By Sean Gallagher
No preview of the 2007-2008 St. Louis Blues would be complete without acknowledgement of what new management has brought to this team: some good ideas, some truly stupid ones, but above all, the return of respectability. These Blues aren't likely to be skating Lord Stanley's Cup come June of 2008, but at this point, reaching the playoffs is an attainable goal and one that would breathe life back into a fanbase that has been wary of this franchise since the waning days of the Bill & Money Laurie ownership.
With the non-resigning of Pavol Demitra, the trade of Chris Pronger for 50 cents on the dollar of value to Edmonton (who later regretted the move as Pronger effectively crapped on their hearts just one year later) and the refusal to add anyone to the roster who wasn't fresh off the waiver wire, the 2005-2006 Blues and their "let's destroy our investment in order to sell it" ownership did at least a half-decade's worth of damage to the franchise' long-rabid and faithful fanbase as well as to its competetive edge. It has taken two years of work by the energetic ownership group headed up by Dave Checketts and crew just to get back to respectability.
Along the way, the new team of Checketts, general manager John Davidson, coach Andy Murray and other behind-the-scenes players like director of scouting Jarmo Kekalainen and vice president of hockey operations Al MacInnis have made some smart moves and some silly ones. Such is life when a management group that made its fame and fortune heading a high-glitz franchise like the New York Rangers. As they are realizing, some things that play on Broadway simply generate the stinkeye in St. Louis.
The Young Prince. The Blues and their fans can look forward to watching the beginning of our next Pronger begin his career. Erik Johnson, the only real positive taken away from the 05-06 season as the first overall draft pick that summer, will take to professional ice for the first time this October. Expect a standing ovation when he first touches skate to ice down at the DrinkScotch Center and expect lots of overanalysis every game from then on. He'll likely see time in one of the top two pairing as well as time on the powerplay. Being the next big blueliner for a franchise that has always focused on having good blueliners is asking for a lot of attention and added pressure. The kid seems to be up to the task of following in the franchise footsteps of beloved blueliners Bobby and Barclay Plager, Noel Picard, Rob Ramage, Scott Stevens (for the one year that reminds us all regularly of what could have been), Al MacInnis,
Alexei Guasarov, Chris Pronger, Eric "The Visor" WeinrichÂ and through on to today's Barret Jackman and (hopefully) Eric Brewer. Maybe he's ready to step into the role, but we'll have to wait and see if he's still getting top pairing minutes come January.
All Hail King Paul. If Erik Johnson is the Blues next king in waiting, free agent pick up Paul Kariya is set to be the current King Of The Blues for this year. Kariya has the potential to return to point-per-game status this season and if he does he would be the first Blue to do so since Pavol Demitra tallied 93 points in 78 games in 2002-2003. Kariya has excelled on the powerplay and the Blues man-add was positively despicable last year, connecting but 12% of the time. Kariya's slick passing combined with Lee Stempniak's crazy-good one-timer could be lethal if the chemistryÂ is as potent as the chemistry concocted in the DrinkScotch bar at 14th & Clark when our founder, Jeffio, orders his Wild Turkey and Budweiser combo.
Additionally, fans can all hope for the call-up of depth winger and brother of Paul, Martin Kariya, who was signed this summer just before his big brotherÂ pulled on No. 9. The Blues have a tradition for skating brothers in the same lineup, starting with the Plager brothers, Barclay, Bob and Billy, who struck fear in the hearts of the Blues' foes. The Blues have also employed brothers Noel and Roger Picard,Â Rich and Ron Sutter (of course, brother Brian captained St. Louis, but did not get to play withÂ his brothers) and Paul and Gino Cavallini. Could Paul and Martin be next? Kariya the Younger was impressive during the Blues' Prospect Camp (now called a more politically correct Development Camp) and will be pushing hard to try to steal a spot at training camp this September. If he shows any ability to score against NHL-caliber talent he could well see time in St. Louis this year.
Manny Is The Man. For all the focus on the fowards and defensemen on this team, this is really Manny Legace's team. Or, to be more specific about the task at hand, this team will only go as far as Legace can take them. After starting last season as yet another shaky former Red Wing goalie who had a penchant for soft and poorly-timed goals (cough, cough, Osgood, cough, cough), it took a mid-season puck to the mask in practice to knock Legace unconscious and simultaneously knock some confidence and ability into his head. Like the equivalent of a cartoon character having his personality changed by the application of a free-falling anvil, that Dennis Wideman slapshot did almost as much to help the Blues' fortunes as the team's firing of Mike "I heart chicken wings" Kitchen. Upon his return, Legace started playing for the Blues like he had played for the Wings, flat out stealing games at times, a quality not often exhibited by Blues netminders.
