Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
A chill in the October air means once again it is time for the faithful to gather and congregate at the alter of the hockey gods at the TradeStocks Center in downtown St. Louis. After a long, uneventful summer, all of a sudden there has been a flurry of activity with several PTOs offered to veteran NHL players, including Yan Stastny, T.J. Galiardi and Mike Weber (none of whom were signed). Vlad Sobotka returned to Russia, unable to get out of his KHL contract, yet another Russian winger was obtained from Edmonton in a low-risk, low-cost trade. That helped ease the loss of winger Jaden Schwartz, who injured his elbow at practice on September 15 and will miss around a month, potentially nine or so games.
Despite a 12-goal outburst in the first two exhibition games, both victories, the preseason of this 50th Anniversary season was pretty much nondescript and uneventful as the Blues struggled to a 4-3-1 record, scoring 22 goals and allowing 18. Newcomer Carter Hutton stole the exhibition show, which is great news since in the last preseason tilt on Saturday, a 2-1 home victory against Chicago, Jake Allen gave Blues Nation a scare when he apparently injured his ankle and left after one period. Thankfully, it was revealed Monday the injury was not serious and Allen would practice Tuesday and most likely play Wednesday at Chicago, a determination that will already be settled by the time you read this today or tonight.
And the on-again, off-again trade rumors concerning defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk surfaced yet again on Monday with a couple of online reports that a deal with the Rangers (or Bruins) was close to completion. Names like Nash and Zuccarello and Krejci were tossed around like confetti at a fashionable November political victory party. One courageous online blogger even said the Bruins were interested in trading David Backes (and his contract) back to the Blues for Shatty. I fear we will be enduring this smoke (with little or no fire) up until the trading deadline on February 28, 2017.
So, what to make of the 2016-17 St. Louis Blues?
The major concern, of course, is the loss of big, net-front-presence, scoring forwards David Backes and Troy Brouwer, now replaced with David Perron and Nail Yakupov. Can or will #57 and #64 be adequate substitutes? A secondary question concerns the loss of goaltender Brian Elliott and the psyche of Jake Allen being the number one net minder, accentuated by Allen’s recent ankle problem. It can only be hoped that Hutton’s superior preseason performance and the potential of Ville Husso, Jordan Binnington and Pheonix Copley would make up for any possible backwards steps for Allen, either by poor play or injury. A tertiary consideration is that the Blues still lack a true number one center, necessary for any real Stanley Cup contender, one who can set up Vlad Tarasenko more readily. The Blues feel they can fill that need with any of Alexander Steen, Robby Fabbri or Jaden Schwartz (or possibly by the end of the regular season with any of Ivan Barbashev, Tage Thompson and Jordan Kyrou).
Nevertheless, the Note has considerable depth, especially on defense, so anything less than a top-four conference playoff slot would be a major step back and huge disappointment. It would appear now in October that San Jose, Dallas, Chicago and Nashville will rival the Blues for those four playoff home-ice slots, with Anaheim and Los Angeles not far behind. And major improvements are seen for Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton as a myriad of young stars up their game and challenge for a playoff spot. That leaves Minnesota, Arizona, Colorado and Vancouver as the potential bottom-dwellers. It will indeed be a wild, wild West.
The beast in the East should be one of Tampa Bay, Washington or the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Despite a long-term injury to center Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida is a team on the rise, as is Philadelphia. A Lundqvist (and Shattenkirk?) Rangers squad might surprise, as well as the Canadiens, led by Shea Weber and Carey Price.
Wouldn’t a Lightning-Blues Cup Final be quite delicious?
However, a lot can (and will) happen between this home opener and the beginning of the playoffs come April, including a spate of injuries, the biggest recently to Sidney Crosby, diagnosed with a concussion after practice last Friday, October 7. Sid the Kid, now 29, has dealt with multiple concussions over the years, the most severe in 2011. Other notable injuries around the league include those to Florida’s Nick Bjugstad (out a month with broken hand), the Kings’ Marion Gaborik, and Ottawa’s Clarke McArthur and Mark Stone (both with concussions). Dallas’ Tyler Seguin, who missed the entire preseason, is expected to play tonight in the season opener in Texas.
The true top contenders for the 2017 Stanley Cup will not have totally staffed, complete rosters until next March (or even early April) depending on many factors, most especially injuries. NHL teams this coming spring are not going to be the same teams they are now in October. So, any accurate predictions will have to wait at least five or six months until then. In the meantime, we can await premiere games with Dallas, San Jose, Nashville and Chicago, including the Winter Classic outdoor game at Busch Stadium on January 2.
So, buckle your seatbelts and settle back for the 50th season of Blues hockey, one, which we can all hope, is the most memorable in the history of the franchise.