A Big Blue(s) Preview

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Tonight, at the Scottrade Center, the fated, the long-awaited, the eagerly anticipated 2013 Blues season will get under way. 

Okay, so it was really supposed to be the 2012-2013 Blues season, and all the Don King hype and rhyming in the world isn't going to entirely take the sting out of this late starting date. Nonetheless, the fact remains: the season will start tonight, finally, and all those things we were looking forward to seeing from the Blues back in October, they still apply. This is still the most promising, exciting Blues team -- and season -- I can remember in a very, very long time. 

So let's get ready for some hockey, shall we? It may be late, but that doesn't mean it can't still be brilliant. 

It was a tale of two seasons for the Blues in 2011-'12; there was the Before Hitchcock era and the After Hitchcock era. BH and AH, respectively. Though, come to think of it, that should really be Before Hitchcock and With Hitchcock, shouldn't it? After doesn't really make sense. I wish I knew Latin well enough to pull off the Hitchcock-ified version of Anno Domini, but unfortunately I don't. 

Before Ken Hitchcock took over the Blues, they were a drifting, shifting mess of talent. It was a team that, under Davis Payne, had consistently failed to perform up to expectations. How much that had to do with Payne himself is really anyone's guess; he was an excellent coach in the Blues organisation before taking over at the NHL level, and this was also much the same team that ran Andy Murray out of town as well just a few years back. 

After Hitch took over, though, there was a focus about this squad I had never seen before. It wasn't just a style that pushed discipline and responsibility from each individual player; there was just something about the message Hitchcock delivered (or maybe the way he delivered it), that seemed to really, truly get through to these players. The man obviously knows his Xs and Os, but the chord he struck with the players was the real secret. We hear all the time about players Buying In to a given system; it was clear to anyone who cared to look that the Blues had Bought In, fully and completely. They Bought In like Ken Hitchcock was selling Enron in 1997. 

Which, honestly, brings me to my one great concern about this team: what's the shelf life on Ken Hitchcock's message? Is this a case of a coach coming along, finding the right group of players at the right moment in their development as a team, and making magic for the better part of a decade? Or are we going to see Hitchcock leaving town two years from now, run out of town by disinterested players who, once again, shut out the message of the man leading them? I don't think it's going to happen that way, but, let's face it: it wouldn't be the first time with this team. 

But, enough of my megrims regarding the long-term future of this team. The year is 2013, and I don't expect Ken Hitchcock's message to run out of steam this season. 

The Defense

Last season, the Blues were, plain and simple, the best defensive team in the NHL. They allowed the fewest goals in the league by a wide margin, thanks to both a goalie tandem that was just flat-out unreal for much of the year and a defensive corps, led by Alex Pietrangelo, that consistently played tight enough defense that every teams' fans (save one, of course), bitched about the Blues playing a trap. 

It is that defensive group which will be expected to lead the team to victory again this season, if only because Ken Hitchcock hockey begins, always, with the defense. Pietrangelo emerged as a nascent superstar of the league, but he wasn't alone out there. Kevin Shattenkirk looked like the real steal of the Erik Johnson trade, even with a few shaky games here and there late in the season. Shattenkirk is the most offensive minded of the Blues' defensemen, and has both speed and puck-handling abilities to burn. He doesn't have great size, but he plays stronger than his stature, and he can turn a takeaway into a breakaway in a heartbeat. The only real downside to his game is that, in order to generate all those turnovers and breakaway chances, there are times Shattenkirk takes risks you might prefer not to see. He doesn't often get caught out of position, but he will occasionally sell out for the big play and get beaten if he can't pull it off. You'll live with the risk for the possible reward, but that doesn't mean the risk isn't still risky. 

At the other end of the spectrum is Barrett Jackman, the most stay at home of all Blues defenders. Jackman enjoyed a real career renaissance last season; after a few years of underachieving and metaphorical wilderness-wandering following the last NHL lockout, Hitchcock's brand of physical, harassing hockey seemed to suit Jackman just fine. Along with Roman Polak, he gives the Blues a pair of hard hitters to complement the top guys. 

