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Blues are looking to find their old form with many new players

From the St. Louis Blues preview: Team hopes new franchise blueprint leads them back to the top series
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Blues swept from playoffs with 5-2 loss to Colorado

St. Louis Blues Colton Parayko and Jake Walman react to Colorado Avalance's Gabriel Landeskog scoring the team's second goal in the second period, later eliminating the Blues from the playoffs 5-2 on Sunday, May 23, 2021 at Enterprise Center. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

After a 2018 offseason in which he acquired Ryan O’Reilly, David Perron and Tyler Bozak, Blues general manager Doug Armstrong sat on a bench between rinks at the NHL Prospect Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., and said he thought the window of opportunity was opening for his team as a Stanley Cup contender.

That was some call. The Blues went on to win the Cup that season.

They returned nearly the entire roster the following season. This time, sitting on the steps outside the rinks in Traverse City, Armstrong said the team could be Cup contenders for the next five years.

They certainly appeared to be on that path, leading the Western Conference in points and standing second overall in the entire NHL when the coronavirus pandemic put the hockey season on hold on March 12, 2020.

For whatever reason, the Blues haven’t been the same since. When hockey resumed, the team went 2-6-1 in the Edmonton bubble, going winless in round-robin play and then getting ousted in six games by Vancouver in the first round of the playoffs.

Next came the condensed 2020-21 season. In an injury-plagued regular season, the Blues squeaked into the playoffs with a 27-20-9 record, claiming the fourth — and final — playoff spot in the Western Division. They were summarily swept in four games by Colorado in the opening round of the playoffs.

Add it all up, and the Blues are one game below .500 – 29-30-10 – with two first-round playoff knockouts since they entered the Edmonton bubble just 14 months ago.

Now comes this season, which promises a full 82-game schedule, a return to games against all teams in the league, and near normality in terms of COVID protocols.

So does that Cup window remain open?

Are the Blues still legitimate contenders? Or are they somewhere between Cup contender and needing a rebuild?

Speaking on the topic of windows — opening or closing — Armstrong said: “I think that’s probably gotten a little too much play. If you make the playoffs, you can win the Cup. We’ve seen what Montreal’s done.”

The Canadiens grabbed the last playoff spot last season and made it all the way to the Cup Final before losing to Tampa Bay in five games.

“We’ve seen in the past, LA won the Cup from the eighth seed (in 2012) and the sixth (in 2014),” Armstrong said.

Armstrong’s own 2019 Blues entered that postseason as the fifth seed in the Western Conference and won it all.

“Once you get there, you need good things to happen to you injury-wise, or non-injury wise,” he said. “But it’s a long way to go there. Half the teams are gonna miss the playoffs. So our focus is just getting in right now.”

And more immediately, just getting off to a good start in the regular season, beginning with Friday's opener at Colorado.

Chasing the Avalanche

Overall, Armstrong said he has “normal expectations” for this, the 54th season of Blues hockey.

“We believe that we’re competitive with the top teams in the league, whether that’s the top third or whatever it is,” he said. “That’s where we want to stay. It’s a very competitive league. Obviously, I think Colorado is the No. 1 team in our division right now. We’re all sort of gunning for them.”

After a one-year realignment last season designed to reduce travel and potential exposure to COVID, the Blues are back in the Central Division along with familiar opponents Colorado, Chicago, Dallas, Minnesota, Nashville and Winnipeg.

With the addition of the expansion Seattle Kraken, Arizona has moved to the Central from the Pacific, giving the Central eight teams like the NHL’s three other divisions.

As Armstrong indicated, everyone in the Central figures to be chasing the high-octane Avalanche. And also chasing each other for the remaining playoff berths. Based on their recent play, it will be a challenge for the Blues to make the postseason.

“I was very much disappointed with our performance in the bubble in Edmonton,” David Perron said. “I was obviously disappointed with the way we finished last year.

“I felt like we were at times coming into our own as a team, and then we weren’t all of a sudden at times. So we have a lot to show.”

With that in mind, Perron added: “We have a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to show that this Blues team has still got it.”

It’s a Blues team that looks much different from the group that defied the odds and hoisted the Cup just two years ago. Of the 20 players who dressed for Game 7 against the Boston Bruins on June 12, 2019, only nine remain on the roster:

Ivan Barbashev, Jordan Binnington, Bozak, O’Reilly, Colton Parayko, Perron, Brayden Schenn, Oskar Sundqvist, and somewhat surprisingly given his off-season trade demands — Vladimir Tarasenko.

