By Brad Lee
It has been 185 days since the St. Louis Blues laced ‘em up and took to the ice in a regular season game. Here we are on the eve of the season, forced to wait one more day for the drop of the puck.
Instead of making any predictions for the season, what follows is my own version of a preview for the team. In reverse order, here are the most important players for the St. Louis Blues heading into the 2008-09 season. I only included players on the roster and not on injured reserve. Otherwise, I'd have to figure out where to put Erik Johnson, a guy who won't play this season but is easily one of the three most important players in the organization. Feel free to discuss/disagree in the comments.
23. Cam Janssen: The pride of Eureka would be a feel good story as the first NHL player born and raised in the St. Louis area if he was a decent hockey player. He obviously wants to be the modern Tyson Nash - the player other teams hate playing against. Unfortunately he often plays too recklessly and doesn't appear to have much in the skills department to warrant dressing on a regular basis if enforcer D.J. King is healthy. Otherwise, go Wildcats!
22. Mike Weaver: This defenseman played in 55 games last year for the Canucks and managed zero goals and one assist. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, he's not a physical force. He's a spare part at best and will join Janssen in the press box buffet line or will be chilling in Peoria as long as the other defensemen are healthy. In fact, he's only on the Blues at the moment because of injuries to Jeff Woywitka and Jonas Junlund.
21. D.J. King: I like enforcers as much as the next guy, but King needs to improve his hockey skills to the point where he can compete for regular shifts. Otherwise, he'll be stuck at the end of the bench or in street clothes too often and won't deserve a higher ranking.
20. Roman Polak: I like a good Roman Polak joke as much as the next guy, but he enters the season as probably the team's sixth defenseman. He's big, strong and is an underrated skater. Watch his play early in the season. If he seems comfortable, he'll have the courage to get more involved in the offense, something the Blues desperately need from their defensemen. If he's tentative, his shifts will be limited.
19. Yan Stastny: If the son of a Hall of Famer can develop himself into a mainstay on the penalty kill, Stastny will have a key role on this team. Without Jamal Mayers and his twin brother Ryan Johnson, the Blues will be looking for a new identity on a unit that was among the best in the league for much of the season.
18. Jay McClement: Miscast as a possible playmaking center with other youngsters the last two seasons, McClement will need to become an established defensive-first forward for the Blues to succeed. He too could benefit from the new-look penalty kill.
17. Dan Hinote: He's in the last year of his contract. He has a hot wife. He's won the Stanley Cup before. Hinote will never be confused with a goal scorer, but he can be a tone-setter and a "good dressing room guy." If he leaves the team at some point during the season or after, his main objective should be to teach Stastny and McClement how to be tenacious and tough on the opposition every night.
16. Jay McKee: How depressing is it that a guy making $4 million a year and who was the new regime's first free agent signing is such an afterthought on this team? His first season was shortened to only 23 games because of injuries. Fragile Jay made it into 66 games last season, but wasn't the shutdown defender he had shown in Buffalo. Hopefully he drank his milk over the summer. He handles the puck likes it's a grenade and he just pulled the pin.
15. Lee Stempniak: If Dutchie's play returns to the level he showed during 2006-07, he'll have his legion of fans back in his corner. On the cusp of the new season, he's a player on the brink of becoming a key complementary player on this team or an afterthought. He has as much or more to prove as any player on the team.
14. T.J. Oshie: I have tempered expectations for the rookie forward. While he's got some experience under his belt with three solid years at North Dakota, Oshie has a lot to learn about what it takes to be a physical, offensive player in the NHL, especially a player under 6 feet tall. He's got some potential, but it's hard to say what he's going to do with it this first season.
13. Steve Wagner: The young defenseman has the offensive potential to help the Blues forget about Erik Johnson at least a few shifts a night. He's one of the few defensemen on the team dangerous with the puck - and in a good way. But he's going to have to prove he's reliable in his own end as well as the opposition's.