No discussion of the Blues' defense would be complete, of course, without mention of the goalie tandem of doom: Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. They were the top tandem in the league last year, and they represented that rarest of animals, a true tandem arrangement, rather than a starter and backup pairing like most teams field. 

I believe in Jaro Halak. I think the competition of having Elliott on the team last season drove him to play at the highest level he could, night after night. I think we saw the real Halak last year, the one who earned that Halakness Monster nickname fair and square. I only hope he can find some way to maintain that intensity again this season in spite of a condensed schedule waiting to batter a goalie's body into submission. 

I have to admit, I still have some doubts about Brian Elliott. Maybe it doesn't make sense. In fact, I'm relatively certain it doesn't; after all, he was actually the Blues' best goalie last year. Even so, Elliott scares me a little. Maybe it's just because I was such a Ben Bishop believer, and can't help but worry the Blues are going to regret trading away the big man in the years to come. Or maybe I just can't buy into a guy who, talented though he may be, was never more than a backup before last season, when he suddenly looked like Jacques Plante reincarnated. I'm going to cross my fingers and hope he doesn't turn back into a pumpkin anytime soon, because the Blues are going to need Elliott to perform this season, badly. 

The Halakness Monster, in all his Eastern European handsome dude glory. 
The Halakness Monster, in all his Eastern European handsome dude glory. 
Here's the thing, though: if Elliott does perform this season, Blues fans may have the single biggest reason for optimism of any team's fanbase this year. No other team, at least that I know of, has the kind of near-equal goalie tandem this team has. The concentrated, mildly insane schedule NHL teams are going to play this year is going to put a virtually unprecedented level of strain on the players, with none shouldering more of the burden than the men between the pipes. The Blues' timeshare in goal has the potential to keep each of them fresher, healthier, and in better form than any single individual could possibly hope for. It may be the most unique arrangement in the NHL, and it just might be the biggest advantage this team has going in. 

You might notice that the defensive side of things for the Blues this year sounds remarkably similar to last year. That's not a coincidence; there isn't much that changed from then to now. The players responsible for stopping the other team from scoring are essentially the exact same group from last season. Considering how well that worked last year, I can't say I'm disappointed by that. 

The Offense

The offensive side, though, is a slightly different story. There is new blood on the scoring end, and if the return of the defense provides all the reason for optimism Blues fans need, it's the promise offered by the offensive additions that brings most of the excitement. 

The Blues were not a great offensive team last season. I'm not exactly shocking the world with that pronouncement, I'm sure; we all saw there were plenty of times last season when this team struggled more than a little to put the puck in the net. What made their struggles so inexplicable, though, was how easy it is to see the talent level this team has on the offensive side. There was more than enough offensive talent on the 2011-2012 Blues that they should have been a much better scoring team than they were; figuring out why they struggled so much was a season-long frustration for many, myself included. 

Part of it, to be fair, is probably a function of the system. Ken Hitchcock teams create scoring chances by being opportunistic and playing off the defense; with his gameplan installed on the fly the learning curve for the offensive players was very steep indeed. When the slightest moment of timing can make the difference between a breakaway chance and a simple dump and chase, that lack of full familiarity can be a real killer. I'm hoping to see more of those chances come to fruition now that Hitchcock's system is more natural to the players. 

The good news for the Blues on offense is this: the talented nucleus of what should be a very good offense is back this season. 

The better news is this: there are two players joining the club who could both prove to be major contributors. 

First and foremost is Vladimir Tarasenko, the Russian import who played through the lockout in the KHL. Tarasenko is a rare talent; he plays big, he plays fast, and he has the kind of puckhandling acumen that Russian players have become justifiably famous for. There is always a question of how European or Russian players are going to adjust to life in the NHL; the smaller rink size alone can cause havoc as guys attempt to take some of the East-West play out of their games. Even so, Tarasenko offers a blend of physicality and skill you can't help but be enamored of. 

