As a Blues fan, it is pretty easy to slide into pessimism. Missed playoffs, pending sale of the team, lack of free-agent spending money... there's certainly plenty of things to be concerned about. However, as one of the resident optimists here at St Louis Game Time, I'd like to send out some positive vibes about this past season. I know that the die-hard cynics out there won't be convinced, but it's important to know that there is more than the liquor talking when folks like me speak confidently about where the Blues are now, and what lies ahead for the 2011-2012 season.
Full Disclosure: I've actually been nursing this idea for a couple of weeks, and had already started on this post. The recent Twitter-verse/GameTime conversations about the free-agency action (or rather, the lack therof until Langenbrunner/Arnott) made this all the more timely. So, fresh bottle of bourbon in hand, I went back to it:
11) The Hot Hot Hot Start
Lest ye forget, when completely healthy at the beginning of the season, the St Louis Blues were the talk of the league. From Opening Night up 'til the Columbus Collapse, the Blues were 9-1-2. Jaroslav Halak, in his first season as a designated starter, put up 3 shutouts in 10 games. Ty Conklin shut out the NY Rangers for the first time in franchise history. Life was good for Blues fans. Were they over-achieving? Sure. But, it was still a nice taste of what "could be" from this team.
10) Not Getting Shutout
The Blues posted an impressive streak that ended during the 2010-2011 season. For 111 consecutive games, the St Louis Blues scored at least once, not getting shut out by anyone in that span. This streak ended when Miikka Kiprusoff pitched back-to-back shutouts against the Blues on Feb 27 and Mar 1. Still though, for a team that's not known for scoring a lot of goals, it's good to at least get one on the board regularly. It gives the team a bit of confidence, and it also serves as a measure of the team's grit and compete level.
When the season started in October, the Nikitin was battling for one of the last roster spots on the blueline. A broken wrist sidelined his NHL debut until Nov 6. While battling the injury and the language barrier, Nikita proved himself with the team and the fans. It was fascinating to watch his development over the course of the season. While there is a way to go yet in his development, Blues fans came to trust in N64 and believe in his potential. So to did the front office, who re-signed him for another year on a one-way contract extension that gives us another look at him.
8) Success of the Rivermen and Aces
While the Blues missed the playoffs again this year, our farm teams did not. The Peoria Rivermen made the AHL playoffs, being eliminated in the first round to the eventual Western Conference champions. The ECHL affiliate Alaska Aces made the playoffs, and went on to win the Kelly Cup. You cannot put a price on how valuable post-season experience is, and our prospects are getting it. Winning can be a habit, and the sooner they start, the better! While the Rivs did not go as far, the fact that they even made the postseason is a quite an accomplishment, considering how many call-ups the Blues made to fill in for injured players. The coaching staff in Peoria definitely deserve a pat on the back for overcoming those difficulties.
7) Those AHL call-ups
Hey, there's a reason that they weren't already in the big leagues. Nonetheless, the boys that rode the Peoria shuttle this past year have gained valuable experience that will pay off, probably sooner rather than later. You'll always need depth from your AHL roster, and getting some time in with the NHL club will make the transition that much easier once they do make the roster. If nothing else, a prospect with NHL-level experience is a more valuable trading chip. It was pretty cool to see the "first career NHL goal" scored by some of our young'ns this year. Once these pieces start falling into place, the prior experience of our depth guys will be one of those intangibles that help put us over the top.
6) Matt D'Agostini
Matt was acquired in a late-season trade with Montreal (sending Aaron Palushaj to the Habs) during the '09-'10 season, and was largely forgotten. Of the last 19 games, he was only dressed for 7 of them, registered 0 points, 2 PIM and only 6 SOG. This most recent season, though, D'ags was determined to make a name for himself in St Louis. He impressed the coaches in camp, and then the fans with 6 points (4G/2A) in the opening month of October (9 games played). With the injuries came a bigger role, and D'agostini responded with a breakout season. He was one of only two players to play in all 82 games, and finished with 46 points (21G/25A) for the year.
Vladi was picked up in an off-season trade with Boston (sending David Warsofsky to the Bruins), but was largely under the radar with the Halak trade 9 days prior. Another forward that the home crowd didn't know much about, they had low expectations. The injuries opened up playing time, and Vladimir seized the opportunity with a flourish. He hit, he blocked, he scored a little (29 points in 65 games played, both career highs)... but his biggest contribution may have been in the faceoff circle. The Blues were at their best when they controlled the puck, and thanks to Vladi, we had plenty of puck possession. He won more faceoffs than he lost, (52% at home, 51% on the road). His success there, on top of his other contributions, has been cited as what made Jay McClement available for a trade.
The rookie that wasn't a rookie, Petro solidified his already-positive reputation amongst St Louis fans. Another player who developed as we watched, he was only a technicality away from Calder Trophy consideration. His poise at such a young age, and his slick puck-handling, were a sight to behold and earned him an average 22 minutes of ice time a game. He finished the season with 43 points (11G/32A), which led all St Louis defensemen. His 2010-2011 performance demonstrated that he was well worth the 4th-overall pick in the 2008 draft.
While we were all expecting Armstrong to make a few moves at the trade deadline, nobody saw this coming. Sending first-overall pick Erik Johnson and Silent Jay McClement (and a conditional pick) to Denver in exchange for Chris Stewart and Kevin Shattenkirk made the entire league sit up and take notice. This was more than just a dollars-and-cents move, this was a trade based on actual on-ice considerations. This was specifically to improve the team, and we all saw the payoffs immediately. Stewart went on a tear, scoring 6 goals in his first 5 games wearing the Bluenote. Shattenkirk finished the year with a total of 43 points, leading all rookie defensemen. Both players showed us a lot in their limited time, and whets our appetite for what can be expected with a full year in St Louis.
2) Scoreboard: The 10-3 drubbing of Detroit
On March 30, 2011, this happened:
Blues @ Red Wings 3/30/11 (via NHLVideo)
1) The Strong Finish
Just as the Blues started hot, 9-1-2 in their first dozen games, they also had a strong finish. In the last 12 games of the year, they posted a 7-3-2 record. Granted, this is not as spectacular as the beginning of the season, but the fact that the players returning from injury (plus the new additions via trade) putting this together does point toward better things in the near future.
Honorable Mentions: The fan fun of the #WhereIsOshie Twitter hashtag, the sellout streak (despite their dubious nature), and the great local TV ratings for the Blues.
Welp, that's it. While I'm not calling for a Stanley Cup run this year (though I'm not ruling it out, either), I hope I've imparted at least a little of the good vibes that I feel for this upcoming season. There are plenty of valid reasons to feel good about the state of the Blues this year.
October just can't come soon enough.