(In addition Robert Thomas was an injury scratch, while Robert Bortuzzo and Mackenzie MacEachern were healthy scratches for Game 7.)

As for the 11 who departed:

Jay Bouwmeester, Carl Gunnarsson and Alexander Steen retired.

Jake Allen, Sammy Blais, Joel Edmundson and Zach Sanford were traded.

Pat Maroon, Alex Pietrangelo and Jaden Schwartz left in free agency.

Vince Dunn was claimed by Seattle in the expansion draft.

That’s a revolving door of attrition over just two years. Then again, Boston’s current roster also includes only nine players who were in the lineup for Game 7.

So perhaps it’s just the way of the world in professional hockey these days.

“With the salary cap, with a flat cap,” Armstrong said. “Also, younger players just pushing into the league. There’s a lot of change in the NHL.

“Part of it, too, is you don’t want to live in yesterday. You gotta live for today and look into tomorrow. I think change is good.”

New faces

The two biggest additions to the roster are forwards Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich. They combined for 35 goals last season. The two players they’re replacing, Schwartz and Blais, combined for 16.

“Obviously, Saad brings a lot of the stuff that is our identity as a team,” Perron said. “He gets in there on the forecheck. He goes to the front of the net. Chips in goals. I think he’s gonna grind the opposition quite a bit. He’s a guy that I think plays our style to perfection.”

As for Buchnevich ...

“He’s got real good details to his game,” coach Craig Berube said. “He’s a hard worker. I view him as an all-around player. He can penalty kill, he can work the power play. So he’s been good. And he’s got great size, good vision with the puck, too.”

The arrival of Saad and Buchnevich adds depth and scoring punch up front. Depending on health and lineup variations, the Blues could field as many as eight players who have scored at least 20 goals in a season over their careers. At least a couple of other forwards, most notably Jordan Kyrou, have 20-goal capabilities.

The early signs on Tarasenko have been encouraging. Even if he bounces back to just a 20-goal season, rather than his old standard of 30-plus goals, the Blues could be formidable offensively. But even during last year’s struggles, offense wasn’t the problem. They averaged 2.98 goals per game.

Guess what they averaged during their Stanley Cup season? That’s right, 2.98 goals per game.

Defense must rebound

The falloff last season came on defense, where the Blues allowed 2.98 goals per game — yes, the same average as their goals scored, but more importantly their highest goals-allowed rate in 14 seasons.

The D-corps was far too accommodating in front of its net. And far too inconsistent in clearing out the puck. Improving in both areas has been a major emphasis this preseason, with the Blues making some systems changes.

In goal, Jordan Binnington hasn’t fallen off a cliff since his spectacular Cup run. But he’s been closer to average than awesome. Among the 40 goalies who have started at least 50 games in the last two years, Binnington ranks 20th in save percentage (.911) and 15th in goals against average (2.60).

Binnington’s backup, Ville Husso, remains largely an unproven commodity as he searches for game-to-game consistency.

In fairness to the goalies, the supporting cast on the blueline has slipped since the Cup year, particularly last season. Then again, it’s almost an entirely new cast of characters. Entering this season, only two defensemen remain from the Cup team — Parayko and Bortuzzo.

After a 2020-21 season marred by a back injury, a healthy, productive Parayko is a must if the Blues are to regain their defensive mojo.

“We all know what he can do,” Berube said. “We’ve seen him do it when he’s healthy and what type of player he is. He can control a game, in my opinion, with his defensive play and his skating ability.

“He’s just a big guy that can move up and down the ice extremely well. He kills a lot of plays defensively and has a great shot.”

As a unit, the Blues don’t have the kind of depth on the D-corps that they should have at forward. It’s imperative that the defensemen stay as healthy as possible. And even with relatively good health, Niko Mikkola and Jake Walman must continue to progress after getting their first taste of extended playing time last season.

If the defense and goaltending hold up, this could be an interesting Blues season.

The captain is optimistic.

“It all started in the summer,” O’Reilly said. “I think guys came in and they’re in shape and hungry. And now we start chipping away at it. It’s not gonna be easy, but that’s the fun part about it.”

The head of the ownership group also remains optimistic.

“I’m very happy with (the team makeup),” chairman and governor Tom Stillman said. “Very encouraged about what we have. I think Doug has done a great job of adding some pieces. And we also have some young players who are hungry and are coming along.

“You’ve seen the practices. They’ve been very, very fast-paced, very intense I think for early practices. So I’m really optimistic.”

But now it starts. Now we find out if that window of opportunity is open, shut, or stuck.

Jim Thomas

@jthom1 on Twitter

jthomas@post-dispatch.com

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