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Know Thine Enemy: The St. Louis Blues

Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. Of course, that doesn’t mean that the other six teams of Conference III spent the summer sitting on their hands. No. The Central Division is about to get fun.

Which is why we’re taking the opportunity this summer to look at the offseason moves and acquisitions of the other Conference III teams. Who’s improved, who’s trending in the other direction, and what to watch for in the 2014-2015 season. We debuted with the Winnipeg Jets, then looked at the Nashville Predator’s summer of stopgap measures. Following that we revealed that the Minnesota Wild are actually pretty good, then last week looked at perennial regular season under-achievers, the Chicago Blackhawks. Today sees the penultimate installment, with the team that should have won the division last season, the St. Louis Blues.

The St. Louis Blues were a popular pick to finish second in the Central Division last year, and lo and behold, they finished second in the Central Division last year. Only, it was the Colorado Avalanche who topped them, and not the Chicago Blackhawks. There’s really no accounting for some things.

So where does that leave them heading into this season? Well, to be perfectly honest, probably finishing second behind the Chicago Blackhawks. But don’t let me sway you! There’ll be a poll at the bottom! Make up your own minds! Be independent people!

Ahem. When the Blues finish second in the Central Division this season, it will be primarily due to one particular signing. That’s right. Steve Ott re-upped in St. Louis, signing a two-year contract. Gone are the heady days of him being road captain of the Buffalo Sabres. Now he’ll play an instrumental role in the St. Louis Blues 2014-15 second place campaign. Maybe Stars fans can finally learn to hate him, as does the rest of the league.

A couple of notable players also departed from St. Louis, after only a brief stay with the Blues. Derek Roy is bound for Nashville as part of their aging center carousel, and Brenden Morrow is Tampa Bay bound, his fourth team in three seasons. Obviously a hot commodity around the league these days.

In less important Blues news, there was this one guy who played on this one team, but then he became a free agent, and despite saying how he’d probably stay on that one team, he ended up going to another team. This is how the NHL free-agent market works these days.

St. Louis’ Biggest Splash

Paul Stastny went into the offseason as the top center on the market, in a market where everybody (at least in the Central Division) seemed to covet a brand new shiny center. The Dallas Stars picked up Jason Spezza, the Nashville Predators picked up Mike Ribeiro… and Derek Roy… and Olli Jokinen… the Minnesota Wild picked up Thomas Vanek. Ok, not a center, but still.

The St. Louis Blues landed Paul Stastny.

Because for the Blues, a team that finished 6th in the league in goals for and Corsi for, an upgrade to their top line was obviously the most glaring issue they needed to address. *sigh…*

Happily for fans of the less evil franchises in the Central Division, not everything was smooth sailing for the Blues this summer.

The Question Mark

Much like with the Minnesota Wild, the question surrounding the St. Louis Blues is their goaltending. Will it be good enough? Last year they started with Jaroslav Halak in net, owner of a .918 career save percentage, and Brian Elliott, owner of a .911 save percentage, backing him up. With the trade deadline approaching though, Blues management decided a message needed to be sent that the Blues were going for it. So they swapped Halak for Ryan Miller, owner of a .915 career save percentage. Does career save percentage mean anything? Are all goalies essentially the same? Should the NHL just start putting a shooting target in front of all the goals and call it even? PDO aficionados unite!

I don’t know what I’m talking about anymore.

Point is, the St. Louis Blues last season traded a decent goalie for another decent goalie. Only trouble is, the second decent goalie was merely a rental, meaning it’s journeyman netminder Elliott’s time to shine. While rookie Jake Allen and his 15 games of NHL experience (and a career .905 save percentage!) will be backing him up.

Anybody else inspired with confidence?

Anything Else?

What, aside from the re-signing of Ott and the tragic losses of Roy and Morrow? You want to know about non-former-Star related moves?

There were some.

The transaction list gives a whole bunch of names I’ve never heard of, and which after cursory research I have even less interest in. However, this one amuses me. Vladimir Sobotka was awarded a one-year contract in arbitration, after already declaring he’d play for Avangard Omsk of the KHL. And no he’s not Russian, so don’t you bring that whole ‘Russian Factor’ thing into it.

On a side note, I’m pretty sure Avangard Omsk is a character in a Thor comic I read once.

But anyway, should Sobotka ever return to the NHL, he’ll have to honor that contract with the Blues. But will he return? And should we concern ourselves, seeing as he’s only a bottom six forward anyway? Probably not. I’m over it.

