It's hard to believe that, less than 18 months after stumbling to their worst record in 27 years and third-worst in franchise history, the St. Louis Blues have as much going for them as they do.
But they do, and Western Conference playoff bubble teams Â– I'm looking at you, Dallas, Minnesota and Nashville Â– should realize this particular object in their rearview mirror is definitely closer than it appears.
I'll admit, I had my doubts about how quickly the Blues could turn things around. After all, there was a fairly extended ownership soap opera of sorts that has barely settled, as well as the requisite fire sale that, as Predators fans are now discovering to their dismay, always seems to go along with financial uncertainties in the owner's suite.
Then there was that 2005-06 team, the NHL's worst that year, which was devastated by the losses of cornerstone defensemen Chris Pronger (dealt to Edmonton) and Al MacInnis (retirement), whose No. 1 goalie (Patrick Lalime) had just finished being run out of Ottawa, and whose leader in goals, assists and points (Scott Young Â– yeah, the same guy who retired at the end of the season) had 18, 31 and 49 respectively.
Understandable, then, why Missourians stayed away in droves from what at the time was called the Kiel Center. Who wanted to watch a team whose 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio (.061) was .21 worse than the NHL's 29th-best team? How many wanted to shell out to see the NHL's most feeble offense (2.35 goals per game) 41 nights a year?
How many? Just 14,213 paid attendees on average, which was less than the New Jersey Devils and Phoenix Coyotes managed that season. In a city that once embraced Bernie Federko and the Plager brothers like native sons, such indifference toward the Blues spoke volumes about confidence in the team's direction.
Things weren't getting much better at the start of last season, when St. Louis got off to a less-than-rousing start Â– the lowlight being a stretch in which they won just three times in 16 games Â– before firing coach Mike Kitchen in early December. In the stands, things were even worse, as only an average of 11,142 fans paid to see the Blues through their first 15 home games.
However, methodically and quietly Â– two hallmarks of Andy Murray, Kitchen's replacement as coach Â– the Blues' tide turned for the better. Murray lost his first four games, but won 13 of his next 17. He also led St. Louis to four-game win streaks in January and February, no small feat for a franchise that won two or more games in a row only twice in all of 2005-06.
It was too late to pull a playoff berth from the early-season wreckage, but by the time the season ended, Murray had a 27-18-9 record and the culture change in the dressing room was complete. By then, GM Larry Pleau had survived calls for his head and got busy locking up a core of veterans (goalie Manny Legace, blueliner Eric Brewer, winger Jamal Mayers) with multi-year contracts.
Pleau also took advantage of Atlanta's desperation at the trade deadline (landing a handful of high draft picks in return for the rental of Keith Tkachuk), and though his nabbing of Brad Boyes from Boston wasn't larceny of Thorntonian proportions, it wasn't a trivial transaction, either.
The steady build continued when the Blues plunked down $18 million this summer for three years' worth of Paul Kariya's services. But when training camp starts, Kariya won't be the sole new face to get excited over. There's also 2006 No. 1 draft pick Erik Johnson, the newest member of a deep defense corps that includes Brewer, Jay McKee, Calder Trophy winner Barrett Jackman, and solid Swede Christian Backman.
Meanwhile, up front, the veteran presence of players such as the returning Tkachuk, Kariya, Doug Weight and Martin Rucinsky will provide balance for developing forwards Boyes, Lee Stempniak, Jay McClement and David Backes. (Not exactly the second coming of the 1984-85 Oilers, I know, but at least as potent as the group in Vancouver that leaned so heavily on Roberto Luongo all the way to the Western semifinal.)
Still not sold on the Blues as post-season contender? Maybe this will do it: They play in the Central Division.
Have I been drinking, you ask? That's beside the point. Granted, for a long time, calling the Central home has benefited the Red Wings almost exclusively. However, when the marquee names added to their division rivals this summer Â– other than Brian Rafalski Â– are highlighted by Radek Bonk (Nashville), Sergei Samsonov (Chicago) and Jiri Novotny (Columbus), the Blues' road to the playoffs won't be nearly as difficult as it's been the past couple seasons.
That's perhaps the best news for Blues fans Â– the speed in which president John Davidson and Co. has reconstructed the roster. Think of how tough it must be in Columbus, land of the NHL's last remaining playoff virgins. Good-natured Ohioans would kill for such a short reversal of fortune.
With a team carrying the Blues' upside, 18 months isn't so long a wait at all.
Adam Proteau will return with his division-by-division preview Sept. 6.
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