When putting together pre-season predictions for the 2017-18 campaign, deciding who makes the post-season and who falls short in the Central Division is among the hardest things one can do. It’s a division chock-full of talent, worthy once again of the title of Toughest Division in Hockey, with nearly every team bolstering their lineup with off-season additions.
But among the least active Central teams, right there alongside the Colorado Avalanche, was the St. Louis Blues. The big splash was indeed that — landing Brayden Schenn from the Philadelphia Flyers could be a stroke of management brilliance by GM Doug Armstrong — but the Blues’ other off-season moves don’t project to move the needle much, if at all.
That’s especially true when considering the moves other Central competitors made. The Dallas Stars added Marc Mehtot, Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov and Martin Hanzal, while the Nashville Predators bulked up with Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell. The Chicago Blackhawks welcomed back Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, and the Minnesota Wild brought Matt Cullen, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Kyle Quincey to town. Even the Winnipeg Jets, not known for being all that active in the market, got better by signing free agents Dmitry Kulikov and Steve Mason in an attempt to address their defensive issues. Yet the Blues, for the most part, were largely inactive.
Still, when we at The Hockey News compiled our pre-season picks, we came to the conclusion that St. Louis was set for a seventh straight trip to the playoffs. The reasoning was that even without major additions, and especially without those at the level of the division’s other powerhouses, the Blues had a great mix of top-end talent and production down the lineup. In any scenario where you’re predicting future standings, though, you’re doing so with the assumption that nothing unforeseen will hamper a team’s chances at success. Unfortunately, when it comes to the Blues, injury woes may have already put a damper on some of the team’s promise.
The injury bug bit early for St. Louis, too. Back in June, it was announced that Patrik Berglund, a 23-goal scorer for the Blues last season, would be out until at least December after suffering a shoulder injury while training. But Berglund’s lengthy absence, while unfortunate, is mitigated by the Schenn acquisition. The same can’t be said for the injuries on the wing, and with less than two weeks before the start of the season, there are some concerns on the left side.
Let’s start with Alexander Steen, who suffered a wrist injury that has put him out of the remainder of training camp. Steen’s injury occurred in a pre-season tilt against the Dallas Stars and, according to coach Mike Yeo, the Blues knew right away it wasn’t good news. So, what’s the outlook? Well, all St. Louis is saying for now is that Steen will be re-evaluated in three weeks. The best-case scenario, then, is a return around mid-October. That absence could cost the first four or five games of the new campaign.
Steen’s injury is tough enough for St. Louis, but it gets worse when considering the next man up and Steen’s top replacement, Robby Fabbri, is also out of commission. And though Steen’s ailment is unfortunate, it’s hard not to be most concerned about Fabbri. The 21-year-old missed the final 41 games last season, including all 11 playoff outings, after suffering an ACL injury in his left knee, and it was announced by the Blues that he has re-injured the same surgically repaired knee. There’s no way of knowing the extent of the damage because St. Louis is remaining tight-lipped. What we do know is he won’t be re-evaluated until the day the season opens and that could mean he’s missing at least one game. The unsettling thing, however, is that one game might be the least of Fabbri’s concerns if his knee has suffered anything more than minor damage.
That’s not the last of the injuries on the wing, either, as the depth is further diluted by the loss of Zach Sanford. While not a lock to make the opening night roster, Sanford was projected as the next-best replacement on the left side. So much for that, though, as the 22-year-old will be sidelined five to six months after dislocating his left shoulder on the opening day of training camp.
And if you think that has to be the end of it for the Blues, you’d be sorely mistaken. Not only will St. Louis be without three of their projected five best left wingers to start the year, but the Blues are set to open the season without the services of Jay Bouwmeester. Once an NHL ironman who played 737 games in a row, Bouwmeester will almost assuredly miss his 22nd game in the past three seasons when the campaign opens after a blocked shot resulted in a fractured ankle. He’s set to be re-evaluated on Oct. 10 — that would result in at least a few games on the shelf to start the year — and how long he’s sidelined with the ailment is anyone’s guess. No matter how long he’s gone, though, his absence throws the top four of the blueline into some minor disarray. Joel Edmundson will likely move up to the top pairing, Carl Gunnarsson to the second and there’s a chance Jake Walman and Vince Dunn find themselves logging third-pairing minutes as rookie rearguards sooner rather than later.
Last season, St. Louis had the good fortune to spend most of the campaign healthy and in the thick of things in the Central, but the longer the four legitimate top-of-the-lineup talents are out of action, the worse things could get for the Blues, too. Every point is going to be crucial with the possibility of a win or two separating the divisional, wild-card and non-playoff teams, and if these banged up Blues are only the start of St. Louis’ injury troubles, it could make for an awfully long season in St. Louis.
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