NHL Pre-season Predictions: Central Division – No. 2 St. Louis Blues

THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: Second in Central Division. *Stanley Cup Champion.

2013: 29-17-2. Fourth in West.

KEY DEPARTURES: David Perron, Kris Russell, Andy McDonald, Scott Nichol.

KEY ADDITIONS: Magnus Paajarvi, Derek Roy, Maxim Lapierre.

THN’s TOP PROJECTED SCORERS: Chris Stewart (60), Derek Roy (58), T.J. Oshie (53).

PROS: St. Louis comes into the season with a loaded roster ready to burst through after two straight disappointing exits from the playoffs. If you need to lose in order to learn how to win, the Blues have done their research, now it’s time to go for that Stanley Cup. Up front, there is a bevy of two-way talent and from David Backes and T.J. Oshie to newcomer Max Lapierre, it’s not much fun to play against any of them. A diverse and efficient blueline balances strong stay-at-homers such as Barret Jackman and Roman Polak with dangerous freelancers such as Kevin Shattenkirk and Jay Bouwmeester. In net, the Blues actually have too many options, with all-rookie team member Jake Allen pushing for time behind 2011-12 William Jennings Trophy winners Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak. To top it off, the man in charge is Ken Hitchcock, a Cup-winning coach from his days in Dallas and the only man ever to guide Columbus into the post-season. All the elements for the city’s first NHL title are aligned.

CONS: As badly as they want to be there, it’s hard to think of anyone on the roster who could be counted on to score that last-minute goal when the Cup is on the line. What St. Louis has in abundance is two-way proficiency; what it lacks is a killer sniper with ice in his veins. Backes, despite a 30-goal campaign in 2010-11, scored just six times last year. Chris Stewart has come close and would have hit the mark had the lockout not shortened the past campaign, but the closest option might be sophomore Vladimir Tarasenko, who is still adjusting to the rigors of the North American schedule. That’s a big ‘might’ for a team with destiny on its menu.

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X-FACTOR: We all know the Blues will get to the playoffs and give whichever team they line up against a heck of a time, but can they score enough to knock out the best teams in a seven-game series? The Blues’ X-Factor won’t come into play until they face Los Angeles or Chicago or Anaheim in the playoffs. Last year, St. Louis scored 10 goals in six games against the Kings, blew a 2-0 series lead and were knocked out 4-2. The year before, they only scored six in four games against the Kings and were sent home very early.

PERIPHERAL PREDICTION: If the Blues, as we predict, win the Stanley Cup in 2014, calls for more offense in the NHL will be heard long and wide.