St. Louis added to their offensive depth with the acquisition of Brayden Schenn, but nothing is going to come easy for the Blues in an incredibly difficult Central Division.
The Hockey News is rolling out its 2017-18 Team Previews daily, in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds, until the start of the season. Today, the St. Louis Blues.
Stanley Cup odds: 26-1
Key additions: Brayden Schenn, C; Chris Thorburn, RW; Beau Bennett, RW
Key departures: David Perron, LW; Jori Lehtera, C; Ryan Reaves, RW; Nail Yakupov, RW
Will new coach Mike Yeo be able to coax enough offense out of the Blues to make them serious contenders in the Central Division?
We’re going to assume that Jake Allen returns this season as the Jake Allen we saw at the end of last season. We’re also going to assume that this team will continue to be as strong defensively. But what we don’t know is whether or not it will be able to score enough to be a legitimate threat. The Blues addressed their glaring need for more offense down the middle when they acquired Brayden Schenn from Philadelphia and having Robby Fabbri back will certainly provide a boost. But they’re still going to need more offense from their back end, particularly now that they’re going to be going the full season without the services of Kevin Shattenkirk. They’re also going to need more from the likes of Paul Stastny, who played well down the stretch, but went too many long periods without producing offense. The power play was in the league’s top 10 in the regular season, but plummeted during the playoffs and was one of the main factors in their second-round loss to the Nashville Predators. Again, Schenn should provide some relief there, particularly if he remains one of the top power-play producers in the league. He led the NHL with 17 power-play goals last season.
Apprenticing Yeo while keeping Ken Hitchcock as coach was an awkward arrangement. Once the Blues fired Hitchcock mid-season, they went 22-8-2 under Yeo. Most encouraging was the change in Allen, who struggled so badly in the first half he was sent home for a mental break. After the Blues axed goalie coach Jim Corsi along with Hitchcock and Martin Brodeur took over as Allen’s shepherd, it was night and day. Allen was dominant the rest of the year, posting a .938 save percentage from February onwards. St. Louis becomes an intriguing team if Allen maintains that elite level of play.
The Blues have a new first-line center this year in Schenn, and he should very much be an upgrade over Paul Stastny. If Schenn clicks with Vladimir Tarasenko, it could help the latter finally explode for his first 50-goal season. St. Louis also has a sneaky-dangerous group of young forwards. Fabbri returns from a torn ACL, Ivan Barbashev looks ready and first-round pick Klim Kostin has a chance to make the team. The Blues have a steady group on ‘D,’ led by horses Alex Pietrangelo and Colton Parayko.
It’s unsettling how much this team depends on Allen. If the bad version shows up again, the Blues end up back on the playoff bubble. (It’s worth noting Brodeur is returning to full-time management duty, with David Alexander coming up from the AHL as goalie coach.) St. Louis also needs multiple unproven forwards to make an impact if they want to be above average offensively. Teams are always better off viewing prospects as house money rather than counting on their production, but St. Louis falls into the latter category. They need a breakout effort from someone other than Tarasenko. No other Blue has hit the 30-goal mark the past three seasons.
Two of St. Louis’ most reliable contributors, Alexander Steen and Jay Bouwmeester, are entering their mid-30s and face the risk of sudden decline. It’s already begun with Bouwmeester. St. Louis will also struggle to distance itself from the pack if it doesn’t get more scoring from the blueline. It’s tough to find someone who doesn’t like Parayko’s game, but for all the fawning over his mammoth shot, he scored just four goals in 81 games last year.
THN’s PREDICTION: 4th in the Central. The momentum the Blues gathered with Yeo behind the bench will be enough to get them into the playoffs in the most competitive division in the NHL.
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