Coming the other way across the Atlantic, Peter Mueller, the 8th overall draft pick in 2006, has signed a one-year contract with the Blues after spending last season playing in Switzerland. Injuries and concussions and all that other un-fun stuff saw Mueller falling well short of his potential while he was with the Colorado Avalanche a few years back, but he put up strong numbers in Switzerland so we’ll see how that translates to the NHL. Or not, seeing as he’s on a two-way contract and might just spend his time in the AHL. So it goes.

Also coming across from Europe, and more specifically from the KHL, is forward Jori Lehterä. And then of course there’s the Blues upsetting Pension Plan Puppets with the trade of Roman Polak for Carl Gunnarsson. But I’ll let today’s guest blogger talk more about those two. Because he actually knows something about them. Please everyone, give your full attention to Tyler Atwood, of St. Louis Game Time. And I’d also like you to note how he self-redacted [Copy Ed.’s note: or did he?] on question four. Guests are so well behaved here on Defending Big D!

1) Goaltending. Seems a good place to start. Ya know, Jaroslav Halak is by all accounts a pretty alright goaltender. At least, that’s what New York Islanders‘ blogs tell me. Talk me through the feelings about the Ryan Miller trade last spring, his moving on from St. Louis in the offseason, and your comfort level with beginning the season with Brian Elliott backed up by Jake Allen.

At the time it happened, the general consensus was that the Ryan Miller trade was something that pretty much was going to happen and almost HAD to happen for people to take the Blues seriously. We see what happened… and let’s face it, the trade ended up being an abject failure (we’ll get to Steve Ott later). The loss of Jaroslav Halak, though, is equal parts bad and good as he will not be seen as the scapegoat of the franchise as he was for the past four years but had actually had a decent season last year and throughout his four-season run with the Blues, whenever his groin didn’t fall off. So now, as Miller becomes Vancouver’s American Hero, we’re left with perennial backup du jour Brian Elliott and “The Future”, Jake Allen. Considering the team’s defensive prowess, their moves in other parts of the ice and their decision to bring aboard Jim Corsi as goaltending coach (and getting rid of the boat anchor on the staff that was Corey Hirsch), my confidence level in this tandem is higher than that of many Blues fans. That said, I will be stunned if anyone other than Allen is the starter by the end of the season.

2) Fill me in on the little things I missed. Stastny arrived, Miller departed, fine. Everybody knows that. What about the smaller details though? Any good prospects you see making the jump to the NHL level this season?

The shine indeed is on Paul Stastny coming aboard, and I’ll discuss him later. But the signing that happened moments before Stastny’s may have nearly as much impact on the team . . . and that is the one of Finnish centerman Jori Lehtera from the KHL. He was Vladimir Tarasenko’s center during the latest lockout and could fit in perfectly with Tarasenko and young Jaden Schwartz, who had a veritable “Cast Of Thousands” as their centers last season. The pickup of Carl Gunnarsson in a trade that involved stay-at-home specialist Roman Polak completes a very fine puck-moving defensive corps. And while he may find it difficult to get minutes at the NHL level, the signing of Alexander Steen’s Swedish buddy, Joakim Lindstrom (another center, by the way), could make a strong impact on an already-deep top nine. If there are injuries, there’s a chance you see an impact from young guys like Magnus Paajarvi, who some Oilers fans are still waiting to come around, I believe. As for prospects, the two with the best chance to make any kind of impact this season are Dmitrij Jaskin and Ty Rattie, and with how deep this roster is, they may both be best served in the AHL most of this season, if not for all of it.

3) As a Stars fan, I feel obliged to ask about Steve Ott. He became a fan favorite in Dallas at the same time as he was becoming hated around the rest of the league. Has he won Blues fans over since his arrival in St. Louis? Are you pleased with his re-signing?

Steve Ott has won himself over with some Blues fans (especially after getting the primary assist on Steen’s Game 1 winner against the Blackhawks), but not all. And certainly not me. On a team that predicates itself on puck possession and puck movement, Ott does neither. He agitates and fights, sure, but the Blues have several other guys on the current roster that can do that as well if not better than Ott. When he moved over in the Miller trade, Ott had nine goals on the season. He finished the season (even after six playoff games) with… ummmm, nine goals. He did mention in the offseason that he played most of the end of the season with a sports hernia and that issue was corrected, but I have no faith he’s going to be much better (if AT ALL better) based on health, as he’s now on the wrong side of 30. If he is ever used on the top line again (as noted in the first sentence), I will friggin’ scream. He has less business there than Vladimir Sobotka (which I’ll get to next). As for the contract, he was given $5.2MM over 2 years when he was barely worth a third of that amount and that contract hoarks me off. But…

4) Tell me, have you become a fan of the Avangard Omsk? Or are there some hard feelings amongst Blues’ fans with the departure of Vladimir Sobotka for the KHL?

