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Friday, October 3, 2008

Thanks For Playing - Part 3: St. Louis

I've picked on the Eastern Conference a bit and, believe me, there's plenty of material to work with there, but it's time to dig into the West. The Western Conference is a funny place this year because there's only a couple of teams who I can say, right now, are done.

For the St. Louis Blues, they can take some solace in the fact that their season was done before their young, stud defenseman Erik Johnson was mysteriously injured on the golf course. How Johnson was hurt is a matter under speculation. Johnson says his foot got tangled up between the accelerator and the brake pedal and he denies vehemently that he got hurt playing this:

Now I'll do the right thing and say I believe Johnson when he says he got hurt the way he got hurt, that's fine. But if you want me to believe that a multi-talented NHL defenseman is that much of a klutz...that's a harder sell. It's a much harder sell than telling me that a 20 year-old was goofing around on the golf course with his buddies and managed to screw up big time and get injured in said goofing around.

That said, this injury only helps set the tone for the Blues this year. Sure, they're playing in a division that generally is pretty weak aside from the overlords on the top from Detroit. This year is different. Chicago is the media darling for improvement, and rightfully so. Nashville has somehow miraculously made the playoffs the last four years, much due to most everyone else in the Central feeding them wins and consistency at the top with head coach Barry Trotz. Heck, even Columbus should be better this year provided Rick Nash stays healthy, Pascal Leclaire is as good as he showed last year, and everyone is fully bought into coach Ken Hitchcock's brutally boring system.

St. Louis really is swimming upstream this season and they just don't have much of anything to sustain themselves. Outside of Erik Johnson, along the blue line they've got Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman as their top defensemen and Jay McKee as their classy old veteran player (at 32 he's the most veteran defenseman) who gets to show the rest of the guys in the locker room how it's done, which surprisingly, will come in handy.

Jeremy Rutherford at the Morning Skate blog from STLToday.com outlined what the "grueling" pre-season has managed to do to the Blues defensive depth with the recent injury to Jeff Woywitka (no, that's not the name of the guy Shia Lebeouf played in Transformers):

Pre-training camp lineup:
1. Eric Brewer
2. Barret Jackman
3. Jay McKee
4. Erik Johnson
5. Steve Wagner
6. Jeff Woywitka
7. Roman Polak
8. Jonas Junland
9. Alex Pietrangelo
10. Mike Weaver

Now, Pientrangelo or Weaver could be the sixth d-man on the roster on
opening night, Oct. 10.

Here’s a look:
1. Brewer
2. Jackman
3. McKee
4. Wagner
5. Polak
6. Pietrangelo
7. Weaver

Now, I know what you're saying looking at those lists:

Who? What? Is this a joke? This team doesn't play professional hockey.
Oh, but they do. At least in name they do.

Since I know you're curious, the Pietrangelo being talked about is not goaltender Frank from the days of NHL yore, it's his second-nephew Alex, the Blues first-round pick from this year's draft.

In a perfect world, Blues General Manager would like Pietrangelo to get his feet wet in Peoria of the AHL, but with two of their original top six out for large chunk or the whole chunk of the season - trial by fire seems how it'll go for Alex Pietrangelo. Mind you, I find nothing wrong at all with letting premiere talent getting started instantly in the pros, I just worry about having that premiere talent A) being defensemen and B) on a bad team.

Starting off your career with a -30 rating doesn't do much to make one feel great about their own game or their future.

That said, the youth is going to be king in St. Louis and in this case, it's not going to serve them very well because they don't have the hugely talented offensive forwards that can jump right out and get things done instantly. Judging by what our friend Jeremy Rutherford has to say about the Blues forward set up... patience will be the thing to have if you're a Blues Backer:

Paul Kariya - Patrik Berglund - David Perron

Keith Tkachuk - T.J. Oshie - David Backes

Lee Stempniak - Andy McDonald - Brad Boyes

D.J. King - Jay McClement - Yan Stastny/Cam Janssen/Chris Porter

The one "veteran" line you'll have out there (that meaning a line full of guys that all have major NHL experience) is the line of Stempniak-McDonald-Boyes. Boyes is a 40-goal scorer and an example of why teams should make deals with the Boston Bruins. McDonald is the Stanley Cup winning center for the Anaheim Ducks who found his way to St. Louis when Brian Burke decided he'd rather have Doug Weight and his lower salary. Stempniak is a Dartmouth College player who has been one of their steadiest players the last few seasons yet doesn't seem to bring in much of any respect.

You look at those first couple of lines and see some classic names in Paul Kariya and Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk isn't quite the force he was back about 10-15 years ago (he is 36 years-old after all), but he parked home 27 goals last season once again (he did the same the year before) and if nothing else, he's consistent and he and Jay McKee can get some words in edgewise to teach these young whipper snappers a thing or two.

Jay McKee and Keith Tkachuk grow tired of the rest of the team not getting off their lawns.

Paul Kariya is another guy who you think of as old (he is 34) and probably on the backside of his career as a goal scorer. What you probably never realized about Paul's career is that he's a much better passer than he is a finisher. When he came out of the University of Maine (just ask Gary Thorne, he'll gush just a little bit) in his one full season in Orono, Kariya netted 75 assists - mind you, it's rare when college players get even 75 points (even scoring is down in college as it is the pros, for shame) nevermind 75 assists.

If the line Rutherford assembled for the Blues holds true, look for Kariya to be the true playmaker on that line with the 20 year-old Swede Patrik Berglund, playing in his first NHL season and 20 year-old David Perron, playing in his second NHL season. Berglund's stats from Sweden indicate that he's got equal touch scoring and passing and Perron looks to be more of a goal scorer in the NHL than anything else.

St. Louis is going to be a three-line team at best and should Oshie struggle alongside Tkachuk or get bumped down the depth chart, this team will struggle even more. Should that occur, you'll then have a top-loaded first line presuming that Brad Boyes or McDonald would be placed with Kariya and Backes or Perron.

The fourth-line for this team will be out there simply to start shenanigans, especially on nights where D.J. King and Cam Janssen are teamed up together. In fact, I predict this line will get a fair share of work against Detroit and Chicago simply to just start nonsense.

The best part of this team, however, is the head coach Andy Murray. Murray is a smart enough guy and is always able to get the best out of his teams. He did very solid work with the L.A. Kings until things turned horribly southward there and it's that experience Murray will have to draw on for handling this Blues team. The Blues will have a spurt or two in them where they're able to man-up and pull a few surprises out and goaltender Manny Legace, or presumptive backup from Nashville Chris Mason, are more than capable of stealing a couple games throughout the season, but don't buy what they're selling. This team is bad.

This team in the super-competitive Western Conference has neither the horses to withstand the season nor the summary talent to get through their bear of a division. In fact, the only thing Blues fans have to be happy about this year is the fact that for 15 games through the season they're going to look really awesome losing:

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