Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
It was just over ten years ago that the 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled due to the owners locking the players out over a labor dispute concerning the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Prior to that debacle, the St. Louis Blues had qualified for the playoffs for 25 consecutive years as management always seemed to put together a team that played very well during the regular season. That superiority vanished in the playoffs however, as the Blues only advanced to the Conference Finals twice and never to the Stanley Cup Finals, a feat last accomplished way back in 1970. After the lockout, the Note unfortunately deteriorated into a truly terrible team, not qualifying for the playoffs for five of the following six seasons.
Finally making the playoffs in 2012, a very good Blues squad has finished first or second in the Central Division and has not missed the playoffs since. However, that has been tainted by the continuing failure to produce in postseason play. The Blues were swept 4-0 by the Los Angeles Kings in the Conference Semifinals in 2012, eliminated by the Kings in the first round in 2013, knocked out by Chicago in the first round in 2014 and surprisingly soundly thrashed by Minnesota in the first round last season. Yikes!
And so once again, management under General Manager Doug Armstrong has assembled a very strong club for this season, bringing back Coach Ken Hitchcock for one more shot at regular season dominance and what is hoped will be a long, productive playoff run. Only time will tell if this is the Blues season to finally put it all together and end the many years of frustration that Blues Nation has endured.
Many fans have already written off the regular season as nothing to be too concerned about, focusing instead on what will happen come next April when Lord Stanley's ghost finally appears to watch some playoff action. And that seems a legitimate approach as this edition of the Blues is a strong one indeed. In short, this club is stacked and deep at every position with a good mix of youth and veteran leadership. The two oldest players are Steve Ott (33) and Jay Bouwmeester (32), neither quite ready for a rocking chair instead of a seat on the bench. The youngest players include rookie Robby Fabbri (19), rookie defensemen Petteri Lindbohm, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmondson (all 22) and wingers Ty Rattie and Dmitrij Jaskin (both also 22).
However, no matter how good this team looks on paper, the game is played on ice, not paper, so it behooves the Blues (and the fans) to focus on regular season contests now and take it one game at a time, starting tonight against the new-look Edmonton Oilers. And how fortunate we are tonight to witness the NHL debut of Edmonton's spanking-new prize, the sensational 18 year old Connor McDavid. Since the Blues depart after the game on a six game road trip and do not return to the friendly confines of the TradeStocks Center until October 24 against John Tavares, Jaro Halak and the improved Brooklyn Islanders, it is imperative that the home team gets off to a good start by welcoming McDavid and the Oilers with a solid thrashing.
Yes, it will prove to be a long, heavy-duty, grueling season with the Blues playing a majority of their games against teams in the Central Division, the toughest division in the league. Long-standing rival Chicago, the improved Winnipeg Jets, the defensively-sound Nashville Predators, high-scoring Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche will all prove to be formidable opponents, each and every one capable of qualifying for the playoffs this season. Although the Blues, Blackhawks and Jets should dominate, do not count any of the others out quite yet.
By now everyone is acquainted with the new overtime format featuring three on three play for five minutes. This was instituted by the NHL power-brokers to cut down on the number of shootouts, which, to me, is very surprising since those same NHL moguls have been touting the popularity of the shootouts and appeal to the younger fans they are so desperate to attract to the NHL. In an attempt to improve the game with the elimination of tie games, how is the new overtime format an improvement if it cuts down on the fan-favorite shootout? And what effect will this have on the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy and Art Ross Trophy (as if you don't already know)? Last year, Alexander Ovechkin won the Richard with 53 goals. Will he (or perhaps Steven Stamkos, Tavares or Vlad Tarasenko) score 75 or more this season? Jamie Benn of Dallas won the Ross with 87 points last season. Will he (or perhaps Sidney Crosby, Tyler Seguin or Niklas Backstrom) score over 100 or more points this season? And what about the effect this new overtime format will have on the outcome of both the Vezina Trophy and the Jennings Trophy? Feel at least a little pity for NHL goaltenders this season.