The other newcomer for the Blues this year is actually not entirely new; Jaden Schwartz will open the campaign in St. Louis after a late-season audition last year. Compared to his new Russian comrade, Schwartz is more finesse, more playmaker, more...Andy McDonald. I watch Schwartz play, and that's the comp I always come back to: he reminds me of McDonald on the ice. The speed, the hands, the size, everything. Sometimes you search for a comparison to make, for a point of reference, and sometimes it's right there staring you in the face. 

As for the rest of the offense, Tarasenko and McDona-, er, Schwartz join a group that has far more talent than I think we've seen fully expressed to date. T.J. Oshie blossomed last year, the result of a make-good contract and that peculiar Hitchcockian magic. At times I almost worry Oshie plays too physically, too recklessly, given his modest stature, but I'm not sure how you tell a wrecking ball, even a smallish one, to just stop fucking busting up buildings for a moment. 

Perhaps the most exciting storyline related to returning players is to see David Perron on the ice to begin the season. If the concussion issues are behind him -- and I have no reason to believe they aren't -- he could be the Blues' best offensive player. He certainly has the most talented hands, and I deny anyone to argue otherwise. 

We all know what we're going to get from David Backes; the captain of the team is everything you look for in a power forward. Or virtually everything, anyway; I have to admit to hoping he can up his production numbers against this season. 

For my money, there are two returning players on the offensive side of the puck who present the most intriguing storylines of perhaps anyone this season. Patrik Berglund is, I believe, an underrated player. The big Swede gets dinged for inconsistency on a regular basis; I've done it myself on more than a few occasions. And yet, for all that, the talent with Berglund is too huge to ignore, and he is, somewhat shockingly, only 24 years old. It's easy to forget just how young he is, but I honestly believe Berglund could be on the verge of a real breakout this season. (Or, maybe I'm just fooling myself. But I don't think so.) 

Chris Stewart, on the other hand, is in a very different position. The other player in the Erik Johnson deal (though at the time, he was supposed to be the player in that trade, not Shattenkirk), Stewart is facing somewhat of a make or break season. There was been some excellent play in his past; his initial run of success upon first joining the Note was the stuff dreams are made of. Unfortunately, since then his time wearing a Blues sweater has looked much like his time in Colorado, with brief periods of brilliance serving only to illuminate how little of his talent actually translates to the ice most nights. It's time for Stewart to step up, or else risk falling into the trap of so many other talented players who never seem able to get their heads fully screwed on straight for longer than a game or two at a time. 

How the Blues' offense measures up this year could very well come down to how well the new players are able to integrate into the offense as a whole. The system the Blues play requires the pieces of the puzzle to be in the right places at the right times; too much freelancing is not a great thing here. There is more than enough talent for the offense to be every bit the match of the defense; why it isn't already is honestly puzzling to me. 

The Bottom Line 

Bottom line, there's a reason you hear the Blues named as a possibility to take home the Stanley Cup this season. This is a remarkably talented team, with one of the best coaches in the business. If this club plays to its full potential, there isn't a team in the league I would rather go to war with. 

To my mind, the Blues have one advantage over virtually every other club in the league: their goalies. Not just the quality of each, but the equal timeshare could prove huge with the schedule condensed as it is. I think we're going to see as the season goes on most teams having trouble keeping their goaltending situations together, while the Blues are able to cruise right along, switching between the pair without either getting excessively beaten up. 

The rest of the team is as good as any in the league, as well; the defense in particular is the envy of most of the rest of the NHL. The talent level of the offense has outstripped the results in the past, and even if that's the case again this season I fully expect the team to ride their goalies to a high seed in the Western Conference. If the offense comes together and takes a step forward, the sky truly is the limit for this club. 

Are the Blues the favourites to bring home Lord Stanley's trophy this year? Of course not. I would never suggest such a thing. There are plenty of other teams with more experience, who have been there and done it, and have the hardware to prove it. 

But, well, just between you and me? I think they've got just as good a chance as anyone. Maybe a little bit better. 

It all starts tonight. Been a long time coming, but hockey is finally back, everybody. Are you as excited as I am? I hope so. 

Oh, and one last thing, on an entirely unrelated and strictly personal note: Happy Anniversary, sweetheart. <3 

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