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Management's Plan For The Blues: Great Expectations

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At the end of last season, after I had shuffled out of the Drink Scotch Center for the last time knowing that I had a long, long summer ahead of me, I was was buoyed by the words of SCP and Blues owner/chairman/governor/pimp daddy David Checketts when he told the media and fans to expect an aggressive summer from the team. Aggressive sounds good to fans who aren't sure if they want to keep paying the price for 41 home games. Aggressive sounds like the team is going to address their two main issues of goaltending and scoring. Aggressive makes us think the team plans to really improve itself by any means necessary.

And then the ownership group's majority partner, TowerBrook Capital Partner, decided to seek a buy-out of their 75% of the franchise. While the full impact of losing a majority (and most importantly, silent) partner is another story for another day, it obviously put a damper on the aggressive nature of the franchise's plans for the summer.

Taking another tack, management veered away from aggressive and instead decided to go conservatively into the next season.

The first move of the offseason, which was thankfully avoided, was an attempt to continue the status quo in re-signing unrestricted free agent goaltender Chris Mason. Mason has a good reputation around the league, but most of it is based upon his numbers on paper (91.3% save percentage and 2.53 GAA last year) and his incredible run after stealing the starting job from Manny Legace at the end of 2008-2009.

However, while there is no Bad Goals stat out there that I can find, I know for a fact that Mason had more than his fair share of late goals against, devestating goals surrendered shortly after his forwards had scored to close gaps or tie scores, and crowd-crushing soft goals allowed just minutes after a mind-blowing save that had given the masses hope. He had, in my mind, proved himself to be serviceable goalie, but not one who would be capable of putting the team on his back and stealing wins against superior opponents, especially in the playoffs. 

Thankfully, the Blues managed to get away from Chris Mason and to replace him with a better and younger goalie in Jaroslav Halak. In fact, checking in with Behind The Net we see that they believe Halak is worth 13.4 wins above replacement, a number better than Mason's and at nine years younger than Mason. Staying with Behind The Net we see that statistically, goalies are better from ages 25-30, followed by a marked drop off in their 30's, steepest in the years after age 33. Chris Mason's age? Thirty-three. Jaroslav Halak's age? Twenty-five.

So the Blues' first move of The Aggressive Summer was a shrewd one. It saved money (Halak makes $2.75 million this season, cheaper than the $3.25-$3.5 million that Mason wanted) and it addressed one of the Blues' biggest problems last season by bringing in a goaltender who can briong confidence to his team. Again, I wish there was a Bad Goals stat to turn to, but if you can wade through the statistical explanation, Puck Prospectus explains why Halak is not a playoff fluke and why he is a better goalie than Mason.

Unfortunately for those of us who believed that the owner's proclamation of The Aggressive Summer was just starting, the realities of shaky ownership issue were actually just starting to take over.

From that point onward, Blues fans were fed a steady diet of "what we have is what we need." No, no need to chase a high profile, high dollar free agent like Ilya Kovalchuk (cap space, yes; team need for scoring, yes; willingness to spend, oh no) or even a mid-priced scorer like Alexander Frolov (a proven 20-30 something scorer who is streaky and probably a bit too expensive for the Blues' owners). Defensemen aren't needed, as the pipeline and current roster are full, and the goaltending situation is as good as it has been in two decades at least with Halak, Ty Conklin, Ben Bishop and Jake Allen in the system.

But a forward who can score? That guy seemed like an obvious and necessary addition during The Aggressive Summer. Instead, money will not be spent on players who are in the NHL because they can score. The salary cap will not be tested; the salary floor will be barely met. In fact, the Blues won't even spend as much on salary this year as they did last season - a year when they finished ninth and missed the playoffs.

The Aggressive Summer has transformed into Staying The Course. Clearly that means that this season the Blues of 2010-2011 should skip paying the bill to the advertising agency and just call it what it is: Great Expectations.