If Legace starts this year as well as he finished last year, the Note will be well on their way to a playoff berth. If however, someone has anvilled him this summer and returned him to his crappy goalie state, St. Louis could well be on their way to a third straight slow start to the season.
Excellent play from Legace is a must if the Blues hope to return to the post-season and a great season from him would break another recent Blues tradition: a revolving door of underperforming pretenders in goalie's clothing. The Blues have employed no fewer than 11 goalies in the last four seasons, including the likes of burnt-up Chris Osgood, damaged goods Reinhard Divis, [drug-related innuendo ommitted] Brent Johnson, Patrick "Latrine"Â Lalime and FreddieÂ Braithwaite to play significant minutes.
A solid Legace playing 60-plus games would be a gift for this franchise.
Youth Will Be Served. The line of Jay McClement, David Backes and Lee Stempniak was solid late last season and will likely start the new year together. McClement's responsible two-way play combined with Stempniak's shooting and Backes' balls-out play on every shift makes them a well-rounded and effective line. Coach Andy Murray doesn't use a typical first-through-fourth line approach, so it doesn't matter that the youngsters are penciled in as the team's "third line" as they'll likely receive as much icetime as the team's "gold" and "silver" lines. [As an aside, changing the names from 1 through 4 is nice, but when the line names become gold, silver, rust and dirt, the effect seems to be minimalized].Â Expect to see Stempniak onÂ the top powerplay unit with Kariya, Backes to work his way onto a powerplay unit at some point and McClement to anchor one of the shorthanded units.
An honest evaluation of this trio is to admit that they are probably NHL second liners at their peak, though Stempniak has the upside to become one of the NHL's better (but not best) scorers. This year will probably tell the tale on what kind of career he'll have - a consistent second-line scorer or a streaky depth player. McClement looks to be a great third line centerman who can be counted on to score 10-15 goals a year, but his true calling is to be a shutdown defensive forward who could be a beloved Blue for years to come. I just wonder what his new number will be, now that Kariya was given his No. 9. I hope he at least gets a nice payoff from Paulie for stealing his lucky digit.
Upside, Thy Name Is Defense. The Blues blueline could excel this season, and if joined byÂ a solid Legace, would help propel the Note into a playoff race. Jay McKee, who tallied just as many points and attended fewer Blues games than I did last year, would bolster the defense if he can stay healthy. Shutdown defense and shotblocking is a tough way to make a living in the NHL, but getting paid $4 million a year should take some of the sting out of the bad days.
Eric Brewer was born again on the day that Mike Kitchen was fired and his play after Kitch packed all his shit in a cardboard box and turned in his office keys was reminiscent of his Edmonton days. That, accompanied with fans suddenly shifting their curse of "we got you for Pronger" onto Erik Johnson with "you're our next Pronger", lifted a weight off his shoulders. Not only was he meaner on defense, he also started to score more and was seen to smile for the first time in over a year and a half*.
(*not an exact statistic).
Reinvigored Brewer, healthy McKee, studly Johnson, and aÂ nasty Barret JackmanÂ combined with steady if unspectacular play from two or three of Christian Backman, Bryce Salvador, Roman Polak, Jeff Woywitka and Matt WalkerÂ could be a great, if somewhat faceless to fans outside St. Louis, defense.Â
These Guys Get What "Fan-Friendly" Means. For the second straight year, the Blues, in association with the company with naming rights for the building, Scottrade, offered $7 season tickets in the upper reaches of the bowl. For fans like me (read: cheap) this is an amazing deal. Plus, as someone who believes (read: convinced himself to believe) that you can follow the game better from up top where you can see plays develop, you just can't beat season tickets that cost a total of $308 a seat. When the cost of your beer is higher than the cost of your seat, you can be certain of one thing: there isn't a better deal in the NHL.
Free Food Day! Management discovered last year that if you can't lure the fans to watch mediocre hockey and if you've run out of jersey numbers to retire, nothing packs the house like free food. All you can eat chicken strips, hot dogs, popcorn and sodas brought out the food hounds in force. A game was even played and some people even watched it between trips to the concession stands. There is no lasting record of who won that game,Â but I still have a gross of chicken strips in the downstairs refrigerator.
Learning from their successes as well as from their mistakes, Blues management has announced that there will be another Free Food Day this season as well.Â Huzzah! Honey, get the kids and meet me at the van!
Not all the news is good in Gateway City for Blues fans, as the management continues to make moves on and off the ice which can be deemed questionable at best. From the short-lived
Strippers On Ice Blues Ice Girls, to the current concept of an on-ice mascot, to the money-burning move of re-signing Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk, management has proven that they are human and will make mistakes. How bad these decisions end up being will unfold in 2007-2008.
