The past is prologue.
In other words, to understand how the Blues have gotten to where they are this week, ready to embark on a new campaign, we need to look at the end of the third disappointing season in a row that resulted in tee times instead of playoff beards.
The first two months of the 2007-08 season, the St. Louis Blues had one of the easiest schedules in the NHL. It was heavy with home dates and days off. A well-rested, well-fed team got fat on lots of home cooking. Emboldened by All Star goaltender Emmanuel Legace, optimism at the Scottrade Center ran as freely during the first half of the season as the 20 oz. tall boys on Saturday nights when the Hawks are in town. Unfortunately, Tuesday, Feb. 19 was the last day of the season we would feel positive about the St. Louis Blues.
St. Louis had won two straight games against Columbus and Chicago by identical 5-1 scores. Both home games were sellouts. Each of the two games saw the Blues, the worst power play team in the NHL a season ago, score three goals with the man advantage. The team was flying high, actually in the playoff hunt for the first time since the lockout of 2004-05. And then the whole thing went to shit.
They would go 0-5-1 over their next six games and win just five of their final 23 games overall. In that span they would take the longest road trip in franchise history with nine games that stretched from the Eastern Time Zone, to the Pacific and back again. Other than a hellacious dinner bill in Montreal that was reportedly above $30,000, the Blues brought home only three points on won win and two regulation ties.
Over those final disappointing, disheartening and utterly depressing 23 games, winger Paul Kariya scored just one fucking goal and 14 total points. The former all star signed during the summer of 2007 to a three year, $18 million contract. And while he clicked on the killer BTK line (Boyes, Tkachuk, Kariya) during that easier early part of the schedule, he lost his scoring touch the second half of the season, presumably when the 33-year-old felt the effects of more road games and fewer days off.
At the end of the season, it was clear the Blues needed more offensive spark from the defensemen, which helped lead to problems on the power play. They also needed depth at goaltender after youngster Hannu Toivonen crumbled when he allowed eight goals in a game at Colorado Dec. 9. The Blues needed to get faster, younger and more talented. Maybe they’ve taken some steps to address some of those issues even without a major free agent signing and only two trades.
The Blues’ brass knew that some of the pieces of the puzzle would arrive this summer in the form of rookies T.J. Oshie and Patrik Berglund (more on them later this week). To get them roster spots, forwards Martin Rucinsky and Ryan Johnson had to be allowed to walk in free agency. Tough guy defenseman Matt Walker, who sat in the press box eating nachos for more than a month early in the season, also was not re-signed. Jamal Mayers, who always played like the long lost twin brother of Ryan Johnson, was obviously deemed expendable as well.
The week of the NHL draft in June when Mayers was traded to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs, No. 21 was the longest tenured Blues player. A fan favorite for his toughness and grit, Mayers had speed to burn and hands of stone. He would hit the goaltender square in the chest on a wide-open shot in the slot but somehow put the puck in the net from behind the end goal line or from the boards with his back to the goaltender. Former Blues announcer and failed Hawaiian gubernatorial hopeful Ken Wilson was an obvious homer on his former mid-day radio show on Fridays during the hockey season. But he was never a fan of Mayers saying the forward had the talent to be a quality player but lacked hockey brains.
Mayers was traded for a third-round pick in this past summer’s draft. That pick allowed the Blues a day later to trade a fourth-round pick to the Nashville Sexual Predators for goaltender Chris Mason. Legace will be pushed for playing time by Mason who has two years left on his contract while Emmanuel will be a free agent after this season.
Other than signing a bunch of no-name dudes who already have apartments in Peoria, that was the extent of the player moves the Blues made this offseason. They did draft a defenseman with their first pick in the draft, 18-year-old Alex Pietrangelo (kind of sounds like orange Jell-O). He’s expected to at least get a nine-game tryout with the Blues, a loophole in the collective bargaining agreement that lets teams play kids too young to be assigned to the AHL but not have the season count toward arbitration and free agency. Pietrangelo could be sent back to his junior team in Canada at the end of the nine games or could pull a David Perron and stick for the rest of the season. With the most damaging event of the offseason coming just a few weeks ago, Pietrangelo may have a chance to play the entire year in St. Louis.
The week before training camp started Johnson was at the Lake of the Ozarks playing golf with veterans on the team as part of a bonding experience. Believe what you will about the fantastic story where Johnson said he stepped out of a golf cart with one foot and twisted his knee after slipping on the brake pedal, he’s done for the year. It sucks. Boy does it suck. Remember when I wrote up above the Blues needed more offense from the defense? Johnson was going to be a key part of that. Not this year.
The Blues are sticking to the “grow from within” game plan. Will it be enough? Can they compete this year in the Western Conference? Come back later this week to find out.
Brad Lee writes for St. Louis Game Time, a fan-run paper sold outside every St. Louis Blues home game. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.