Grading The Blues: Defense

Like it or not, Fragile Jay McKee looks to be back in the Bluenote next season. Photo by A.J. D'Angelo

The defensive corps of the Blues was an oft-injured, oft-maligned group this season. While their offensive contributions were few and far between, defensively this no-name group did well to support the team's goaltending and kept the team in most games down the stretch as the Blues climbed from 15th in the West to the sixth seed.

The question about the group looking backwards is difficult: did they underperform this season or did they overperform? Prior to the acquisition of Carlo Colaiacovo in the trade that sent Lee Stempniak to Toronto, I'd argue that they were a very underperforming group.

When Eric Brewer left the lineup, the team's record did initially dip, but it seemed to galvanize the group, as the Blues got great work out of journeymen (Mike Weaver), AHLers (Tyson Strachan) and rookies (Roman Polak), all of whom played above what was expected of them in the latter months of the schedule.

The big question about the defense is the one looking forward: who will be here next year and who will not? In a non-business world, you'd like to see the team reward a guy like Weaver for his efforts this year with a new contract. That is unlikely to happen. Erik Johnson is guaranteed a spot on the starting roster. How will Eric Brewer's back respond to his second back surgery this year?

Just looking at straight roster numbers there are ten players who could make the NHL roster:

  • Erik Johnson
  • Eric Brewer
  • Jay McKee
  • Barret Jackman
  • Carlo Colaiacovo
  • Roman Polak
  • Jeff Woywitka
  • Mike Weaver
  • Tyson Strachan
  • Alex Pietrangelo

Clearly, only seven will make the list and who knows what the summer trading and drafting and free agency periods will bring?

The discussion will clearly be lively, but first we look at last season's performances.

 


Eric Brewer

#4 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-3

222

Apr 17, 1979



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Eric Brewer 28 1 5 6 -14 24 1 0 0 0 49 2.0

What we know: Eric Brewer will never get a fair shake in St. Louis. No matter what he ever achieves, he will always be the man who "we got for Pronger" despite the fact that anyone who knows two whits about hockey can tell you that Brewer never was, never will be and never proclaimed to be anything like Chris Pronger.

 

Brewer is essentially a good second-pairing defenseman who can play first pairing as the defensively-responsible partner. He has never been an offensive force, having never tallied more than 29 points (nor more than eight goals) in a season. If people expected him to be a good second-pairing defender who thinks defense-first, he'd be accepted in St. Louis. For some reason, that has never happened.

Brewer makes $4.25 million and is under contract for two more seasons. He is currently the team captain, despite palying only 28 games this season and the whispers that he might not be ready to play next year if this second back surgery doesn't perform better than his first back surgey.

What we think we know: While the fans love to boo Brewer and vent their frustrations for his non-Prongerlike play, we're sure he's better understood inside the locker room. The players never thought that Chris Pronger was traded for Chris Pronger, and they all know what to expect from Brewer.

If Brewer is ready to play this season, he'll retain the captain's C on his uniform and will be installed on the top pairing alongside Erik Johnson. He'll probably never be traded, as his contract is way too heavy considering what he brings to a team.

What we wish we knew: We have about a million questions about the man we all call The Robot, but we'll limit it to just a couple. Was he elected captain by the team, as we've been told, or was he installed by the coaches/management? He just doesn't seem like the guy we would have chosen.

Why did management give him such a huge contract extension? This isn't even hindsight kicking in, because the three-year deal at over $4 million per looked to be overpaying back when it was inked. Now it looks like an anchor.


Carlo Colaiacovo

#28 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-1

200

Jan 27, 1983



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Carlo Colaiacovo 73 3 27 30 0 35 0 0 0 0 87 3.4

What we know: The Blues acquisition of Alex Steen and Carlo Colaiacovo for Lee Stempniak was a blow to a lot of fans and it was a risky trade as neither Steen nor Colaiacovo were flourishing in Toronto. Now it looks like a very good move. Probably prompted by the anemic Blues defense corps, we'd be willing to bet now that Colaiacovo was the player the Blues really wanted. He stepped into the open opportunity and put up career numbers in games played and in points.

 

Colaiacovo looks to be a power play mainstay for the next year at least, as Erik Johnson and potentially Alex Pietrangelo are worked into the rotation. If he plays well enough next year, he'll likely be offered a new contract before he becomes an unrestricted free agent next summer.

What we think we know: A classic example of how a change of scenery can turn a young player around, we bet that Colaiacovo is looking forward to next season and would be willing to sign with the team beyond that. As this team builds and gets stronger, he could become a mainstay on the blueline.

What we wish we knew: What he's thinking in his picture. He has that same look in seven out of ten of his on-ice photos and he's either totally in the zone or totally zoned out.


