When experts and pundits were making their prognostications for the 2010/11 season, there seemed to be a common theme when it came to the Western Conference – St. Louis was everyone’s sleeper team.
The Blues possess a bevy of young talent, but just enough experience to be a playoff team once again.
Last year this group struggled to live up to heightened expectations after a miraculous late-season push two years ago to sneak in. With another year of experience under the youngsters’ belts, they are poised to finally breakthrough this season.
“There’s a lot of those learning steps and growing pains that have already passed,” David Backes stated. “It’s time to really put what we’ve learned in two or three or four seasons of educating ourselves at this level and action. It’s time to prove that we belong at this level and that us as a group can get something accomplished.”
Defenseman Erik Johnson is an important piece to the Blues’ puzzle. The former top overall pick is one of the better two-way defensemen in the league, surprisingly going under the radar in the process.
“I think we only have three guys over 30, so it’s a pretty youthful team with a lot of youthful energy and some good enthusiasm,” he mentioned. “It’s definitely the younger guy’s team, and we’ve taken the bull by the horns to take charge and lead the team to where we want to get to.”
The aforementioned youth took a step back last season after their postseason run in 2009. David Backes and Patrik Berglund saw a decline in goal and point totals, while David Perron and T.J. Oshie didn’t breakthrough as expected.
Top prospect Alex Pietrangelo is also poised to breakout this year. The Hockey News: Future Watch magazine this past spring rated Pietrangelo as the number one prospect in the entire league.
The puck-moving blueliner is finally ready to stick on in St. Louis after playing just 17 NHL games in the previous two years combined.
“Certainly the experience that I had in these past couple years have helped me going into this season and just have to keep it going,” he said. “My goal is not to be here for a couple weeks, it’s to be here all year and make an impact.”
GM Doug Armstrong added to that young core this summer when he traded for ‘playoff hero’ Jaroslav Halak from Montreal. Halak has been stellar thus far in St. Louis, despite last night’s loss in Nashville.
“He’s been as advertised,” Johnson said. “It’s been really good to have him. He’s a young goalie, not even in the prime of his career yet. He’s been exceptional so far, and we need him to be that way for us as he’s a big piece of our future.”
The 25-year-old Slovakia native signed a hefty four-year extension in the summer. He hasn’t really missed a beat from the postseason, especially in the first two games, where only gave up a combined two goals against Philadelphia and Anaheim.
Perhaps the biggest factor, though, in the Blues looking to breakout this year is the presence their ‘new’ head coach. Davis Payne was given the interim duties last year at mid-season, leading his club to a 23-15-2 record in the second half. After the season, Payne was rewarded the full-time gig.
The recently-turned 40-year-old bench boss is a perfect fit with this team and popular in the room.
“He’s a younger guy, so he’s done a good job on connecting with the guys and we have a lot of respect for him,” Johnson stated. “He’s really detailed and manages things well, so he’s been a good fit for our team.”
“He’s got that youthful energy,” Backes explained. “He’s got a strict, almost military type of attitude that you know we’re gonna stick together every day and gonna work every day and we’re going to get better every day; win, lose or draw we’re gonna come ready to work and keep pushing on to our standard.
It’s been good for a lot of the guys in here to have that structure and have that motivation every day. Hopefully that turns into more wins for us.”
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.