Let me save you a couple of clicks: most NHL pundits will make the same prediction about the Blues that they've been making for the last four years. They’ll stick them in the middle of the pack, third in the Central Division with 40-50 wins, usually with Chicago penciled into first place and Nashville, Dallas, or basically any other Central Division team that did something noteworthy the previous year in second. The Blues have been toiling away in the Central’s coal mines without a lot of fanfare for years, and they have a tendency to fly under the radar.
For whatever it's worth, these aren't bad predictions. The Blues will probably hover around the 40-50 win mark, and will, in all likelihood, chisel out a playoff berth in a deep and competitive division like they have been doing for a while now. Armstrong's balancing act - with one hand on the "WIN NOW" button and the other hand on the "RISK NOTHING OF VALUE AND TRADE NOTHING" button - makes for a lot of long term stability. St.Louis knows how to win in the regular season, and that fact has been well established over several painful years. But that predictable script might just get flipped this time around on account of a sudden deluge of pre-season injuries to critical players, which has forced St. Louis to stuff its roster with unproven prospects. There’s a little extra uncertainty around the 2017-18 Blues, and here are some of the newest question marks.
With Bouwmeester sidelined by a significant injury, it was clear one of the up-and-coming prospects would get a serious look for that last spot. That spot, by the looks of the 23-man roster submitted for the season opener, will be going to Dunn. It's probably safe to assume Dunn won't instantly turn into the next Parayko, and he'll be given limited minutes and a short leash. In my view, that elevates Gunnarsson's role on the blueline, as he'll likely be grabbing the minutes usually earmarked for Bouwmeester.
Gunnarsson's struggles last season were underscored by the front office’s decision to leave him unprotected in the NHL's Expansion Draft. The same could also be said of Bortuzzo as well; even though Gunnar's managed to earn more consistent playing time in comparison. Pietrangelo and Parayko are largely known entities; they’ll be called upon to put up big minutes, but can Bortuzzo or Gunnarsson step up and take on some additional responsibility?
The acquisition of Brayden Schenn was brilliant, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn't perfectly fill the need the Blues have for a first-line center. He'll help, but how much, exactly? The advanced analytics of the modern game are largely based on puck possession; something which is hard to obtain when no one can win any faceoffs. The Blues languished in the faceoff dot during the playoffs last year, winning the fewest number of draws out of any team in the postseason. Schenn’s arrival certainly couldn’t make that last place performance any worse. The expectation for Schenn doesn't need to be all that high. If Brayden can win the occasional face-off, and register 30-40 points, it will be a net gain for the Blues.
Holy Fuck, the Injuries!
Fabbri, Berglund, Bouwmeester, Sanford, and Steen are all going to spend some time in the pressbox. The Blues are banged up big time, and Sundqvist, Thompson, Barbashev, or Megan might all be called upon to help replace them. There’s going to be a handful of new names sitting on the bench when the regular season begins, and couple this reality with the combative relationship the Blues have with their split-team AHL club, and it's difficult to know to for sure what happens to the pipeline this season. Can the Blues successfully manage their strained relationship with their farm club, and can the prospects they’ve called up to replace the vets actually keep the team afloat?
Jake Allen caught fire towards the end of the regular season last year and stole a playoff series against the Wild. He also suffered a debilitating mid-season-meltdown that saw him sit for a extended period of time as his game floundered. With Elliot long gone, and Carter Hutton hemmed perfectly into a backup role, Allen’s definitely the guy, but which version of his game will be on display throughout the regular season?
“We’re going to assume that Jake Allen returns this season as the Jake Allen we saw at the end of last season. We’re also going to assume that this team will continue to be as strong defensively. But what we don’t know is whether or not it will be able to score enough to be a legitimate threat. The Blues addressed their glaring need for more offense down the middle when they acquired Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia and having Robby Fabbri back will certainly provide a boost. But they’re still going to need more offense from their back end, particularly now that they’re going to be going the full season without the services of Kevin Shattenkirk. They’re also going to need more from the likes of Paul Stastny, who played well down the stretch, but went too many long periods without producing offense. The power play was in the league’s top 10 in the regular season, but plummeted during the playoffs and was one of the main factors in their second-round loss to the Nashville Predators.” [THN]
Here’s the question: can Allen break out of the slump more quickly when it comes this time around? A three or four game skid during this upcoming season is probably inevitable, but has Jake’s game matured enough to turn it around quickly? Carter Hutton might well have been one of the best backups in the league last year, and that stability should help shore up the crease, but when the chips are really down, can Allen give the Blues a chance to win throughout the entire season?
St.Louis had a terrific penalty kill last season, and the re-addition of Sobotka should solidify it even further, but the power play struggled at times last year. While the loss of Shattenkirk was unavoidable, the impact of that loss will perhaps be most painful on the powerplay; Shatty's points-per-60-minutes averaged out at 2.11, third in the league behind Burns and Hedman. No doubt much of that production came on the power play, and Edmundson and Parayko will be left to fill his shoes.
The acquisition of Schenn could really help right the ship in this respect; 17 of his goals and 11 of his assists came on the man-advantage last season. Brayden has some finishing ability, and between Tarasenko, Schwartz, and Statsny, it's easy to see a deeper top six beginning to take place, if only incrementally. Schenn won't be Tavares, but he doesn't have to be.
Parayko’s Expanding Role
Colt-55 is arguably one of the best (if not the best) young, puck-moving defenseman in the NHL. He has no obvious flaw in his game; Parayko's got size, speed, and a wicked clapper from the blueline. The contract Armstrong got him to sign certainly reflects this reality, but can Parayko stay healthy, continually produce points, and eat up more ice time? As Shattenkirk dons the Ranger blue, and especially as Bouwmeester sits in the pressbox early in the regular season, will the quality of Parayko's play suffer as he faces more skilled opposition?