By Antoine Mathieu, Staff Writer, All Habs Hockey Magazine

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

QUEBEC CITY, QC. — Another day has passed by my fellow readers, it’s time to reveal my fourth team for the Western Conference predictions! Here’s the link if you missed the Eastern Conference picks.

2014-15 WESTERN CONFERENCE predicted standings

  1. Chicago Blackhawks
  2. Anaheim Ducks
  3. Los Angeles Kings
  4. St. Louis Blues

2013-’14 summary: St. Louis Blues

Regular season record of 52 – 23 – 7, 111 points, 3rd West, eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in six games.

It seems like St. Louis Blues are cursed, or as a rational person would put it, their franchise has been unlucky. If the Blues were in the East, I’m pretty confident that they would have made it to at least one Stanley Cup Final appearance post-lockout, but unfortunately for them, that’s not the case. In the last three years, they’ve had to face the Los Angeles Kings in back-to-back seasons plus the defending champs in the Chicago Blackhawks last playoffs. To add insult to the injury, they’ve been eliminated in their last three series the same way: four consecutive losses.

But for Blues fans this is natural. Despite being founded almost 50 years ago, St. Louis have never won the Cup in their history. They lost in the finals in their first three years of existence and haven’t come close to reaching the finals ever since. That’s not all, they were swept in all three of those Stanley Cup finals. Some fans might forget this but they were the team that Bobby Orr scored his famous overtime goal against. They also had a streak of 25 consecutive seasons where they made the playoffs, yet they have nothing to show for it. As you can see, being a Blues fan is almost worse than being a Leafs fan.

It’s not like the Blues have had mediocre teams throughout the years: Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Bernie Federko, Pierre Turgeon, Doug Gilmour, Joe Mullen, Adam Oates, Brendan Shanahan, Keith Tkachuk, Doug Weight, Pavol Demitra, Al MacInnis, Chris Pronger, Grant Fuhr, Curtis Joseph, Mike Liut and Glenn Hall. That’s a solid list if you ask me. They’ve just been really unlucky in terms of injuries or circumstances.

There are a couple of instance that come to mind like: their first overall pick Erik Johnson getting injured in a freak golf cart incident, Chris Pronger almost dying on the ice from taking a slap shot to the chest or him missing a whole season from a wrist injury, Doug Weight getting injured at the All Star game, Grant Fuhr getting taken out for the rest of the year the season they had Gretzky. Or sadly, Al MacInnis’ eye injury that forced him to retire.

Then there’s the trades of Chris Pronger , Joe Mullen and Doug Gilmour. The dismissal of Jacques Demers and the hiring of Mike Keenan who ran all of their good players out of town with his ridiculous antics. Steve Yzerman’s perfect shot in double overtime (you know what goal I’m talking about!) Having to face a ridiculously stacked Canadiens team in the finals in their inaugural season. It definitely puts some perspective for the fans that cry about Montreal’s Cup drought.

Sorry Blues fans, I’ll gladly pay for those therapy lessons you need after reliving all these horrible events!

Following the Ryan Miller trade, the hockey world pegged the St. Louis Blues as THE TEAM to beat in the NHL. Alas hockey isn’t won on paper and the Blues lost to the Hawks in six games. Miller was far from the hero fans that made him out to be and was less than stellar in their loss to Chicago, as he had a save percentage of .897 that series. But at one point, you have to question Ken Hitchcock’s system. It can turn the worst goalie into a good one but it can also have the opposite effect on an excellent one.

Throughout his coaching career, a career that’s spanned over 17 seasons, Hitchcock has made a couple of goalies look better than they truly were: Pascal Leclaire, Roman Cechmanek and Brian Elliott. All of these goalies had a substantially higher lower goals against average and higher save percentage when he was their coach, due to his defensive system. Hitchcock, who won his first Jack Adams trophy in 2012, has always coached teams who don’t allow a lot of shots. As a matter of fact, the only times a Hitchcock team has finished outside of the top 10 for shots allowed are when he was fired during the season.

But historically, it’s also hurt good goalies like Miller and Jaroslav Halak. Ed Belfour is the exception to the rule it seems. That regression under Hitchcock can be explained by the fact that these two perform better when they see a lot of action. Miller was lights out earlier this season behind an atrocious Buffalo team where he was facing 35+ shots on many nights. Plus who can forget Halak’s heroic performances in the playoffs when he was facing a barrage of shots. As I’ve mentioned, his teams are good for preventing shots but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they prevent scoring chances.

So what’s exactly been the Blues’ problem since Ken Hitchcock has taken over? I feel like they’ve been missing that game breaking talent up front. Paul Stastny, who signed a four year deal with the Blues, is far from that but he’s definitely a step in the right direction for them. Rolling the dice on the younger son of HHOF’er, Peter Stastny, rather than wasting assets on Jason Spezza was without a doubt the smarter move. The 28-year-old will allow Hitchcock to push their captain, David Backes, to a more suitable role on the second line.

