We, the hockey-loving community, may have expected too much from the St. Louis Blues this season. Coming off their rousing run to the 2008-09 playoffs, optimists would conclude this was a team on the rise, not the descent.
But right now St. Louis is mired in 13th place in the Western Conference and last in the Central Division. No team in the West has scored fewer goals and only the Carolina Hurricanes have less in the league.
For those of you who take the long view, however, I don’t think it’s time for a Midwest apocalypse just yet. In The Hockey News yearbook we predicted St. Louis to finish ninth in the West and based on this team’s pluck that could still happen. But it’s the near future where this team will make its hay.
Watching T.J. Oshie’s performance against Calgary Tuesday night, I became more of a believer in the former University of North Dakota standout. Sure, Oshie is an obvious candidate for praise since he scored the game-winner against the Flames, but even before that strike the gritty second-year pivot was impressive.
On the forecheck, he always seems to be between the man with the puck and his own goal, shadowing from such a distance as to make outlet passes difficult. We know from his run-ins with Columbus star Rick Nash that the 5-foot-11, 194-pounder plays bigger than his frame and he’s a good secondary offensive threat.
Oshie is the type of player a team can build around and though slightly less experienced, I see him in the Mike Richards-Jonathan Toews category; a two-way threat with leadership skills. I can easily see him as captain of the Blues soon.
Which is why the near future looks solid in St. Louis. While the present face is obvious – Keith Tkachuk, Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald are the big names on the roster – those veterans are also closer to the end of their careers than the beginning. And it’s Oshie, David Backes and Brad Boyes (who is kind of a tweener here in terms of age and experience) who are starting to log the most serious minutes among forwards on the team.
Tkachuk and Kariya are unrestricted free agents this summer and depending on how St. Louis brass feels about the near future, may be expendable. True, forward prospects such as Patrik Berglund and Lars Eller haven’t established themselves the way many expected just yet, but they are still quite young.
In terms of a breakout offensive player to replace Kariya’s skills, David Perron is well on his way, even if his particular game sometimes rankles coach Andy Murray.
On defense, Erik Johnson is indeed living up to his No. 1 draft selection in 2006 and most intriguing for Blues fans is the fact he and Oshie show some really solid chemistry together on the second power play unit, finding each other with passes that initially look daft to an outsider and thus fooling defenders in the process.
Johnson will continue to get better, which is paramount for future success in St. Louis since the blueline corps is currently made up of oft-injured stalwarts such as Eric Brewer and Carlo Colaiacovo (who, admittedly, has been healthier since leaving Toronto). The jury is still out on Alex Pietrangelo, but the Blues are doing him right by sending him to the world juniors this season.
In net, Chris Mason is proving capable as a starting netminder and will be the answer for at least another couple seasons should the Blues re-sign him this summer. Once Mason is done, Jake Allen will be ready for primetime.
So this year may not see a return to the playoffs in St. Louis, but good things come to those who wait – and Blues fans won’t have to wait much longer.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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