My fiancee might be an Avangard Omsk fan. She named one of her cats after Vladimir Sobotka, for crying out loud. Me, well… this is how the world of arbitration works for a European player, I guess. He got an offer he felt he couldn’t refuse, and he jumped at it. Hard feelings? Sure, especially among the fans who have always despised Sobotka for the crime of his coach playing him a bit too high on the roster (including the aforementioned revolving door of centers with Schwartz and Tarasenko), sometimes out of necessity. Not even when Adam Oates was [complaining in a petulant way] about his contract in the 90’s was he as universally loathed by Blues fans as Sobotka is now. It is amazing how flustered we’ve become with a third- and fourth-line center like this. Me, personally… well, it’s part of the game. I’ve moved on, and the feeling is that most Blues fans eventually will let bygones be bygones regarding Sobotka. And personally, I would’ve rather paid Sobotka $3MM per year to center the third- or fourth-line than watch Steve Ott be terrible in the same role for the next two seasons at an egregious overpayment that was obviously done as a thumb-nose at Sobotka and his people from management. The seeming insinuation that Steve Ott will be as effective as Vladimir Sobotka by the Blues brass, by far, is the most confusing and confounding thing that happened to the team this offseason and I still don’t quite get it.

5) The big sweepstakes this offseason was for Paul Stastny. Fine. Blues win. Nevermind why on earth he would choose to sign in St. Louis, let’s talk about how he affects your team. You guys are obviously going to win everything ever, right?

Aside from the obvious “Local Boy Coming Home” aspect of the marketing of Paul Stastny by the team (people forget that while he was born in Quebec City, Paul—and his brother Yan, also a former Blue—lived in St. Louis for his formative years while his father, legendary Slovakian player Peter Stastny—ANOTHER former Blue—worked for the team as the scout that brought in Slovakian talent like Pavol Demitra, Michal Handzus and Lubos Bartecko), the signing of Stastny effectively reshuffles the top nine of the team in a way that makes the roster look incredibly potent for this upcoming season AND the next few years after. You could be looking at Olympic Hero T.J. Oshie being put on the third line. You could see David Backes, the team’s top center last year, put on the right wing. You could see Alexander Steen, who had a breakout season last year, do just as well or even better with an actual playmaker centering him. You could see the most defensively-responsible forward group in not just the Central Division or Western Conference, but the entire NHL. And they should score goals not just five-on-five but on the power play, which has been something of a crutch of the team in recent past. While they won’t surely win everything, they will win a lot of games this year thanks in large part to this signing, with everyone else now playing roles that they’re not only accustomed to playing but are actually, legitimately GOOD at. On a side note, Stastny coming home also led to a two-way deal with Chris Butler, one of his high school buddies and a St. Louis native who probably has very little shot of making the big club.

6) And on that note, a year ago the St. Louis blues were the cool pick to win the Stanley Cup. And through a large portion of the regular season that seemed like a pretty good bet. We all know how that turned out. What are the feelings in St. Louis this offseason? Is the Stastny acquisition enough? Where do you see the Blues landing in the standings, and beyond that even, in the playoffs?

By nature, the majority of Blues fans are cynical. We’ve gone nearly a half-century (and my whole life) with quite a few teams that looked like they could be something special only to find something pop up and bite them in the rear eventually. Thanks to the signing of Stastny, there is a lot of promise from Blues fans as to how the team can and will do this season, but in the true fashion of the “Show-Me State”, we as fans will believe it when we see it. You would think the signing of a guy like Stastny would be enough but that’s not a sure proposition. The Blues will be picked by a lot of pundits to finish second or third in the Central behind the Blackhawks (and, maybe, Stars), and I seem to believe they’ll finish first or second—but never ask a Blues fan how they’ll do in the playoffs. That’s never ended well… but you can’t convince a lot of folks that we know they’ll fall flat on their faces in the playoffs. It’s gonna be a fun season, I do know that.

Where will the St. Louis Blues finish in the 2014-15 Central Division Standings?

1st- Yeah right. Some random team that nobody predicts is totally going to win the division 110
2nd- Re-racking last year’s predictions 157
3rd- Let’s be honest though 111
4th- Conference III really is a toss up 28
5th- And anything could happen 4
6th- Or maybe Elliott and Allen both miss significant time, and the Blues trade for Ryan Miller at the deadline 3
7th- [Atlantapeg] 7

Talking Points