The St. Louis Blues enter 2012-13 hoping to build upon last season’s surprising performance, in which they made their first playoff appearance since 2009. They finished second in the Western Conference and won their first post-season series in 10 years before bowing out in the second round.
The club was already stocked with potential, but it took Ken Hitchcock taking over as coach last November to put it all together, molding the Blues into the best defensive team in the league.
By season’s end, the Blues had the lowest goals-against per game (1.89) and lowest shots-against per game (26.7), plus the seventh-best penalty kill (85.8 percent).
Their hard-working defensive style was augmented by superb goaltending, led by Brian Elliott, who’d washed out the previous season with the Ottawa Senators. Elliott led the league in goals-against average (1.56) and save percentage (.940), posting modern-day league records in both categories, and finished second in shutouts with 9.
His strong play motivated starter Jaroslav Halak, who overcame a slow start to finish the season tied for fourth in GAA (1.97) and sixth in SP (.929) with six shutouts.
The Blues could also count on offense from their blueline, thanks to budding superstar Alex Pietrangelo (51 points) and Kevin Shattenkirk (43 points).
Overall scoring production, however, was another matter, as the Blues were 21st in goals-per-game and tied for 18th on the power play.
One reason was forwards Andy McDonald, David Perron and Alex Steen missed 57, 25 and 39 games respectively to injury. Though they played well upon their returns (McDonald had 22 points in 25 games, Perron 42 points in 57 games, Steen four points in seven games), the Blues need healthier seasons from this trio if their offense is to improve.
They’ll also need more from right winger Chris Stewart, who had 23 points in 26 games upon joining the Blues late in the 2010-11 season, but followed up with only 30 points in 79 games last season.
Though the Blues were briefly linked in this summer’s rumor mill to Phoenix Coyotes right winger Shane Doan and Dallas Stars left winger Brenden Morrow, GM Doug Armstrong passed on bringing in additional scoring depth this summer via trades or free agency.
They have high hopes young Russian right winger Vladimir Tarasenko, their first round pick (16th overall) in 2010, will crack the lineup this season.
The departure of defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo via free agency sparked rumors Armstrong was seeking another puck-moving blueliner.
One report tied the Blues to Calgary Flames blueliner Jay Bouwmeester, but nothing came of it. Armstrong reportedly had interest in Matt Carle and Jason Garrison, but they signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vancouver Canucks, respectively.
With a payroll of nearly $53.7 million for 2012-13, Armstrong has the cap space to address his roster needs, especially if a lowering of the salary cap under a new collective bargaining agreement forces rival teams to dump salary via trade or buyout.
That, however, depends upon the willingness of the Blues’ new ownership to take on additional salary. Armstrong could be forced to seek a “dollar-for-dollar” swap.
If the Blues GM decides later in the season to make a significant move, possible trade bait could be Halak or Elliott, depending upon how well they perform this season.
Halak is the more experienced of the duo, but Elliott’s $1.8-million cap hit is just less than half of Halak’s $3.75 million per.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.