The Hockey News’ 2018-19 Season Preview series dives into off-season transactions, best- and worst-case scenarios and one burning question for each team in reverse order of Stanley Cup odds.
Stanley Cup odds: 19-1
Key Additions: Ryan O’Reilly, C; Tyler Bozak, C; David Perron, LW; Patrick Maroon, RW; Chad Johnson, G; Jordan Nolan, RW
Key Departures: Carter Hutton, G; Patrik Berglund, C; Vladimir Sobotka, C; Tage Thompson, C; Kyle Brodziak, C; Scottie Upshall, RW; Beau Bennett, RW
St. Louis missed the playoffs by one point in 2017-18, even after trading Paul Stastny at the deadline. Then GM Doug Armstrong made several significant moves over the summer. Do the math and it suggests the Blues will jump back into the post-season. Trading for Ryan O’Reilly and signing Tyler Bozak creates an above-average trio at center with Brayden Schenn. Patrick Maroon and David Perron, signed as UFAs, add veteran scoring on the wings, while Robby Fabbri, still just 22, returns after missing a year-and-a-half with a torn ACL. The Blues’ inability to find offense outside their powerhouse line of Schenn, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko has been addressed by Armstrong, especially if one of the Blues’ exciting forward prospects (Robert Thomas, Jordan Kyrou or Klim Kostin) makes the team.
Defense was never the Blues’ problem, and it still isn’t. Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko and Joel Edmundson offer a great blend of size and mobility. Vince Dunn impressed as a rookie and will grow into a top-four option as Jay Bouwmeester ages out. The Blues are an elite shot-suppression team. You have to make your chances count, as you don’t get many.
The Blues are only as good as Jake Allen, who tantalizes with his talent year after year but remains remarkably inconsistent. And not just season to season but within a season. His 2017-18 save percentages by month: .921, .891, .922, .871, .877, .916, .896. Carter Hutton was a crucial safety net during Allen’s cold spells last year, starting 26 games and posting the best goals-against average (2.09) and SP (.931) in the NHL. The Blues had to let him walk given he’d earned a big raise and was unlikely to replicate a random career year at 32, but his absence hurts. They’re asking Allen to be a true No. 1, and it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he delivers. At 28, he’s not a “work in progress” anymore.
The Blues are relying on a lot of “ifs” this season. They hope Allen is ready to be a consistent starter. They hope that Fabbri’s knee is back to normal, that Schwartz can finally get through a season without a major injury, that a change of scenery will reignite O’Reilly’s passion for the game and that Edmundson and Bouwmeester stay healthy. And while their additions undoubtedly improve their chances for 2018-19, Tarasenko remains their only elite goal-scoring threat.
Will the Blues see a different side of Tarasenko this season?
As goes Allen, so goes the Blues’ team defense. That’s true. But it seems as goes Tarasenko, as goes the St. Louis offense, as well. Last season, the Blues finished 24th in goal scoring, averaging an only slightly higher goals per game average than the Ottawa Senators, who have basically become known for lulling their opponents (and sometimes their fans) to sleep over the past two seasons. What hurt the Blues’ offensive production, though, was that despite his line’s success, Tarasenko actually had himself a down year. Picked in the pre-season as a potential 40-goal, 80-point player, ‘Tank’ posted a four-year low in goals (33) and his 66 points made for his first non-70-point season since the 2013-14 campaign.
But does anyone, and we mean anyone, expect Tarasenko to take his foot off the gas this season? Because if you honestly consider Tarasenko’s numbers, everything was heading in the direction of a career year. He saw more ice time, took more shot attempts and more of that rubber hit the net. The only thing that held Tarasenko back was a near career-worst shooting percentage. His 10.8 percent shooting success rate was one-tenth of a percent better than his rookie campaign and down nearly three percent from the year prior. In an average season, it would have translated to 40 goals.
With an improved second line — hello, Ryan O’Reilly — and new-look third unit, St. Louis should be able to change the matchup game to get Tarasenko some extra room to operate. And if all goes according to plan, Tarasenko could use the 2018-19 campaign as a springboard from stardom to superstardom.
THE HOCKEY NEWS’ PREDICTION: 3rd in the Central Division. The tinkering is going to pay off for Armstrong and Co. St. Louis now has one of the deeper center corps in the NHL with enough firepower on the wings to match. If Allen has even an average season, the Blues are going to contend for a division crown.
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