David Backes (Getty Images)
The St. Louis Blues will be without star forwards David Backes and T.J. Oshie due to concussions – and if they don't have all of their best players back and playing by the playoffs, the organization's admirable depth won't save it from another early exit.
The St. Louis Blues are in the conversation as frontrunners to win the Stanley Cup this year because management has built the roster the right way: patiently and methodically, with a primary reliance on drafting and development and trades/free agent signings to augment the lineup. But what has happened to them in the early goings of this current regular season – first, losing marquee off-season addition Paul Stastny to a shoulder injury Oct. 18; and now, without forwards David Backes and T.J. Oshie, who suffered concussions in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Dallas – is out of anyone’s control. It should go without saying they’ll be a far less dangerous team with three top forwards on the sidelines, and all head coach Ken Hitchcock, GM Doug Armstrong and Blues brass can do is focus on the group treading water until it's got all key components back.
If it makes you happy, you can talk day and night about the organization’s young players (for instance, blossoming 22-year-olds Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz) picking up the slack in the absence of the three veterans, but if Backes isn’t healthy in time for the post-season – and given his history of concussions, this should be a concern – St. Louis is going to have great difficulty winning more than one playoff round. Because the Blues aren’t built around a generational superstar the way the Lightning are with Steven Stamkos or the way the Penguins are with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, they’ll need all hands on deck to win in the highly competitive Western Conference.
This isn’t to say the Blues can’t remain competitive – indeed, they went out after the win over the Stars and beat the terrific Anaheim Ducks 2-0 Thursday – but the truth is, to win a Cup, you have to be talented, but most of all, your best players have to be healthy. The L.A. Kings didn’t win last year with Anze Kopitar or Jeff Carter in the press box wearing walking boots. The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t become champions the season prior with dynamos Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on injured reserve. And last year, the Montreal Canadiens were looking like a massive threat in the playoffs until star goalie Carey Price injured his knee. After that, it didn’t much matter what more P.K. Subban or Tomas Plekanec did to try and shoulder an additional portion of the load; the Habs’ best player was wearing civilian clothes, and their destiny was set.
With Stastny and Backes hurt, the Blues are particularly depleted down the middle and Finnish rookie Jori Lehtera and Patrick Berglund will be leaned on to help them muddle through. But with due respect, St. Louis’ season isn’t hinging on either of those players. So long as the Blues don’t collapse completely and bury themselves early on with a month-long swoon in the standings, their only goal and/or hope must be to have the entirety of the team in reasonable working condition come mid-April.
If that’s not possible, a championship season certainly won’t be.