Ice Whores. The Blues attempted to change the image of the sophmore Ice Girls this season, attempting to upgrade from tweener girls wearing jerseys and long pants to girls from the "entertainment" and "dancing" fields for this season. After tryouts and an initial practice ended in catfights and several gallons of glitter and baby powder being wasted, the Blues scratched the entire idea, going so far as to scrub the pictures and video from their official website. A fan of catfights, but also a man who brings his young kids to the games, I'm not sure if I'm happy or saddened by this turn of events.
It remains to be seen who will be scraping ice from the goals and boards this season.
Bluie The BlueNote. I have no idea who came up with this idea (and no idea what the actual mascot will be named/look like), but I'm sure it wasn't someone who knows much about Blues hockey fans. Hot on the heels of the Ice Hoors demise, the Blues are now looking for someone willing to wear a sweaty animal or musical note costume 50 to 70 times a year. Whoever signs up for that gig is, first of all, insane, and secondly, clearly not ready for the comments he's going to hear from the drunken hardcore fan who doesn't take kindly to having his view of the ice blocked by a sweaty moron in an animal/musical note costume.
The Message Of A Taskmaster. Andy Murray gave the Blues exactly what they needed last year: a swift kick in the ass. Reminding the locker room that they were in the business of themselves and that their businesses were failing was a message that was well received. Known for not coddling players is a Murray hallmark and was a welcome change from the mixed messages of Kitchen, who could not make the transition from player-friendly assistant coach to I'm-in-charge-here head coach. But how long will that message work? Players are notorious for tuning out hardass coaches after the message gets stale. Let's just hope that we're still early enough in the system and that Murray has a few more tricks up his sleeve, otherwise the malaise that was clearly visible from the cheapseats last year could return and sink the Blues.
Second Line Guys In First Line Roles. Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk's best days are behind them. So are Paul Kariya's, for that matter. But these are the guys who are being paid first-line salaries and being expected to play top minutes and produce top line statistics. It isn't going to happen. Excepting Kariya, who I do believe will have a great season statistically, the Blues basically have assembled three second lines. Besides the Kid Line, the Blues are counting on Tkachuk (20 goals in a Note last year), Weight (59 points last year), Martin Rucinsky (12 goals in 52 games), Petr Cajanek (48 points and skin as soft as a young girl's) and deadline acquisition Brad Boyes to deliver enough offense to net the Blues 100 points in the standings. Of those six, only Boyes can be described as having upside at this point of his career. If the other five put up similar numbers to last year, there may be some long nights coming this year.
And so it looks like the Blues are going to be counting on goaltending, defense, Stempniak and Kariya to make the second season. Other teams have used similar formulas to make the playoffs, but I'd be more confident if that Keith Tkachuk money and some of the cap surplus had been used as, say, Chris Drury, Scott Gomez or Daniel Briere money.
In the time-honored tradition of Game Time, here are my Top 11 Predictions for the Blues Season:
11. Free Food Day is a rousing success, but the cumulative fat built during the game sinks the DrinkScotch Center three inches in three hours. Welcome to St. Louis!
10. Jay McKee suffers at least one injury that keeps him out of 20 or more games. Fans say the words, "four million freakin' dollars" an estimated four million times during his absence.
9.Â All proof of the failed Ice Whores debacle are archived deep in the bowels of the DrinkScotch Center next to a heaving box of "Gretzky 99" jerseys.
8. Stempniak meets, but doesn't exceed, his scoring totals of last year. The bulk of his goals come during the powerplay.
7. Tkacuk and Weight continue to be fan favorites, but TkachukÂ scores no more than 30 goals while Weight tallies no more than 50 assists.
6. Sales of "Johnson 6" jerseys are brisk despite his struggles in his rookie season. He'll play the whole season in St. Louis, but will never seriously contend for Rookie of the Year honors.
5. Paul Kariya enjoys a point-per-game season and despite his emotionless interview style, is embraced by fans of the team as a favorite.
4. Martin Kariya starts the season in Peoria but sees some time inÂ the NHL. He scores at least one pretty goal against a good goalie, giving fans hope, but is unable to stick with the bigÂ team. Three years from nowÂ he is quietly released, having perfected his impression of Peter Sejna.
3. Manny Legace and theÂ crowd of facelessÂ but effective blueliners steal several low-scoring games for the BluesÂ against better teams.
2. The headpiece of the new mascot is stolen at least once during the season.
1. The Blues, led by Kariya's scoringÂ statisics, a collection of several second-tier goal scorers, a nasty defense and the heroics of Manny Legace, squeak into the playoffs in the eighth spot. More importantly, free food, picking on the stupid mascot and a competetive team bring the fans back in droves as St. Louis Blues hockey becomes a destination in the city once again.Â