night in Chicago against the Blackhawks before returning home Thursday to face the Minnesota Wild.
Many questions will be answered well before the Blues play host to the Blackhawks in the NHL Bridgestone Winter Classic outdoor game Jan. 2, 2017 at Busch Stadium. But here’s a few questions fans should be pondering right now:
1. How will the Blues deal with the loss of longtime captain David Backes, who left as a free agent and signed with the Boston Bruins? Not to mention the now absent size, physical strength, scoring and leadership provided by Backes and veteran forward Troy Brouwer, who signed with Calgary after one productive season in St. Louis?
The combined 39 goals scored by Backes and Brouwer last season will definitely be missed. Backes was the team’s only other 20-goal scorer besides Vladimir Tarasenko (40) and he was a valued member of the Blues’ power play and penalty kill units. Both Backes and Brouwer had strong playoff runs too, helping the Blues reach the Western Conference Final. The Blues’ only major additions in the offseason were adding forwards David Perron and Nail Yakupov, both of whom could provide some of the offense lost with Backes and Brouwer. However, neither is much of a physical player. The Blues’ core leadership group is strong, led by Pietrangelo, Alexander Steen, Paul Stastny, Kevin Shattenkirk and others. However, in the rough and tumble Central Division and Western Conference, have the Blues left themselves a bit vulnerable to larger, physical teams? Perhaps the anticipated quicker, attacking style will help in that direction.
2. A coach and his replacement on the same coaching staff? How’s that going to work out?
Hitchcock announced this would be his last season and welcomed a chance to work with Yeo, whose previous head coaching experience came with the Wild. It’s a bit unorthodox to be sure, but also provides Yeo with a chance to learn from one of the best coaches in league history along with a chance to learn the roster and franchise from the inside. No one is quite sure how this unique arrangement will work out, but it could be beneficial for both parties. Yeo should also help the equation by implementing some of the things that made him a successful coach in his previous job. Another key concern here is the loss of veteran assistant coaches Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller. Shaw was responsible for running the defense and Muller was in charge of the power play. Those were two of the key reasons for the Blues’ consistency in both areas last season, so both special teams will be watched closely in 2016-17.
3. As good as he already is, Vladimir Tarasenko can’t do it all by himself and needs scoring help. Where can the Blues look for additional goals and scoring?
Tarasenko’s 40 goals and 76 points last season made him one of the top forwards in the league. He made an impact in the Blues’ early playoff victories as well, then went five games without as goal or point in the Sharks series before scoring twice in the final game. He’s now one of the team’s alternate captains and will be counted on for better overall play, along with his trademark scoring. That shouldn’t be a problem. More scoring should come from Steen and Jaden Schwartz with Stastny — one of the team’s best forwards in the second half of last season — needing to provide more offense this season. He’s had 16 goals and 10 goals in his first two seasons with the Blues after scoring 20 or more goals in each of his previous four full seasons in Colorado. Stastny’s four-year, $28 million deal suggests the Blues are hoping for more in return, too. The return of Perron and addition of former first overall pick Yakupov from Edmonton could also lead to more goals and defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is a proven offensive source on the blue line. The Blues should also be expecting more from forwards Patrik Berglund and Jori Lehtera. Lehtera’s goals and assists dropped last season from the year before (14 goals and 44 points as a rookie to nine goals and 34 points last season) while the enigmatic Berglund has battled injuries and inconsistency.
4. Jake Allen is the clear No. 1 netminder now in St. Louis. Will he thrive in the starter’s job he battled Brian Elliott for in recent seasons?