The Blues are clearly going into the season with the same players that are on the roster today. That means that money is defining who will play and it means that if they expect to improve it's because they expect a lot of their players to simply be better than they were last year. The loss of both Keith Tkachuk and Paul Kariya, while not a big hit due to their increasing ages and decreasing productivity, still put up 31 goals last year. The players here now need to make that up, plus some. The Blues scored 218 goals last year, putting them just below the median, 17th in the NHL. That might not seem that bad except that the top team, Washington, scored nearly 100 more (313) and that eight Western Conference teams outscored them including divisional rivals Chicago and Detroit and that chronically offense-impaired divisional opponents Nashville and Columbus scored just one and four fewer goals respectively.

So, what does the management team expect out of their team this year? What do fans need to have happen for this team to improve on the kissing your sister seeding of ninth in the conference?

Goaltending:

Jaroslav Halak needs to be better than Chris Mason and Ty Conklin needs to be Ty Conklin. As mentioned above, Halak appears to be an improvement on Mason in age of performance, contract and ability to win in big games (his nine playoff wins for Montreal last year would put him eighth in franchise history (Liut/Millen - 17, Joseph - 16, Fuhr - 15, Hall/Plante/Turek - 12). 

Conklin continues to be an excellent backup goalie. His numbers are solid (92.1%, 2.48 GAA) enough to hold down the role while his record (10-10-2) indicates that he is clearly a stop-gap backup guy. He gives the Blues a chance to win when he is in and if he gets some offensive support his record could improve.

Management hopes that Halak and Conklin play as well as they did last year.

Defense:

Like 'em, love 'em, hate 'em or want half of them to go away, Brewer and Jackman are here. The team has too much money committed to veterans who show up too seldom on the scoresheet to get rid of them just because the fans literally tear their hair out when they are on the ice. Get used to seeing Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman and their combined $8 million in salaries soaking up plenty of icetime again this year. While Brewer has the worst plus/minus in the NHL since the lockout and continues to frustrate, Jackman, while not as great as his Calder Trophy year indicated he might become, is still a solid and punishing defender.

The Blues must expect that Brewer will play better than their minus-17 and that Jackman will be as good or better than his plus-3.

Roman Polak is a guy they don't expect much more from. Not that that is a indictment of the Czech Roman Polak, it is more of a compliment. Polak, at just 23, played so much better than anyone hoped last year that he is expected to play like a stalwart defensive defenseman at an age that most blueliners are expected to still be learning the game.

The Blues clearly are counting on the young Polak to play at least as well as he did last year.

Carlo Colaiacovo must play as well as he did last year. And not get hurt. Which is really saying something. Colaiacovo had a breakout year last season, playing a career-high 67 last year while amassing his career-high 32 points and career-high (and second on the team) plus-8. Can he continue to arc upward? Clearly the Blues are hoping so. However, management would probably call this a win if he can simply repeat what he did last year.

The Blues need Colaiacovo to play as well as he did last year.

Erik Johnson must progress. He has a contract being negotiated right now that everyone knows is for a short term in order to motivate him to reach the level expected of a first overall draft pick. His 10 goals were nice, his 39 points were okay and his plus-1 left something to be desired.

The Blues expect Johnson to be better next year.

The other guys need to be better. Who else is making the blueline this year? Is it Tyson Strachan and his defensive abilities? Is it Alex Pietrangelo and his fourth overall pedigree and untapped offensive and defensive potential? is it wildcard Nikita Nikulin? Could Mike Weaver be a late summer addition to fill the 6/7 slot?

Whoever it is, the Blues need this defenseman to be an impact player.

The Forwards

A few of the forwards will be expected to do exactly what they have been doing. Silent Jay McClement, for one, continued to develop into a shutdown checking center who can chip in some offense. It's not crazy to believe that as the Blues get better and get more national attention, McClement should start getting more serious Selke consideration.

Likewise, hometown puncher Cam Janssen will be expected to do just what they did last year, as should Brad Winchester. The Blues will likely continue to say that they expect both players to improve and that Winchester should contribute more offense, but nothing in his NHL history suggests that he'll do so. His three goals last year are much more the norm for him than his fluky 2008-2009 13 goal campaign. 

Management has to expect that McClement, Janssen and Winchester will play like last year.

