Lighting the Lamp, With Rick Ackerman
This could very well be the season that Blues Nation has been waiting 46 years for. Expectations are high, and with good reason as General Manager Doug Armstrong has assembled a strong, deep roster of NHL caliber players fully capable of dominating the league and making a strong playoff run come next spring. Headed by Tom Stillman, the new ownership group has made a strong commitment by not only spending to the salary cap maximum, but also by establishing a strong coaching staff of experienced, knowledgeable teachers led by Ken Hitchcock. All the pieces seem to be in place for a very successful, rewarding season, as well as the potential to go far in post-season play.
In fact, the Blues have been chosen by the Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup this coming June. And it all starts tonight as the visiting Nashville Predators come to renew their divisional rivalry with the Blues.
The 2013-14 edition of the Note is stacked. There is no room for goaltender Jake Allen in St. Louis with an energized and fit Jaro Halak manning the nets with reliable back-up Brian Elliott. Nor is there room on the AHL Chicago Wolves roster for rookie Jordan Binnington, who will most likely start for the ECHL Kalamazoo Wings. The defense may be the best in the entire league, so good that Ian Cole will be in the press-box tonight waiting his turn to play. And the offense boasts 14 quality forwards that can be mixed and matched in a variety of ways as several players, notably Alex Steen, Vlad Sobotka and Adam Cracknell can play both wing or center as needed. The Blues coaching staff has terrific options to maximize the players' abilities and talents to run four balanced lines at opponents and boost scoring while being defensively responsible. The Blues have such incredible depth up front that newcomer Magnus Paajarvi and Cracknell will join Cole in the press-box. And it is the amazing over-all depth of this club that is responsible for the extremely high expectations both media people and fans have for this team to raise the Cup in 2014.
So, how does this team compare to other successful Blues clubs over the years? What does the 2013-14 edition have that other great Blues teams did not have to win the Stanley Cup? Why will this season be any different than those seasons in the past?
The 1968-69 Blues made it to the Stanley Cup Finals under coach Scotty Bowman based on the superior goaltending of Glenn Hall and Jacques Plante and an overall strong team defense, led by Bob and Barclay Plager, Doug Harvey, Noel Picard, Jean-Guy Talbot and Al Arbour. Scoring was in the capable hands of Red Berenson, Gary Sabourin, Ab McDonald, Camille Henry, Ron Schock and Frank St. Marseille. This team dominated their Western Division rivals, yet could not come close to competing with stronger Eastern Division clubs and lost four straight to the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, outscored 12 to three.
The 1980-81 St. Louis Blues won the Smythe Division with 107 points under coach Red Berenson. Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter, Wayne Babych, Blake Dunlop, Jorgen Pettersson, Mike Zuke and Perry Turnbull spearheaded the offense, while goaltenders Mike Liut and Ed Staniowski and defensemen Rick Lapointe, Jack Brownschidle, Joe Micheletti, and Ed Kea provided adequate defense. This team upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round of the playoffs (on Mike Crombeen's double overtime goal), yet did not have the depth or overall defense to advance further, losing to the New York Rangers in the quarterfinals.
The 1999-2000 Blues amassed 114 points during the regular season, a club record, winning the coveted President's Trophy. Coach Joel Quenneville's team had a decent offense led by Pavol Demitra, Pierre Turgeon, Michal Handzus, Scott Young and Terry Yake, yet it was the defense that enabled the Blues to dominate. Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Marc Bergevin provided stability, while rookie goaltender Roman Turek (1.95 goals against average) sparkled in net, as did back-up Jamie McLennan (1.96 g.a.a.).
Unfortunately, this club lacked overall depth, especially offensively, and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs to the strong, hungry San Jose Sharks. The next year saw an improved team with the additions of Keith Tkachuk, Cory Stillman, Scott Mellanby, Dallas Drake and defenseman Bryce Salvador. Finishing with 103 points (second in the Central Division), the Blues avenged their previous playoff loss to the Sharks by defeating them in six games and then swept the Dallas Stars to advance to the Conference Finals. However, the powerhouse Colorado Avalanche made short work of the Blues as Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk dominated offensively and Patrick Roy starred in goal, eventually winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
The 2011-12 season was one of promise as the Blues won the Central Division with 109 points and finished second (to Vancouver) in the Conference by two points. After dispatching the Sharks in five games in the first round of the playoffs, lofty expectations were quashed by the Los Angeles Kings who played superb defense behind goaltender Jonathan Quick and swept the series. The Blues could only muster six goals in those four games. The 2013-14 edition is similar to that club, yet Jason Arnott has been replaced by Derek Roy, David Perron by Brenden Morrow (or Paajarvi), Andy McDonald by Jaden Schwartz, Scott Nichol by Maxim Lapierre, Carlo Colaiacovo by Jay Bouwmeester and Kris Russell by Jordan Leopold. The entire club is bigger, stronger, younger and more flexible with those additions. For those naysayers who claim goaltending is the Blues' Achilles' heel, Allen is waiting in the wings if Halak and Elliott falter.
Overall talent, size, speed and depth is what makes this season's team the best in club history.