Barret Jackman

#5 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-0

203

Mar 05, 1981



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Barret Jackman 82 4 17 21 -17 86 1 1 0 1 89 4.5

What we know: Jackman took the place of many fans this year as favorite whipping boy after Eric Brewer left the lineup. Again, we have no idea why the expectations are so high for Jackman when he has always been an effective second-pairing defense-first blueliner. He has been asked to take on first-pairing minutes and was also asked to play on the point of the power play this season, a position he is wholly unsuited to play.

 

Jackman is under contract for another three years, making over $3.6 per season, meaning he is likely to remain a Blue through 2012.

What we think we know: The hype about Jackman started during his rookie year, a season when he was tougher than his size, gritty and totally nasty to play against. He was also paired with Hall of Famer Al MacInnis and won the Calder Trophy.

When the lockout ended, the new rules put in place to speed up the game and generate more offense worked directly against Jackman's game. It has taken him a couple years to adjust and even so, he'll never be as tough to play against as he won't ever be allowed to slash, hack, grab and toussle like he was as a rookie and in the following seasons.

There will always be support for Jackman amongst fans who saw him get drafted and become a good Blue, but the days of expecting him to be dominant or to one day become Captain seem to be over.

What we wish we knew: We wonder if Jackman thinks he'll be here to see the days when the rebuilding turn into the days of being a dominant hockey team again. The numbers on the blueline are working against him, as are the numbers of his salary. If he doesn't think he'll be retained beyond the next couple years, we wonder if he'd rather get out sooner rather than later.


Erik Johnson

#6 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-4

219

Mar 21, 1988


 

What we know: Damn we could have used the youngster in the lineup this season. And while we can't believe that some fans seem ready to give up on him already, we fully expect him to come into next year ready to prove to the hockey world why he was the consensus first-overall draft pick when the Blues grabbed him.

We expect him to see top-pairing minutes as well as acting as the power play quaterback on the top unit. Anything less will be disappointing for him and for us.

What we think we know: Plenty of naysayers will be talking about the youngster's ability to come back from such a devastating knee injury, but we have confidence. If he wasn't a 21-year-old with nothing but confidence, desire and drive, we might be concerned/

What we wish we knew: Look, if my buddies and I came off of the golf course and had been (allegedly) drinking, two of our golf carts were (allegedly) damaged and one of us had completely blown out a knee, no one in the world would believe that he tore his ligaments trying to lock the parking break.

Come on, now, time to fess up.


Jonas Junland

#53 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-2

198

Nov 15, 1987


What we know: Junland is expected to join the blueline at some point as an offensive-minded defenseman.

 

What we think we know: Almost any other year, Junland would get a shot at earning a spot this summer. As it stands, he's likely going back to Peoria and praying for another team golf outing.

What we wish we knew: The Blues have had a hard time lately convincing young Euros to earn their way to St. Louis via Peoria. Will Junland get tired of paying the dues in mid-Illinois?


Jay McKee

#77 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-4

203

Sep 08, 1977



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Jay McKee 69 1 7 8 11 44 0 0 1 0 43 2.3

What we know: McKee was the first 'big' free agent signing of the post-lockout Blues. The fact that he was given a four-year deal worth $4 million per season combined with the fact that he is known primarily as a penalty-killer and shot-blocker guaranteed that eventually the fans would turn on him.

 

What's often overlooked is that the Blues were in such a low place at the time that they had to overpay someone to get them to sign here. Absolutely he would have been a better value at $1.5 million a season. Problem is he never would have come here for that, he would have just stayed in Buffalo or taken $2 million to go to a contender.

What we think we know: McKee's last year under contract is 2010, and it's unlikely that he'll be asked back after that. He found himself on the third pairing this season and will have to battle to get that this next season. The Blues might even consider buying him out this summer since it's unlikely anyone would take him in trade.

What we wish we knew: Why did people buy McKee jerseys to wear to the game? It's like buying a Craig Ludwig jersey.


Alex Pietrangelo

#27 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-3

206

Jan 18, 1990



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Alex Pietrangelo 8 0 1 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 7 0.0

What we know: Drafted fourth overall last summer, he made the team for a trial before being sent back to the juniors. The third blueliner taken in the draft, many think he could someday be the best of the bunch.

 

What we think we know: Pietrangelo will be given every opportunity to make the Blues this year and if he does will likely be eased into the lineup on the third pairing and will see time on the second power play unit. Andy Murray has taken some youngsters slowly (Perron) and given others all they can handle (Oshie), so how much responsibility he gets is likely up to him.

What we wish we knew: Is he ready for the pros? The Blues could use another slick blueliner, but if there's any question about his development he should be sent back down.


Roman Polak

#46 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-1

227

Apr 28, 1986



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Roman Polak 69 1 14 15 -15 45 0 0 1 0 73 1.4

What we know: Polak never played like a rookie in his first full season. Polak was a pleasant surprise this season as he brought speed to the lineup as well as solid defense belied by his minus-15. He drew tough assignments and seldom looked out of his depth. he also displayed a nasty side and stepped up to the physical play of the playoffs.