12. David Backes: At the end of last season, Backes had no quit in him. He became a physical force on a nightly basis registering among the league leaders in hits. He's shown some offensive upside, but hasn't been consistently put on a line with players who can help him create offensively. He drives to the net and makes his money on the doorstep. As long as he comes out of the gate aggressively, he's going to be an important player for the Blues.
11. Keith Tkachuk: This ranking may be too high based on his age and his inconsistent level of play, but his personality controls the dressing room. Murray will have to be considerate of his age. Tkachuk was a different player last season with a couple days of rest. The challenge will be to keep him fresh and contributing.
10. Chris Mason: Not too many teams would have their backup goaltender this highly ranked. But if you look at last season, the Blues would have been much closer to making the playoffs with a consistent No. 2 goalie. Hannu Toivonen was a fucking train wreck. Mason will push Legace, who at 35 is probably best suited to playing 50-55 games a season now. The Blues will be counting on Mason to keep a high level of play when Legace is getting a break.
9. Alex Pietrangelo: Defensemen at age 18 usually aren't considered ready for the NHL. Orange Jell-O will get his chance to prove early in the season that he is indeed ready to play with the big boys. Otherwise, after nine games he'll be sent back to Juniors in Canada. It's his chance to seize. The first-round pick will be one of the more compelling stories of the season and a barometer for the status of the Blues' youth movement. It is scary to see a player born in 1990 playing in the NHL. Chris Chelios was already considered old and washed up when this kid was born.
8. Barret Jackman: No. 5 is undersized for a physical defenseman. He's had trouble with injuries. He'll never be an asset on the power play. He's not a lot of things. But when he's playing up to his potential and healthy, Jackman give the Blues a mean streak, an attitude that translates to tough play and a hard-nosed edge that has been lacking some nights during recent seasons. He's a tough son of a bitch and he needs to play like it every night for this defense to succeed.
7. Patrik Berglund: Since this is only his first season playing North America, he wasn't in the top three on the list. He could be that good. As Blues broadcaster Kelly Chase said on the air recently, Blues forwards won't know what to do playing with a center who is 6'4" and can skate. His size, reach, skating, vision, passing and dexterity on the ice are all game changers. His ability to quickly adapt to the NHL game from Sweden will determine how quickly he becomes a star player. Seriously.
6. David Perron: Count me as one of the countless fans who didn't fucking understand what the fuck Murray was doing not playing Perron with offensive players and in prime spots such as the worst power play in the league. Murray left the training wheels on too long last year. With a full season under his belt, it's going to be exciting to see what the French-Canadian can do. If he falters early, it will be interesting to see what Murray does with his playing time.
5. Eric Brewer: I still believe the dude has been miscast as the team captain, but he's easily the most important defenseman on the team. Brewer will most likely lead the team in ice time and be thrust into the waning minutes of every close game. He may never approach the potential he showed in previously making the Canadian Olympic team. He may never be an energetic, emotional player. But he could be just a good player. I can live with that. I just wish people would stop reminding everyone he was the main guy in the Pronger trade. Shit, I did it again.
4. Paul Kariya: Earn your money.
3. Emmanuel Legace: He plays well, the team plays well. I was reading on the Internet one time about how it's all about the goaltending. Somehow that lunatic was right. But if Legace needs a night off, they have Mason - a gigantic improvement over Toivonen last season. Don't forget, he's in a contract year.
2. Bradley Boyes: I'm not going to say he has to score 40 goals for the Blues to be competitive this season, but it would sure help. He's called three cities home in his short NHL career because more was always expected of him. Now is the time to show last year wasn't a fluke. No pressure.
1. Andy McDonald: He's in a contract year. Playing on a line with Boyes and Stempniak in the preseason, he made each of them better with the line totaling an insane 35 points scored in just five games. He was a key player in Anaheim's run to the Stanley Cup in 2006-07. If he's playing at a high level, that's less pressure for Berglund to play in key situations. He has to help the power play get better. If the Blues are out of the race by late February, the team could demand a good haul of picks and/or prospects at the trade deadline.
Like I said, let me hear it in the comments.