Management hopes a few role players could improve.  B.J. Crombeen, Vladimir Sobotka and Matt D'Agostini are likely going to play at the same level they did last year, mainly as checking line forwards. However, management has to be hoping that the 25 year old Crombeen could improve on his point totals and that youngsters Sobotka and D'Agostini could break out into offensive players. None of the three can really be counted on to do so, but it'd be a boon to the team if they did.

Management is hoping for improvement but probably expecting status quo seasons from Crombeen, Sobotka and D'Agostini.

Veteran forwards must improve. Andy McDonald and his contract (three more years at $4.7 million cap hit) are expected to produce more than 57 points in 79 games. David Backes is no longer a youngster learning the pro game. At age 26 and with an A on his chest, the Blues need him to be more like the power forward who scored 31 goals two seasons ago and not the too often neutralized 13 goal scorer from last season.

Brad Boyes, clearly, must have the biggest improvement of the veteran group. With two years left on his contract at $4 million per, his paltry 14 goals last year should be embarrassing to him. Especially considering the drop he has had from 43 to 33 the previous two seasons. At 28 years old, he is playing for his career this season and next. Does he really want to be 30 and looking for a new contract as a guy who is known as a sniper who can't score? The Blues are surely counting on Boyes to regain his scoring touch and improve his totals from 14 back up into the 30's at least.

Management is counting on Boyes, McDonald and Backes to improve this year. 

Alexander Steen gets a pass on the 'must improve' movement. It's a guarantee that management will say that they expect Steen to improve on his career year last season (24 goals, 47 points and plus-6, all career highs), but that would be considered cake if he could do it. If Steen can replicate his breakout year and avoid backsliding to his standard 15-18 goals, then that's a win for the team.

Management needs Steen to play as well as last year.

The kids have to take the next step. At ages 22 and 23 and entering their third years in the NHL, it is time for Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie to become impact players. After a promising rookie season, Berglund was awful more often than awesome last year and finished with just 13 goals and 26 points, which is not nearly good enough for a supposed playmaker on a scoring line. Oshie, while a fan favorite, has yet to do anything to prove that he is a legitimate NHL scoring threat. His hustle and intensity make him a great player to have on the team, but until he can crack through the 20 goal and 60 point barriers, he is more of a role player than a go-to offensive threat.

David Perron, at age 22 and entering his fourth NHL season, must also improve. He has the carrot-and-stick two year contract now and he has improved his goal totals in each season, but for a player who expects to be considered an elite NHL scorer, 20 goals and 27 assists last season just isn't enough. He has shown flashes of offensive brilliance in his short career, but he needs to improve starting this year if the Blues are to have any chance of getting into the playoffs.

Management needs and expects Berglund, Oshie and Perron to improve and become legitimate scoring weapons.

So, what does that all mean?

Tally up the numbers above and Blues management is really expecting some miracles from this roster in order for the team to improve from within and make a serious run into the playoffs.

Play as well as last year: 12 players. Management needs Halak, Conklin, Jackman, Polak, Colaiacovo, McClement, Janssen, Winchester, Steen, Crombeen, Sobotka and D'Agostini must all play at least as well as they did last year.

Improve on last year: 8 players. Management needs Brewer, Johnson, McDonald, Backes, Boyes, Berglund, Oshie and Perron must all improve.

The breakdown suggests two major issues. First, virtually every player who must improve is a guy filling a key role. Six forwards who should make up the top two scoring lines must all get better. The other two are top two pairing defensemen.

The second issue is that none of this considers what happens if players underperform. Inevitably at least one or more of these players will not only not improve or play as well as last year, but will in fact be worse than last year. What happens then? Of the 20 players discussed, 10 are must improve or must stay at least as good as last year (Halak and arguably Colaiacovo cannot backslide without creating big holes in the team). The other 10 players who must at least play as well as last year are not in key positions and if they were to backslide it is not unrecoverable. In other words, if Crombeen or Janssen or even Conklin aren't as good this year as last year, it doesn't present a huge problem for the team.

But asking almost half of the roster to be better is a tall order. Obviously the team has no choice but to expect it. If these players with all the pressure heaped on their shoulders aren'y up to it, it is unrealistic to expect the team to make the playoffs again this season. Can they do it? Can they take the next step forward by having all of their key players get better all at the same time?

Great Expectations indeed.