Allen seemed ready to grab the job and run with it early last season during an 11-4-2 start with three shutouts. Allen’s production dipped a bit in December, then he was lost with a knee injury and Elliott immediately began stopping everything in sight. Elliott’s strong play down the stretch and early in the playoffs helped the Blues reach the Western Conference Final, but the Blues eventually turned to Allen again in the playoffs trying to reverse momentum during an eventual third-round loss to San Jose. The Blues removed any question mark from Allen’s starting role by trading Elliott to the Flames at the draft, then signing Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract extension. It’s a bit risky given Allen’s injuries, but Allen is obviously younger at 26, is much more active around the net and as a puck-mover, and is capable of dominant goaltending. Signing Carter Hutton from Nashville, where he was Pekka Rinne’s backup, provides insurance if Allen is out of the lineup. Allen could become the next big-time goalie in Blues history if all goes according to plan, but will need to prove himself in the playoff spotlight. His career postseason record in 11 career playoff appearances is 3-5 with a 2.29 goals-against average and .902 save percentage. In fairness, he’s only been the No. 1 playoff goalie during a first-round loss to the Wild in 2015.
5. Forward Robby Fabbri and defenseman Colton Parayko both enjoyed big rookie seasons with the Blues a year ago and were key parts of a long playoff run as well. Can the Blues expect both youngsters to take another significant step forward this season?
If they do, the Blues may be in a far better position entering the playoffs than their fans may expect. The energetic Fabbri, a first-round pick in 2014, had 18 goals and 37 points in the regular season, then followed that up with four goals and 15 points in his first 20 NHL playoff contests. The 6-foot-6, 226-pound Parayko may have been the biggest surprise of anyone last season. Besides providing nine goals and 33 points in 79 regular-season games, Parayko also become much better defensively and showed value as a strong skater with solid puck movement. A potential all-star down the road if he continues his progression, Parayko made the NHL All-Rookie team last spring and will be counted on heavily in a variety of areas. While considering other input from Blues’ young players, don’t forget about the ages of Allen (26) and Schwartz (24). Schwartz scored 25 or more goals in two straight seasons before dealing with an ankle fracture last season that limited him to 33 games and the playoffs. Schwartz will miss two more weeks with a left elbow injury, but is being counted on as a major offensive force. As always with the Blues, expect a few injuries to key personnel along the way.
Bonus question: What is the potential upside for forwards David Perron and Nail Yakupov?
Perron is a familiar face in St. Louis, having played six NHL seasons with the Blues before skating with Pittsburgh and Anaheim last season and spending time previously in Edmonton. The 28-year-old winger has 84 goals and 198 points in 340 regular season games and his career high of 28 goals came with the Oilers in 2013-14. The 23-year-old Yakupov is the 2012 first overall pick that never seemed to fit in with Edmonton, so the proverbial “change of scenery” may actually be applicable in this case. The eight goals he scored in Edmonton last season were a career low and his highest NHL point total came in 2014-15 (14 goals, 33 points). He scored a career-high 17 goals as a rookie in 2012-13. Perron is older, wiser and familiar with the Blues franchise. Yakupov isn’t, but won’t face nearly as much scrutiny here as he did in hockey-crazed Edmonton. The Blues will likely try him in several areas, most likely starting on the third line with Berglund and Dmitrij Jaskin. Speaking of Jaskin, he’s another player the Blues may be growing impatient with after watching him flash glimpses of potential upside in recent seasons. Jaskin, a 2011 second-round pick, scored 13 goals in only 54 games in 2014-15 before dropping to four in 65 games last season.
St. Louis Blues
2015-16 Record: 49-24-9, 107 points (second place in Central Division)
Scoring For, Against: 224 goals (15th in NHL); 201 goals against (fourth in NHL)
Playoff results: Beat Chicago in first round (seven games), beat Dallas in Western Conference semifinals (seven games), lost to San Jose in Western Conference Final
Key additions: Forwards David Perron and Nail Yakupov, goaltender Carter Hutton, assistant coach Mike Yeo
Key subtractions: Forwards David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott, goaltender Brian Elliott, assistant coaches Brad Shaw and Kirk Muller
2015-16 Scoring: Vladimir Tarasenko (40 goals, 74 points in 80 games), Alexander Steen (17 goals, 52 points in 67 games), Paul Stastny (10 goals, 49 points in 64 games)
Coach: Ken Hitchcock (Overall record is 757-453-88; record with Blues is 224-103-36)