 

In the series against Vancouver, Polak looked like the best defenseman in the Note most nights.

What we think we know: Nothing is ever set in stone with a 23-year-old defenseman, but we'd be hard-pressed to leave him off the opening day roster next year. Polak may be one of the least-known of the Blues young blueliners, but he looks like a keeper.

What we wish we knew: We know he's neither a Roman, nor Polish, but does he find Roman Polak jokes funny?


 

Tyson Strachan

#62 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-3

205

Oct 30, 1984




GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Tyson Strachan 30 0 3 3 8 39 0 0 0 0 21 0.0

What we know: When Strachan was called up from the minors, we didn't know anything about him. When we saw him wearing No. 62, we figured he was a temp and wouldn't be around long. Thirty games played later, he sported a plus-8 and looked to fit in on the pro team.

 

What we think we know: Strachan looks like he could play regular minutes for the pro team. A person we know with knowledge on this subject told us that "Strachan looked more ready than Pietrangelo. He plays sound hockey and doesn't panic."

What we wish we knew: Is Strachan the kind of unknown player that becomes a Roman Polak and should be kept and expected to play for the team or should the team sell high and use him as trade bait?


 

Steve Wagner

#49 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-2

200

Mar 06, 1984




GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Steve Wagner 22 2 2 4 -5 18 0 0 0 0 16 12.5

What we know: Steve Wagner looked pretty decent last year and looked to get a shot this season. However, he looked out of place this season and too often was caught out of position or too slow to catch up. He started taking hooking penalties to try to recover and wound up back in Peoria.

 

What we think we know: Wagner is behind the numbers on the organizational chart and will have a hard time getting a regular spot in St. Louis anytime soon. When he does get a shot, too many more instances where he's out of position and he'll be back in Peoria.

What we wish we knew: Like Strachan, where do we think Wagner ends up projecting out? At only 25, he's got plenty of time to develop, but might end up being part of a trade package before he gets anotherv real shot at the NHL.


Mike Weaver

#43 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

5-9

182

May 02, 1978



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Mike Weaver 58 0 7 7 -3 12 0 0 0 0 36 0.0

What we know: Mike Weaver did all that was expected of him and more this year. A journeyman who was expected to be a depth defenseman for the team, Weaver, who was introduced at the home opener pep rally as "Jeff Weaver" by the team, wound up seeing over 17 minutes of ice a game, often against top lines.

 

Not often have we seen a 5'9 defensive blueliner play as effectively as Weaver did, taking only six penalties along the way.

What we think we know: At almost any other time in the team's history, Weaver would be offered a contract extension and guaranteed a spot on the defense. This year, probably not. Despite his excellent year, he'll likely be going on down the line. The good news is that he probably guaranteed himself an NHL contract somewhere.

What we wish we knew: His team nickname is apparently "monkey arms" due to their hairiness and the bowed-out way he carries them. We just hope there's some sort of weird orangutan-strength story that goes along with that.


Jeff Woywitka

#29 / Defenseman / St. Louis Blues

6-2

217

Sep 01, 1983



GP G A P +/- PIM PPG SHG GWG GTG SOG PCT
2008 - Jeff Woywitka 65 3 15 18 8 57 2 0 1 0 71 4.2

What we know: Woywitka perfectly fit the "No-Name" defense of the team this year, though he was many nights one of the weaker links on the unit. Former first-rounder or not, Woywitka had plenty of rough nights and rough shifts this year.

 

What we think we know: He's a restricted free agent this summer and based on how the Blues see the team shaping up, he might be released. He isn't eligible to go down to Peoria, so if he's re-signed, he's in St. Louis. Does the team think he's worth investing in?

What we wish we knew: How has he escaped the wrath of fans who still hold Eric Brewer accountable for not being Pronger? Woywitka was part of that trade and was a former first-rounder himself, but no one ever mentions him in the discussion.

 

So, Who Makes The Cut Next Year?

Of this group, who become the seven blueliners who make the team next season? Based on contract, we expect to see these four for sure:

  • Eric Brewer
  • Barret Jackman
  • Carlo Colaiacovo
  • Jay McKee

Add in two more as likely members due to past performance and future potential:

  • Erik Johnson
  • Roman Polak

That leaves only one spot for the seventh defenseman/healthy scratch man. Is that Pietrangelo being eased into the lineup or do the Blues send him to Peoria to see minutes in all situations?

If Pietrangelo is AHL-bound then the Blues need to offer a contract to one of either Mike Weaver or Jeff Woywitka.

If we were making the choice, unless he absolutely shines in training camp and pre-season, Pietrangelo would be given the top role in Peoria and we'd offer Weaver a contract.

Put on your GM hat and let us know how you see the defense panning out next season.

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