The Blues as of late have been the perfect definition of what GMs mean when they mention that depth wins you games. St. Louis doesn’t have a Patrick Kane, Claude Giroux, John Tavares, Sidney Crosby or Jonathan Toews but they’re still among the elite. They’ve compensated that lack of superstar as of late with depth everywhere. Go around the NHL, you won’t find a deeper group on defense. Ken Hitchcock expects all of his players to be able to contribute and play a regular shift which is why none of their regulars played fewer than 10 minutes a game.

Unfortunately for the Blues last season, they had a lot of injuries before the playoffs and that depth got thinner and thinner. At one point Backes, Vladimir Tarasenko, T.J. Oshie, Vladimir Sobotka, Patrik Berglund, Derek Roy and Brendan Morrow were all injured at the same time. That meant that fringe NHL’ers like Adam Cracknell and Keith Aucoin had to play games for the Blues in the playoffs. It’s pretty similar to the situation the Canadiens were in 2013 when they had a bunch of injuries and had to dress Gabriel Dumont and Mike Blunden in the series against the Senators. Their GM, Doug Armstrong, addressed that problem by signing Joakim Lindstrom, Peter Mueller, Benn Ferriero, Jori Lehtera, Jeremy Welsh and Chris Butler in case they run through another bad case of injury bug.

Backes will most likely play the tough minutes offensively but being matched with the other team’s top lines with T.J. Oshie and Alex Steen on his wings. The trio had a very successful season, all three were on pace for 60 points, and their two-way play plus scoring ability will be huge plus for the Blues. The two kids, Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz, will most likely play with Stastny on the first line. These two, particularly Tarasenko, looked like they were on the verge of breaking out during the playoffs. Considering that the former Avalanche player has three seasons of over 70 points under his belt, the Blues could have a very dangerous first line.

With the addition of Stastny and the possible emergence of their younger players such as Schwartz and Tarasenko, the Blues shouldn’t go in as many scoring slumps as they did last season. The Blues might have finished seventh in the league for goals but that was largely due to a hot start at the beginning of the season. In their first 41 games, the Blues scored 155 goals. They finished off the season with 239 goals total, in other words, they went from scoring 3.78 goals a game to 2.05 goals a game. Their record also dropped from 29–7–5 to 23–16– 2 in the second half.

But their scoring problems were at their worst in the playoffs. In 2012, after scoring 15 goals against the Sharks in five games, they only managed to score six goals in four games against the Kings before getting swept. In 2013, they averaged fewer than two goals a game (1.67) in a quick first round exit. Finally, this year they did a bit better (2.33 average) but it’s hard to win games when you barely score two goals a game; your goalie practically has no room for mistake.

You can blame those scoring problems on a lack of star up front as I’ve mentioned and their first line being easily shutdown in the past. Under Hitchcock their best players have not stepped up. Look at these totals: Backes – 8 points in 19 games, Oshie – 7 points in 20 games and Steen – 9 points in 21 games). These stats prove that these players don’t have what it takes to carry a team offensively, at least as first liners. Hopefully Stastny can help them go far in the playoffs.

The Blues did lose some depth this summer with the loss of Vladimir Sobotka who bolted to the KHL due to contract disputes. The Czech forward was one of the biggest reasons why their bottom six was so good. They replaced him by re-signing Steve Ott, albeit Ott is more physical, he failed to show chemistry with anyone and his production was pretty disappointing with only three points in 23 games.

Many fans are concerned by the Blues’ goaltending going into next season I think they’ll be just fine. Elliott has shown in the past that he can handle the workload never on a long term basis though. Let’s not forget Jake Allen who’s put up excellent numbers everywhere he’s been and didn’t look out of place in the games he played in the NHL in the last few years. The 24-year-old was named the AHL’s best goaltender  last season (best save percentage and GAA) and clearly paid his dues after spending four seasons in the minors. I expect Elliott and Allen to split duties until one of them surfaces as the starter.

As I’ve pointed out, with the defense that the Blues have, it’s hard to put up bad numbers. Their Big Three all played significant roles at the Olympics and is probably the best trio of defenders in the entire league. Alex Pietrangelo is a top 10 defender in the league and will most likely win a Norris trophy one day. Jay Bouwmeester is as steady as they come and is the current leader for the ironman streak with 717 consecutive games, talk about consistency! Kevin Shattenkirk has never had less than 40 points in a full season and would be a top pairing defenseman on many teams!

The Blues also added Carl Gunnarsson this summer via trade with the Leafs, in exchange Toronto got Roman Polak. I think this was a good move by the Blues, Gunnarsson has shown the ability to play shutdown minutes on a top pairing with Dion Phaneuf and will provide tremendous depth in case of injury.

Quick facts about the Blues:

  • Alex Steen clearly outperformed last season. The season before he only had eight goals in 40 games and he was on pace for 35+ this year. His shooting percentage was 15.6 which is a lot higher than his usual 10 percent. Expect a big drop in production especially with a reduced role offensively.
  • St. Louis had the second highest winning percentage when they scored the first goal, with the additions up front, that trend should continue.
  • The Blues haven’t made it past the second round since the 2000-01 season, is this the year?