Blues have a Clue

For the first time in 25 years the St. Louis Blues will miss the playoffs. This impressive streak came to an end in what may be one of the franchises worst seasons to date.

After years of fielding a competitive team, the Blues hovered around near the bottom of the standings. Though this may result in a top 5 selection in the upcoming draft, it is little solace for a team struggling to win fans back and one who has incurred significant financial losses forcing the owners to put the team up for sale. Attendance has dropped dramatically putting them in the bottom third in the league. With the losses mounting both on the ice and off the team was eventually sold to new owners.

Thankfully for St. Louis, Dave Checketts and his group of investors purchased the franchise and only wait for league approval before taking over the team. Checketts experience in pro sports and running MSG in NY should prove valuable in his efforts to re-establish the Blues as a first rate franchise.

But there is plenty of work that needs to be done in order to reach that goal. The organization is going to need to be evaluated from top to bottom in order to get things right. A change in management and coaching may result as Checketts may want to bring in his own people. But he may look at their hideous record this season and at a team bereft of young talented prospects and that may be the evidence that results in change.

Whomever the new ownership group decides to have run the hockey operations they will basically be starting from the ground up. They will need to re-stock the farm system with talent and depth and will desperately need to improve the parent club. He will have a clean slate to work with as only 4 players have contracts next year and only $4 million is committed towards the salary cap. It is an envious position to be in because they can shape and mold the entire organization from top to bottom right away rather than take time to clean up messes left by the previous regime.

It will be interesting to see which direction the team decides to go. The organization does have some useful young players who can contribute, but the overall depth needs to be addressed. Half of the current roster is unrestricted.

In goal the team can either bring on a veteran goalie via trade or free agency or see if their young goalies can do the job full time. Curtis Sanford showed some promise as an NHL goalie going .500 and putting up a solid 2.66 GAA and a save percentage of over .900. It should at least afford him the opportunity to challenge for the number 1 job next season. His closest competition in net will come from Jason Bacashihua. The former Stars first round pick is beginning to show a bit of the promise that made him such a high draft pick. He has the agility, quickness and attitude to be a top notch goalie. He will probably get better as he gains more experience and as the team gets better.

Down the road, the team has high hopes for their own first round pick Marek Schwarz. Though he has been relegated to a backup role in the Czech League, he still is full of promise. What he needs is playing time. Perhaps the Blues can bring him to North America to let him maybe get a season or two on the farm. He simply needs to get more experience and the chance to fine tune his game. He has all the raw tools to handle the number 1 role.

The defence has some nice young talent but could use a veteran or two as an upgrade. To lose both Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis at the same time was devastating. These two in terms of abilty and minutes played were irreplaceable. This may be an area the Blues explore via free agency.

The Blues do have a player who may fill the leadership void in Barret Jackman. There may not be a more hard nosed, gritty, tough, determined player than Jackman in the organization. He is not the biggest guy around but he can dish out plenty of punishment. The only thing holding him back is injuries. Shoulder problems are a bit of a concern as it kind of takes away what he can do physically.

Christian Backman is starting to round into a solid two way defender. He has the size and smarts to handle his own end, but also has the mobility and skill to contribute offensively. The patience the team showed for their 1998 first round pick is paying off as Backman should be a good top 4 blueliner for a while yet.

Dennis Wideman is perhaps the Blues most skilled defenceman in the organization. Wideman is a power play wizard. He moves the puck well, is patient and is a good playmaker. He starred for the London Knights as they dominated junior hockey and hopefully he can help soften the blow of losing 2 of the best powerplay point men in the league. The problem is that Wideman is atrocious in his own end and needs to clean up that part of his game before he can move beyond a powerplay specialist.

Jeff Woywitka is knocking at the door for an NHL job. Inconsistency has slowed him down the last couple of years, but the team is still high on the young blueliner which is why they acquired him in the Pronger trade. He may still yet turn into a solid oddensive blueliner. If he can shore up his defensive game and use his size to his advantage he will be a NHL regular.

The top returning veteran is Eric Brewer. The former Oiler was the centrepiece in the Pronger trade and did not live up to expectations. In fact Brewer was either terrible or injured in his first season in St. Louis. Brewer is a year away from unrestricted free agency and it will be interesting to see what the Blues do with him. He has all the tools to be a star. He has good size, a terrific skater, and possesses a heavy shot. He just may not have the hockey sense to pull it off and really is not suited for the lead role on defence.

There is going to be a mix of veterans like Bryce Salvador and Kevin Dallman and youngsters like Matt Walker, Doug Lynch, Roman Polak and Scott Jackson challenging for jobs next year. But there may be no room for them if a couple of vets are added via free agency.

If the Blues decide to spend a bit of the new ownership’s money, the most logical thing would be to add some needed scoring help and skill up front. It is likely that veteran Keith Tkachuk will return to the Blues. The team has an option on his contract next year. Tkachuk is still one of the best power forwards in the game. He still has the ability to dominate physically and use his size and strength to create offence. He can continue that trend as long as he stays healthy and in shape.

But outside of Tkachuk, there is nothing but support players, grinders and checkers. Many like captain Dallas Drake and leading scorers Petr Cajanek and Scott Young may not return. But the team is still stocked with role forwards like veterans Jamal Mayers and Vladimir Orszagh or youngsters Mark Rycroft, Jesse Boulerice, Mike Zigomanis, Mike Glumac and Jon Disalvatore.

There is a significant lack of overall speed and skill and scoring that needs upgrading immediately. There is some OK youth in the organization and with a top 5 pick, a great chance to add a top flight young forward prospect like Phill Kessel or Jordan Staal. That would help immensely but it is not enough.

Right now they just have a handful of young forwards and it is still possible some if not all may not turn into regular contributors. The team’s top forward prospect is TJ Oshie. He looks to be what the Blues exactly need. He is quick, skilled with the puck and a natural goal scorer. It is time now for the Blues to develop a top sniper within and Oshie has that potential. He is the type of one on one player missing in St Louis right now. Timofei Shishkanov is another one of the team’s best prospects. He is a great skater and smart offensive player. He can dangle with the puck and with the chance now to play regularly at the NHL level, he will be able to show what he can do. It would help if the Blues surrounded Shishkanov with skilled players he can play off of. At some point forward David Backes will get a shot at the bigs. He is another with some goal scoring ability. He is a smart player with nice hands and decent skill. He is a few years away but someone the Blues should be willing to wait for.

The Blues are also high on a couple of players over in Europe in Alexei Shkotov and Carl Soderberg. Shkotov is a terrific skater and one on one player with a high skill level. He is not big but has a good low centre of gravity making him hard to knock off the puck. He may need to get stronger to handle the rigors of the NHL. Soderberg is also a quick forward with plenty of skill. However he may be years away from coming to St Louis.

Jay McClement and Lee Stempniak have earned regular jobs with the big club and really are no longer prospects. Both are players who are going to fill defensive roles that will also require providing secondary offence. Eventually these two should be strong leaders in the Blues dressing room. McClement has a good shot and is smart defensively. If he can be a consistent 15-20 goal scorer that would be ideal. Stempniak may provide more offence than McClement. He is what most teams need to win, a guy who does alot of everything to help the team get a W.

As you can see, it is not all bad in St. Louis, but other teams with similar success have manage to keep the pipeline flowing with young players and have not had to resort to starting over like what appears to be the case now for the Blues. It is going to be alot of work for Dave Checketts and whomever he decides to run the Hockey department if they wish to start and maintain yet another long playoff streak and possibly better results.