Why My Team Is Better Than Your Team: St. Louis Blues

The Blues used to play in a building called the Checkerdome. Now their principal owner is Dave Checketts. Coincidence? I think not. The moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter is indeed aligned with Mars. Read on for why this is the dawning of the New Age of Blues Playoff Appearances.

The Blues made 2 significant offseason moves. The first was a bizarre trade with Atlanta of almost-nothing in exchange for something infinitesimally small. The Blues gained the exclusive negotiating rights to Keith Tkachuk, for all of five days, in exchange for taking a lesser draft pick as compensation in the improbably unlikely event that should Tkachuk become an unrestricted free agent and re-sign with the Thrashers. Before hockey scientists could analyze whether getting to talk to Keith Tkachuk’s agent for five days was equivalent to a conditional fourth-round draft choice, Tkachuk was inked to a two-year deal, virtually guaranteeing he will finish his career in St. Louis.

Second, the Blues gave their less mentally adept fans a break and made a conventional free-agent splash, signing Paul Kariya to a 3-year deal. Whether it was the lack of sports metaphysics involved, or the fact that Kariya is a recognizable-but-not-yet-washed-up name, Blues fans rejoiced. Reportedly, the team sold 350 new season ticket packages within a day of the announcement.

With Kariya, Tkachuk, and Doug Weight anchoring the roster, the Blues have a potentially explosive lineup—or, they would, if this were 2000-01. Indeed, for a team that constantly talks about “rebuilding,” the Blues will need the ice machines at the Scottrade Center to work extra hard, to make all the post-game packs strapped to their aging joints. The Blues will feature the following thirtysomethings on Opening Night (when the promotional tie-in is scheduled to be a signed Timothy Busfield poster):

Kariya, 32
Tkachuk, 35
Weight, 36
Jamal Mayers, 32
Manny Legace, 34
Martin Rucinsky, 36
Petr Cajanek, 32
Ryan Johnson, 31
Dan Hinote, 30
Jay McKee, 30
Bryce Salvador, 31

Kariya adds a nice element to the power play, which was horrid/awful/pathetic for most of last season. At this point in his career, it is questionable how much Doug Weight has left. He is still adept at faceoffs, is a good passer, and grows a fine playoff beard. But his scoring touch and speed are mostly just boring stories told in the locker room, with the youngsters pretty sure that Grandpa Dougie is pulling their legs a bit. Cajanek is dead weight.

Despite the heavy veteran presence, the Blues also bring several younger players into the mix. The notables:

Erik Johnson. The 2006 first-overall pick is not going to burst on the scene like his immediate predecessors, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. He will play a solid blueline, however, and may see some power play time. He’s also a handsome devil, which I note in a completely objective and non-man-crush sort of way.

erik_johnson.jpg

Lee Stempniak. Stempniak, despite his awkwardly pronounced last name, led the team in PPG in 2006-07, and finished with 27 goals overall. He should be a solid 25-30 goal scorer again this season, if he doesn’t have to keep convincing people that he really is American, and not European.

David Backes. Another awkward name, pronounced Back-uss. The Blues love his size, and think he could be another Tkachuk (ideally, the younger version). He needs to work on his skating and his strength on the puck.

Brad Boyes (with a silent ‘e’). Jesus, this is turning into a pronunciation guide. It would have been easier to just sign a bunch of vowel-challenged Slovaks. The Blues got Boyes from Boston last season in exchange for the forgettable Dennis Wideman. Boyes posted a very solid rookie campaign for the Bruins in 2005-06 (26-43-69), but slumped badly and fell out of favor. The Blues envision him as a top-line offensive player.

I promised you Hope, so here it comes.

But why should Blues fans have any hope, when the team has missed the playoffs (by wide margins) for two straight years? Kariya isn’t that big a difference-maker all by himself, and none of the Blues’ young players is anywhere close to being a top-flight NHL talent. I seem to have misplaced my rose-colored glasses, so the beer goggles will have to suffice.

Manny Legace. Legace played great for the Blues last season, going 23-15-5 for a team that finished below .500. This despite a GAA of 2.59, the worst of his career, not counting his rookie season (preemptive note to critics: I realize this sentence has no verb. Call it dramatic license.). With Legace, the Blues believe they have found the true No. 1 netminder they have lacked since Grant Fuhr retired. Reportedly, Legace also shed a few pounds over the summer, and is now less disgusting to his wife than he used to be.

Andy Murray. The Blues as a team played winning hockey after the overmatched Mike Kitchen was fired and Murray took over as head coach in December 2006. Players who had been terrible under Kitchen, notably Tkachuk and Eric Brewer, suddenly played at near All-Star form. Murray also has a long track record in international hockey and player development, which should bode well for the likes of Boyes and Johnson, as well as the bevy of European players the Blues are working through their farm system.

Kariya. While not over the hill by any means, Kariya is also no longer the 100-point monster he once was. However, he is definitely a bona fide STAR. The Blues haven’t had a STAR since Brett Hull—while great players, Al MacInnis and Chris Pronger were, respectively, painfully modest and deliberately taciturn. Kariya gives the franchise a recognizable face to put on billboards and TV spots. He will put asses in the seats, something the franchise desperately needs as attendance continues to lag well behind the rest of the post-lockout NHL.

Outlook

The Blues finished just below .500 (81 points) in 2006-07. They should improve in 2007-08. Unfortunately, No. 8 seed Calgary had 96 points in the Western Conference. It will be tough to bridge that entire gap, but thankfully Nashville has largely disbanded. The Blues should be able to duke it out for the final playoff berth.

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2 Comments

  1. If healthy (Jay McKee, I’m talking about you), the Blues are easily in the top eight in the West based on the goaltending (Legace is money in the regular season) and the defense: Brewer, McKee, Jackman, Backman, E. Johnson, Salvador, Woywitka, Polak et al. They needed to inject some speed and skill up front, and Kariya does that. The continued development of the Stempniak, Backes McClement line may be the key to the season along with Boyes regaining his rookie form and Petr Cajanek either ditching decaf coffee or leaving town.

    The veterans are a bridge to bringing the franchise up out of the depths while the kids continue maturing in Peoria, Alaska and in college/juniors. T.J. Oshie is nearly ready, Marek Schwarz was an all star his first season in Peoria. There are more players coming that won’t be traded away for the Brian Noonans and Mike Eastwoods of the world like other Blues regimes. The future is bright. It’s good to be a Blues fan right now, especially compared with that cesspool up in Chicago and the graying/pussification of the Red Wings.

  2. I went to high school with Lee Stempniak. Great kid, better hockey player.


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